In New Zealand, where bands routinely break up, trade members and then form anew in order to requalify for state-sponsored funding grants, the Able Tasmans managed to stay the course for over a decade. The group — whose moniker is a pun based on the name of 17th-century Dutch explorer Abel Tasman, who discovered New Zealand — was able to maintain most of its original lineup from the mid-’80s through the mid-’90s, all the while peddling a unique brand of guitar/keyboard pop of consistently high quality.
The Tasmans’ early output, most of it quite good, is available on the CD version of A Cuppa Tea and a Lie Down, which also includes the band’s debut EP, The Tired Sun, and a few items from assorted compilations. The group really came into its own, however, with Hey Spinner!, one of the finest records ever to emerge from New Zealand. The band’s signature sound defined by the interplay between Peter Keen’s soaring, angelic voice and Leslie Jonkers’ keyboards is used to its fullest effect. Despite some adornments that would sink less talented outfits (like the occasional use of a cello or clarinet and the periodic Victorian flourishes in Jonkers’ playing), the intelligent scope of the lyrics and the expertly sculpted songcraft make this a major pleasure from start to finish.
The following year’s Somebody Ate My Planet is, depending on one’s perspective, either a slight advance or a small step backward. The production adds a bit more hard-edged rock to the guitars on several tracks; it’s welcome at some junctures but overall tends to give a more “normal” dimension to a group better served by its eclecticism. Still, the lyrics continue to plumb the intellectual and emotional depths of modern life; this, combined with a sensational over-the-top vocal performance by guitarist Graeme Humphreys on “Weight of Love,” makes Somebody Ate My Planet a solidly recommended listen, if not quite as stellar as its predecessor.
The five-song The Shape of Dolls is a reassuring return to form, and a fine example of rock and roll maturity. The slow, stately title track, with its ambling gait and gorgeous harmonies, stands as an apt summation of the band’s work to this point: unhurried, calmly effective and quietly beautiful.
The Tasmans decided to call it quits shortly after recording 1996’s Store in a Cool Place, which serves as a curious exit point. Saddled with a number of instrumentals, most of them aimless and unnecessary, the record is bloated to well over an hour in length; it could easily have been trimmed back by a quarter. If you can get past the excess baggage, though, the remaining tunes are among the quintet’s best, with Keen characteristically burying a few of his sharpest emotional daggers amidst some of the more outwardly placid tracks. Though the Tasmans were never one of Flying Nun’s most celebrated acts, either in America or in New Zealand, their recorded legacy stands with the label’s best.