Martin Phillipps is a survivor. The death, debt and destructive habits would have killed off many a persons' pop dream by now but it is a credit to Martin and his current lineup that they have produced an energetic pop album that that is not just a New Zealand or Dunedin album but one that deserves to be heard all over the world.
Having toured Silver Bullets (their first album for 19 years) under the cloud of Martin being told that he had barely a year to live (due to the Hepatitis C virus attacking his liver), you could be forgiven for thinking that it could be a long time before we heard from any version of The Chills. And yet here we are in 2018 with a new album and Mr Phillipps apparently in rude health having been cured by the new miracle drug Harvoni. This has translated to the new album upping the energy with stronger vocal performances, and the songs themselves being more direct and poppier.
Pop has traditionally been a bit of a dirty word in the cooler than cool circles of alternative music even though some of it's biggest bands (Nirvana, Pixies, Sonic Youth, Husker Du, Flaming Lips) most played songs are the poppier ones. So it can take your breath away just how poptastic this album is on initial plays.
Direct lyrics, repeated choruses and bright production come as a bit of a shock if you haven't listened to The Chills for a while and your memory is still locked into the dream of the Dunedin Ep/Pink Frost years. Of course of all the so-called Dunedin Scene bands The Chills were always the poppiest namechecking, The Beach Boys, Byrds, Carole King alongside the Velvets, 13th Floor Elevators and Love. They even got to write their own paean to its power on 1990's Submarine Bells with Heavenly Pop Hit and convinced Brian Wilson collaborator Van Dyke Parks to arrange a version of Water Wolves. So no one should be too surprised to find this group of songs displaying more pop than jangle.
Bad Sugar sets the ball rolling with its lyrical hook of even bad sugar makes bitter taste sweet. It is tied to an upbeat almost euphoric delivery throughout the song distracting from some deep melancholic observations lurking in the lyrics. While not an unfamiliar Chills songwriting technique it is taken to a new level on this album.
Take Easy Peasy, a whimsical childlike phrase that is initially presented in all it's uncomfortable sunshine optimism only to be undercut with 'Now we have dark days and just count our losses/hearing hard lines from hurt times/and cold words that cut us'. As you might expect the last few years have left the chief Chill with some heavy things to contemplate and a quick scan of the song titles indicates what some of the themes of the album might be. Time To Atone, The Greatest Guide, Scarred, Deep Belief, Lord Of All I Survey, In Harmony all seem to reach for some understanding of what cards life has dealt him.
I have to confess that initially I reacted against the repeated line choruses and a bunch of songs that are in major keys with similar tempos and I found myself longing for a minor slow piano ballad just to break up the onslaught of largely mid-tempo tunes. As a result, I think my initial favourite tracks were the faster Complex and the slightly slower Deep Belief. However as my children quickly got sick of me singing 'I'm not the man you think I am / I'm a complex piece of the plan at them', I have found myself drawn back to the title track with it's exciting ascending circular riff that and the rockier Scarred.
While not the perfect Pop masterpiece that I think this lineup of the Chills has in them , Snow Bound marks a big step up from the more hesitant sounding Silver Bullets and is continuing to get repeated listens in my house. Martin Phillipps has stated elsewhere that hopefully, he had made ' .. a kind of Carole King Tapestry for ageing punks". And while that particular album is not one I can listen to too much anymore, I'd happily blast Snow Bound on my fruit-based digital device as they wheel me into the rest home.
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Released: 14 Sep 2018