The Bats’ taut jangle has become nearly synonymous with both New Zealand’s pop underground and Flying Nun’s rich roster. The quartet of singer/guitarists Robert Scott and Kaye Woodward, bassist Paul Kean and drummer Malcolm Grant has been writing and recording delicious pop gems since 1983, but didn’t get around to recording a proper full-length album until 1988’s Daddy’s Highway.
When Kean and Scott — the former bass players for New Zealand legends Toy Love and the Clean, respectively — decided to form a band together, Scott (also perpetrator of the Every Secret Thing fanzine and cassette label) switched to guitar and led the group into the studio to record six of his melodic melancholic odes. By Night is paradoxically morose and exhilarating; each song a moody pop gem, with hints of the hard-strummed countryisms of Gram Parsons. The seven-son 12-inch And Here Is ‘Music for the Fireside’! is even better, spanning a wider stylistic spectrum, from lackadaisical laments to sweeping, enticing rushes of pure pop satisfaction, each made all the more appealing by Scott’s nasal, high register vocals.
Recorded in a 24-track London studio during a 1986 European trip, Blue (Flying Nun’s first UK release) lacks some of the alluring immediacy of its predecessors. All three tracks were reprised on the following year’s tape-first, CD later Compiletely, along with all of Fireside and five-sixths of By Night.
The Bats’ first proper album, begun in Scotland and finished in NZ, is a bit of a disappointment. Generally softer and less heady, as well as less identifiably Batlike, Daddy’s Highway finally brought the group an American release (and prompted a US tour). Four Songs excerpts the standout track, spreading it flatteringly across 12 full inches with a B-side trio harking back to the sound of the Blue EP.
Following time devoted to other pursuits — like the Clean reformation and Woodward’s motherhood — the Bats returned to action, releasing several singles and the monumental Law of Things LP. Capturing all the hooky appeal and personal charm of their first records, it updates the recipe with seven years of instrumental mastery and superior sonics, becoming, along with Compiletely, an essential Bats release, as well as a high-water mark of New Zealand music-making.
The same year Compiletely Bats received a belated American release (joining Daddy’s Highway and The Law of Things in the group’s US catalogue), the Bats released Fear of God. Thanks in part to producer Nicholas Sansano (Sonic Youth, Public Enemy), the album dissipates the cloudiness hovering over the Bats’ earlier work (which was never an entirely bad thing), while respecting the crisp arrangements and sugary melodic centers. Scott’s sweet vocals carry the buoyant, sing-song tunes, perfectly matched by Woodward’s pretty, plain-jane harmonizing; touches of viola add a rootsy strain. “The Black and the Blue,” “Boogey Man” and “Fear of God” epitomize all that is wonderful and perfect about the three-minute Bats song.
Moving on to a different American producer, Lou Giordano (Sugar, Lemonheads, Goo Goo Dolls), didn’t improve — or, for that matter, damage — the Bats’ next album. While Silverbeet is another enjoyable chapter in the Bats tale, it doesn’t refine or redirect their sound; if anything, the quartet seems to have settled in too comfortably. (Woodward’s vocal contributions are notably less prominent.) “Courage,” also released as a single, is listless, but “Sighting the Sound” and “No Time for Your Kind” offer the requisite jaunty pop and rippling guitar lines; the driving “Green” and “Half Way to Nowhere” find the Bats pushing gently on the perimeter of their stylistic confines.
The Courage EP adds three Silverbeet outtakes; the loose, one-take sound and fluid piano of “The Wind Is Sad” offers a nice break to the samey flow of the EP. Recorded in New Jersey in July ’93, Live at WFMU contains three of the Bats’ finest (“Sighting the Sound,” “Block of Wood” and “North by North”), plus a cover of Harlan Howard’s (by way of Gram Parsons) “Streets of Baltimore,” which adds a twang to the Bats’ beautiful billow.
The thicker guitar sound of Spill the Beans‘ “Under the Law” points to the Bats’ growing affinity for American indie-rock. So does the appearance of Superchunk leader Mac McCaughan’s expressive guitar playing on “Empty Head,” one of the EP’s five cuts, which was recorded in Raleigh, NC. The Bats’ strum’n’hum effervescence makes especially effective use of acoustic/electric guitar dialogue on the title song and “Give Into the Sands.”
While in many ways a retreat — it was recorded in New Zealand without a producer and has a more introspective timbre — Couchmaster is actually a boundary-stretching breakthrough. The guitars have a warm electric glow (not unlike Yo La Tengo’s electric reflections); the songs are less formulaic and a little more adventurous, broader in length and scope on “Afternoon in Bed” and the hypnotic “Crow Song.” While the quartet still offers a handful of familiarly winged pop songs (“Land ‘o’ Lakes,” “Out of Bounds”), the slide guitar on “Work It Out” and the instrumental “Supernova” introduce new elements. The dark, slow “Shoeshine” features Woodward’s first lead vocal.
Scott formed Electric Blood after the Clean’s first breakup in the early ’80s; it existed concurrently with the Bats for several years. A dozen songs recorded at a practice space in 1984, the initially cassette-only Electric Easter has a loose, pleasant feel led by Scott’s strained vocals, nifty psychedelic-tinged guitar and lots of warm, fuzzy strumming. “Earwig” eventually became a Bats song, and is included on Compiletely Bats.
A decade later, Electric Blood drummer Jimmy Strang resurfaced with Scott on the Magick Heads’ Before We Go Under. Vocalist Jane Sinnott takes the lead on most of the thirteen lovely songs, although Scott’s voice and fluttery arrangements are integral to the group’s sound. (Scott actually wrote the title song for Barbara Manning, who recorded it as “B4 We Go Under” with Bay Area band Flophouse and released it as a single on TeenBeat.) Fiery guitar playing by David Mitchell (who is also in the 3Ds) meshes surprisingly well, adding an extra dimension to the songs without overwhelming them with electricity. With all that and the Celtic accent coming from Alan Starrett’s graceful violin, accordion and hammer dulcimer, the album positively soars.
Minisnap, a Scott-less side trio of Bats, released In My Pocket, a four-song EP, at the end of 2002.