Straitjacket Fits sprang from the ashes of the DoubleHappys, a trio (named after a particularly loud brand of firecracker) that formed in Dunedin, New Zealand in the early ’80s. Childhood friends Shayne Carter and Wayne Elsey (both singing, playing guitar and writing songs) and John Collie (drums) were younger than the rest of the Flying Nun mob when the group debuted with the wonderful “Others Way” b/w “Anyone Else Would” single: melancholy pop songs wrapped in charming lo-fi sound. The following Cut It Out EP — which actually made the Kiwi Top 20 — further highlights Carter’s honeyed-but-scathing voice and the contrasts in the band’s sound. Sadly, that was as far as DoubleHappys got: Elsey was killed in a train accident in 1985. The six-song How Much Time Left, Please? captures an embryonic live set; the highly recommended Nerves augments most of the above with two previously unreleased practice-room tracks.
Carter and Collie, reconstituted with guitarist/singer Andrew Brough and bassist David Wood, then formed Straitjacket Fits — similarly melodic but angrier, more complex and less overtly poppy than DoubleHappys, with Carter and Brough’s voices building cathedral harmonies that redefine the word “soaring.” The four-song Life in One Chord occasionally trips over its own ambition but dazzles on the wild “Dialing a Prayer.” While equally intense, Hail is more controlled and refined, as the bracing rush of the title track and “Life in One Chord” are balanced by Brough’s “Take From the Years” and a gorgeous cover of Leonard Cohen’s “So Long Marianne.” (The American edition of Hail replaces four tracks with the contents of Life in One Chord. The second Kiwi edition combines the contents of both Hails.)
On Melt, Gavin MacKillop’s ultra-lush production blankets everything in a dense, hazy sound that at times blurs the instruments and vocals into echo-drenched sonic clouds. While this approach occasionally yields mush, it also results in brilliance: a swooping, swooning, swelling, surging, soaring (and all that) rush that beautifully captures the intensity of the band’s live shows. Melt features the Fits’ best batch of songs, particularly “Bad Note for a Heart,” “Missing Presumed Drowned” and Brough’s lilting “Hand in Mine.”
The misleadingly titled Missing From Melt actually includes remixes of three album tracks along with two uneventful non-LP songs. Roller Ride boasts three live tracks; Down in Splendour combines some of the extras from both EPs. However, the Fits’ best non-LP track is a version of Jean Paul Sartre Experience’s “Flex” on the rare Roger Sings the Hits, a Flying Nun tenth-anniversary compilation wherein members of the label’s roster cover each other’s songs.
Blow, a word that evidently has fewer negative connotations in New Zealand than America, buckles under Paul Fox’s uncomfortably slick production, but he’s not the only one to blame for this album’s lifelessness. Andrew Brough’s departure had apparently removed the creative tension that seethed throughout the band’s previous work, and most of the songs are downright bland (an adjective that applies to none of their earlier material). Only “Train” and “Burn It Up” show any of the old glimmer, and they’re both buried by a stifling mix and plodding rhythms. The band split up after a final tour in ’93. (The Done EP features two non-LP tracks and different recordings of two album songs; If I Were You includes a remix of the title track as well as a pair of demos; Cat Inna Can features the non-LP “Sycamore” and a cover of the Sex Pistols’ “Satellite”).
Carter has recorded several tracks over the years (scattered on Xpressway and Flying Nun compilations and singles), solo and in collusion with Peter Jefferies. In ’94, Carter formed Dimmer (which briefly included Jefferies), which debuted with a 1995 7-inch (“Crystallator”) on Sub Pop and finally released an album six years later.