Combining the dramatics of moody Australians like the Go-Betweens and the Triffids with the pure pop craft of Split Enz and Crowded House, New Zealand’s Mutton Birds made a number of sparkling guitar pop records in the ’90s. Before forming Mutton Birds, singer Don McGlashan had been in post-punk pioneers Blam Blam Blam, theatrical folk duo the Front Lawn, the Auckland Symphony Orchestra (first euphonium) and scored the Jane Campion film An Angel at My Table. He brought elements of all those experiences into his songwriting. With David Long (guitar/voice), Alan Gregg (previously of the Dribbling Darts; bass/voice) and Ross Burge (ex-Sneaky Feelings; drums), the Mutton Birds got underway in 1991.
The Mutton Birds establishes McGlashan as a first-class lyricist, able to tell stories using a variety of voices and viewpoints. “Dominion Road” re-imagines the Heartbreak Hotel as a halfway house: “He watched Jane’s brother sell the house / He felt no sense of loss / More like a mountain climber looking back, having made it across / And he’s still climbing.” In “A Thing Well Made,” McGlashan’s euphonium adds an ominous refrain in a sporting-goods salesman’s ode to his excellent selection of guns. A compelling debut.
Salty (which was mixed by Tchad Blake, a show of international awareness on someone’s part) made the band stars in New Zealand, yielding Top 5’s with “Anchor Me,” which makes tidy use of clichéd nautical metaphors, and “The Heater,” which uses nifty French horn and is about, well, a heater. Gregg contributes three songs showcasing his lighter, poppier approach — “Wellington” is a bouncy lament about the realities and practicalities of a long-distance relationship. The band then moved to London, a move heralded by the release of an English compilation, Nature, of the first two releases.
Late in 1996, the Mutton Birds released their finest album, Envy of Angels. Packed to the gills with sinewy melodies, elegant arrangements and haunting lyrics, the record boasts many of their finest moments. “She’s Been Talking” details a small town love affair, but as he often does so effortlessly, McGlashan injects subtle menace: “Some people you can see right through / But I never guessed how much she knew.” “While You Sleep” is a gorgeous ballad worthy of Neil Finn at his most disarming, but Gregg’s “Come Around” is a bit precious in the company of McGlashan’s strongest batch of songs. The elegiac title tune is a hushed, cinematic masterpiece featuring cello and yet more euphonium.
Despite the fact that Envy outsold the previous album three to one, Virgin UK dropped the band. They self-released Angle of Entry, a live acoustic set, and Too Hard Basket, a B-sides collection. The latter featured such worthy songs as the dirgey, organ-driven “Face in the Paper,” as well as some McGlashan instrumentals. Rain, Steam & Speed followed the departures of David Long and Alan Gregg and dips only slightly in quality from its predecessor, offering such gems as the hypnotic “Last Year’s Shoes,” the driving “As Close as This” and the Richard Thompson-like “Jackie’s Song.” After a mail-order only release, Live in Manchester, the Mutton Birds called it a day.
Flock is a well-selected overview, adding a cover of “Don’t Fear the Reaper” from the soundtrack of Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners, as well as a live version of Sneaky Feelings’ “Not to Take Sides.” It certainly makes a case for their place in the annals of classic Antipodean pop, and for McGlashan’s reputation as a top notch songwriter.
Gregg resurfaced in the bubble-gummy Marshmallow, whose debut features appearances by Kiwi chanteuse Bic Runga and Ron Sexsmith. Pleasant and jangly songs (think Teenage Fanclub) with strict rhyme schemes like “Anytime Soon” and “Come Sunday” are very much in keeping with his contributions to the Mutton Birds, but “The Ballad of Wendi Deng,” a country tune about Rupert Murdoch’s wife, is a highlight.