Although the name of this New Zealand quartet, formed in Auckland in 1993, may suggest a strong Clash influence, its first album has more in common with The Pixies’ Doolittle than London Calling. “Fingerpops,” which builds into a propulsive lather, and the charging “Come Back” are catchy (albeit derivative) stabs at the pant and howl of Black Francis’ songbook. But like the old story of the sun versus the wind — glow is better than blow — the band is at its best when it abandons this aggressive strategy for toned-down numbers. The laconic fuzz of “Nude Star” and the weaving and confessional “Tired and Bored” showcase singer Jeremy Eade’s affecting voice and guitarist Andrew Claridge’s inventive and prowling chords. Eade can wail as well as anyone, but his strengths are the phrasing of a young Paul Kelly and the cheeky wordplay of the Chills’ Martin Phillips. That said, he’s at his vocal best when he lets his croon do the work, as evinced on the warped surf of “Classically Diseased” or the dreamy “Beelines to Heaven.” The latter, a swooning little pop song that enumerates the financial and emotional frustrations of band life (“I just got given what I owe / And blown it on a stereo”), is charming and acknowledges the influence of avuncular New Zealand bands like The Chills and The Clean.
There’s a touch of Morrissey to Eade’s occasionally self-effacing lyrics (“I was a teenage drunken suicide / And I wrote poetry too / Now it all kind of disgusts me…”). But he’s different in that he can find solace, even in pizza and beer (“Fay Ray”). Lyrically, Last Exit to Garageland has its innovative moments (“I hate the way I’ve strayed into these perfect days”) and its not-so-interesting moments (“I don’t know what state I’m in / But we’re all Americans at heart”). Musically it vacillates from indie rock spasms to endearing pop gems, but in spite of occasional missteps, it’s an impressive debut.
Although murkier both lyrically and sonically, Do What You Want is a better record than its predecessor. The band had relocatedd to London for a few years, but came home to Auckland to record at Neil Finn’s home studio. The focused and confident collection opens with “Love Song,” which finds Eade exclaiming in a falsetto, “It’s groovy / There’s a movie / Inside my head,” but instead of enumerating the gory details, he deadpans “This is just a love song / A very sick love song,” which means you’ll have to take his word for it. Elsewhere there’s the hypnotic rush of “Trashcans,” the buoyant “Kiss It All Goodbye” (which boasts one of Claridge’s catchiest licks) and the spare “Good Luck,” in which Eade nimbly interlaces with bassist Mark Silvey.
Do What You Want is partly about coming home older and wiser after being gone too long. “So go ahead and set the controls / To the heart of the suburbs,” Eade intones on “Trashcans,” setting the course with all the confidence of a changed man not afraid to face the past. “Trashcans” is loaded with the kind of veteran’s logic (“If you don’t want to meet her then don’t introduce yourself”) that can only come from striking the matches of experience. Eade may sound serious on the surging “Jean” and the magnificent “Not Empty,” but he does have a sense of humor. On “Good Luck,” he bemoans, in punful melodrama, “I’m dyeing, I’m dyeing, I’m dyeing my hair again.” The work here can be bristly (“What You Gonna Do?”) or brisk (“Burning Bridges”) but the 13 tracks effortlessly give way to each other in appealing sonic cohesion.
Scorpio Righting was recorded in a roofless studio at New Zealand’s Kare Kare Beach (which was the setting for the movie The Piano). Thus free of studio confines, Garageland tears the cover off the ball. “Life Is Sweet” is an irresistibly breezy rocker that makes good use of its “sha-la-la” chorus. Eade here shows he’s a great rock and roll singer because he knows not only how to hold a note but how to wrap it gracefully around the next one. The weary “Superstars” comes across as a blue-collar folk song as Eade’s battered narrator confesses “I had no money / I sold your jewelry” and then heartbreakingly describes himself as “the slow sad builder” with “the heart of a brick layer.” What makes Scorpio Righting so appealing is that it tips a hat to everyone from the Spencer Davis Group to the Replacements. “Gone” is a horny blast of Motown and pure Auckland soul; “Who The Hell Do You Think You Are” is a raunchy rewrite of “Honky Tonk Woman” and the slinky surf riff of “Rock and Roll Heart” is superb. Early copies of the disc included a bonus set of six acoustic tracks.