Wednesday 17th April / posted by Jade Nobbs
Contemporary musical memory possesses an inveterate tendency to return and reiterate particular incarnations of its own development. All previous eras of pop music have, over the past 10-20 years, undergone some sort of renaissance: 50s jukebox jive, 60s garage and psych, 70s glam and disco, 80s new wave and post-punk. This might lead to the conclusion that all contemporary pop music is simply repetition of previous eras. But this misses the fact that such an ability to pick and choose from different styles and eras, and reframe these motifs within the present, is itself historically unprecedented, and creates an entirely new musical culture based upon recombination of pop history.
It does lead to certain paradoxes however, in that if popular music evolves along an axis of progressive revisiting of previous eras, what happens when we come to return to this era, one which is based largely in recombination of previous eras? Aesthetic implosion and cultural big bang, followed by the onset of an entirely new and alien musical universe?
Maybe. But before we reach that point, the latest vogue of nostalgia-based pop is focussed upon an era that itself grew out of a hybrid of 80s post-punk and 60s garage and psych: 90s alt-rock. This term encompasses movements as varied as Britpop, grunge, power pop, shoegaze and dream-pop, and amongst its most recent and accomplished throwback practitioners are Auckland 3-piece Popstrangers.
Sounding very much like a flagship signing from the Flying Nun heyday of the late-80s/early 90s, Popstrangers have recaptured with admirable veracity that very particular sound of late 80s/early 90s NZ indie rock: wistful, literary, alienated, off-centre and sonically busted, and yet within it all, melodic songcraft of the highest order. They recall the most celebrated and revered misfit bands of that time and place: the Chills, the Clean, Bailter Space, Straitjacket Fits, the 3Ds, the Jean-Paul Sartre Experience. It’s no wonder then, that the album is entitled “Antipodes”. It clearly revisits and represents a particular “strange” brand of antipodean pop music.
Opening track “Jane” begins with Flying Nun trademark guitar layering, which cascades into a driving shoegaze-punk reminiscent of Isn’t Anything-era My Bloody Valentine, but with a sharper and more direct vocal presence. “In Some Ways”, with its woozy drunken guitars, presents some of the most unusual guitar processing heard in some time, akin to the sound of a distant field of small furry animals being crushed by falling spacecraft. “Witches Hand” displays mature interplay between chords and melody, recalling the simple, modular layered compositions of the Chills, Bailter Space and the JPS Experience.
“What Else Could They Do?” from first listen sounds an instant alt-pop/rock classic: almost mythic shoegaze/dream pop structures, with walls of sound counterpointed with sharp top-end flourishes, chiaroscuro vocal technique that is equal parts dark and light, and a melody that slays. This is a song that could easily become part of the classic NZ indie rock oeuvre.
“Cat’s Eyes” introduces a touch of stoner rock to the proceedings (another 90s alt-rock institution), while “Full Fat” is reminiscent of both little known 90s NZ indie act the Nixons, and contemporary Perth local garage-psych outfit the Silents. “Heaven” employs a more straight-up guitar-pop–almost Britpop–approach, with jangly, syncopated chords and a chorus very much in the vein of Straitjacket Fits, but overall referencing a classic 60s UK psych-pop sound that owes as much to the Beatles as to Flying Nun, drawing a complete circuit to the alt-pop developmental trajectory.
Popstrangers demonstrate on “Antipodes” that the project of historical musical revisionism is not an exercise in futile repetition, but rather places pre-existing musical structures and formulae in the service of a new era of musical awareness. This is recreating the past not necessarily as the past, but as an alternate dimension of sound within the present—fully integrated and contemporised—available to use for those who know that while musical trends are necessarily ephemeral, there are deep structures and archetypes that remain constant and vital, and always worth revisiting, no matter how “antipodean” and “strange” their origins might be.