Chris Knox is the godfather of the New Zealand alternative-music scene — if Iggy Pop, Joan Jett, Robyn Hitchcock and Lou Reed were all the same person, that’s how important he is to Kiwi pop. The Enemy, Knox’s unrecorded early group, was by all reports New Zealand’s first great punk band; its successor, the coulda-been-a-contender Toy Love, made one pretty good album and some more-than-pretty-good singles; the group even flirted with mainstream Antipodean success. After Toy Love broke up, bassist Paul Kean joined the Bats; Knox and guitarist Alec Bathgate formed a still-going experimental duo, Tall Dwarfs. Then there’s his lengthy solo career, his engineering of many important early New Zealand pop records, his legendary half-improvised live performances (somewhere between music and standup comedy), his championing of the Omnichord (one of the silliest instruments ever played onstage) and his generous nurturing of the international pop scene. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s a first-rate songwriter.
Knox sings in Tall Dwarfs most of the time, but the group is a full-fledged collaboration with Bathgate; their records are very different from Knox’s solo records, with ultra-weird arrangements (often dominated by their signature loops of deeply unconventional percussion) and subtler, trickier songs. The duo’s first four EPs are collected on the essential Hello Cruel World.
The Short and Sick of It compiles two less crucial records: That’s the Short and Long of It (an album-of-sorts with some outtakes and live stuff, three tracks recorded with Mike Dooley of the Enemy and Toy Love, including the Enemy’s “Gone to the Worms” and two remakes of Three Songs‘ “Nothing’s Going To Happen” recorded with a 22-piece lineup, as Wall of Dwarfs) and Throw a Sickie, an EP mostly recorded through illness (it shows).
Weeville, Tall Dwarfs’ first proper album, is unpretentious but insidiously great. Instead of the Dwarfs’ earlier berserk arrangements, most of the songs slowly work their way under your skin on the strength of melody alone. Highlight: “Mr. Brocolli,” a joyful Bathgate-sung ditty with a clarinet solo.
Fork Songs, Tall Dwarfs’ tenth-anniversary album, is their most low-key record and their most despairing. Bathgate steals the show again with the 12-string-driven “Life Is Strange” and its killer chorus; elsewhere, Knox savages groupie-fucking rock stars (“Boys”), small-town hypocrisy (“Lowlands” — “We need you but we hate you/Spend your cash then get out”) and anyone who’s ever tried to do anything (“Skirl”). The CD appends Dogma, the single best Tall Dwarfs record whose six songs adroitly convey the duo’s inventiveness, tunefulness and smart, bitter cynicism.
Despite the title, 3 EPs is not a compilation but rather 18 new songs, divided into three six-song “EP” sections, each with its own individual lyric sheet: A Question of Medical Ethics, Up the Down Staircase and Sam’s Spaniel. Whatever. Pavement’s Spiral Stairs and Bob Nastanovich put in appearances on “Senile Dementia” and the heavy-handed U2 joke “Postmodern Deconstructivist Blues.” Most of the rest is in a by-now-familiar vein — breaking no new ground (apart from the seven-minute drone “Neusyland”), but still not like anything else around. Great Alec moment: “Bee to Honey.” Great Chris joke: “Two Dozen Lousy Hours” (“are all it takes to make one lousy fucking day”).
Knox’s first solo album was the ultra-limited Songs for Cleaning Guppies, aptly subtitled Chris Knox Ego Gratification Album. With Seizure, though, he came through in a big way. It’s a brilliant record, with one marvel of wit, melody and DIY production after another — including two songs a lot of songwriters would give their careers for: “The Face of Fashion,” later ruined by Marshall Crenshaw, and “Not Given Lightly,” a heartstopping declaration of love for his children’s mother that’s still often the climax of his live performances. A 12-inch remix of “Not Given Lightly” appeared backed by 10 songs collectively called Guppiplus (basically the good bits from Songs for Cleaning Guppies).
Song for 1990 + Other Songs is a quickie 10-inch, split between the title track (a fuzzed-out, sarcastic critique of New Zealand politics) and five fleeting, delicate, late-night, acoustic songs on the other side. (The latter reappear on the domestic Songs From 1990.)
Croaker couldn’t help but suffer from following Seizure, and indeed the songwriting turns a little lugubrious in its second half; also, Knox overuses several structures. There’s still some terrific stuff here, though. The first 15 minutes are unstoppable, with the exquisite “Light” and “Lapse,” a song that’s either about a drug experience or eating citrus, and “Dunno Much About Life but I Know How to Breathe.” The narrator of “Liberal Backlash Angst (The Excuse)” is such a convincing asshole (“Fuck the forests, rip ’em down and paint ’em blue/Fuck the virus, take yer condoms off and screw”) that a few dimwits didn’t realize Knox was kidding.
Meat, Knox’s first domestic release, collects most of Seizure and a good-sized chunk of Croaker; the accompanying Not Given Lightly 10-inch includes the remix of its title song and most of the Seizure and Croaker songs that didn’t make it onto Meat.
Exploiting compact discs’ capacity for holding lots and lots of music, Polyfoto, Duck Shaped Pain & “Gum” is effectively three different things: Polyfoto is a short introductory medley of bits of demos, Duck Shaped Pain is the album proper and “Gum” is a five-song guitar/vocal EP. It’s actually Knox throwing a bunch of songs at the wall and seeing what sticks. What sticks are the hilarious anti-new age rant “[& to think it all started with] Trim Milk” (kazoo solo!), the date-rape revenge fantasy “Not a Victim,” the vaguely Arabic-sounding “Under the Influence” (re-recorded as a single) and an endlessly tuneful attack on people who deny personal responsibility, “View From the Bridge” (whose bridge goes “Let’s go to the bridge and then drown”). Much of the album otherwise finds Knox and his Omnichord cruising on autopilot, but aside from the feel-my-pain “Intensive Care,” it’s never less than pleasant. Or much more.
Continuing the value-packing trend, Songs of You & Me effectively contains two complete albums on one CD: Hanging Out for Time to Cure Birth is the subtitle for 11 songs about other people, while A Stranger’s Iron Shore is ten songs Knox wrote about himself. (To avoid burnout, don’t listen to both of them in the same sitting.) It’s a return to form. Knox’s unique weirdness is back (“Lament of the Gastropod,” “Chemicals Are Our Friends”), his social-conscience lyrics are on the mark and rarely heavy-handed, his words have never been cleverer (check out the frenetic babble of “A Song to Welcome the Onset of Maturity”), his gift for simple, flawless melodies has never gone away. One Fell Swoop & Undubbed, released more or less simultaneously with the album, contains a remix of You & Me‘s title song and live-to-8-track versions of two other numbers from it, plus ABBA’s “SOS” (played for laughs) and John Lennon’s “Mother.”