Graded on a Curve: The Garbage and the Flowers, The Deep Niche

The musical terrain of the 1990s is often related as a series of indie acts making unexpected splashes in the big corporatist pond, but there was a steady concurrent supply of entities disinterested in becoming the Next Big Thing and instead choosing to thrive in the underground. One example is The Garbage and the Flowers; coming together in Wellington, New Zealand in the late ’80s, the unit’s output is crowned by 1997’s brilliant study in Kiwi lo-fi Eyes Rind as If Beggars. 19 years hence and it’s complemented with The Deep Niche; consisting of tracks cut prior to Eyes Rind, it’s an engaging listen standing easily on its own, available now on vinyl and compact disc through Grapefruit Records.

Taking their name from a line in Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” The Garbage and the Flowers formed when guitarist and songwriter Yuri Frusin teamed up with violist and singer Helen Johnstone. Torben Tilly and Paul Yates entered the picture in time for “Catnip” b/w “Carousel,” the debut 7-inch emerging through Twisted Village of Cambridge, MA in 1992.

Inhabiting the post-Flying Nun underground wing of the ’90s New Zealand experience alongside such names as Dead C, Dadamah, and Alastair Galbraith, The Garbage and the Flowers’ relationship with Twisted Village further cemented their subterranean status in league with such US-based acts as Vermonster, Tono-Bungay, Luxurious Bags, Fuzzhead, Magic Hour, and B.O.R.B. (stands for Bongloads of Righteous Boo).

Completely removed from the above context, their fringe dwelling sensibility can be rather quickly ascertained through a tangible Velvet Underground influence nixing the typical Reed worship to flutter like lo-fi moths around the avant string-screech candlelight of Mr. John Cale. And while many of the abovementioned cohorts amassed sizable discographies, other than a few compilation appearances it took The Garbage and the Flowers roughly five years to complete a full-length record.

Eyes Rind as If Beggars proved worth the wait, though its emergence in an edition of 300 with individually hand-painted covers sold out quickly and insured the band would remain a u-ground affair. It was also the kind of record people liked to share, and lingering interest eventually brought a joint 2013 reissue, with Bo’Weavil Recordings and Fire Records rounding up the album, the first single, a handful of different versions and bonus tracks into a swell package still very much available through Bo’Weavil.

Until now Eyes Rind as If Beggars’ reissue has been the place to start in the group’s scenario, but for newcomers the arrival of The Deep Niche complicates matters, at least somewhat. Illuminating a few unexpected sonic wrinkles, it provides a treat for established fans of the group, the results aptly described as formative, but refreshingly so, as there’s a lack of tentativeness on display.

Opener “St Michael of the Angels” spends four minutes radiating gorgeously achy low-fi strum as near to the K Records’ aesthetic (and to Eyes Rind’s “Love Comes Slowly Now”) as to the output of the Xpressway label. In a swell twist, Johnstone’s singing toys with the twee without ever succumbing to the contrived; instead, as it unwinds an appealing almost Brit-folky undercurrent arises and leads into a coda of Johnstone’s skills at the viola, at this point tagged fairly accurately as folky indie chamber pop.

The Cale-like mayhem would come later, and getting there finds them further exploring pop fragility with a ’60s aura as the vocal harmony in “Sandy Skies” subtly injects a smidge of weirdness into a tidily pretty equation. Thus far the template has been duo motion, but with “29 Years” Torben Tilly arrives and the results get considerably lengthier and palpably stranger.

Stretching out to over 12 minutes, the druggy atmosphere is much closer to what got brandished during the more “out” portions of Eyes Rind, nicely combining the shimmer of a cheap keyboard (played by Tilly) with a hazy blend of guitar wrangling and utterly non-flashy rhythmic action. Johnstone’s initial contribution here is a vocal conjuring a loose similarity to her countryman Peter Jefferies, but as the cut expands her viola adds to the cumulative weight from down in the mix.

The Deep Niche doesn’t offer an altogether linear progression. This is largely a positive as it echoes Eyes Rind’s stature as a posthumous collection (if temporarily so, for they later reformed in Sydney, Australia with a couple low-profile releases under their collective belt); “Moonlight in Paris” is another gentle strummer, but this time with a decidedly pre-rock era pop gist, so much so that it actually inspired a search engine inquiry into its status as a cover.

It’s not, which reinforces Frusin’s talent as a songwriter, though it’s essentially a likeable tangent and not a harbinger of sounds to come. More firmly prescient is the outstanding “Eyes of Johanna,” a bold hunk of hard-driving edginess with guitars both jangling and burning amid springy rhythmic thump as Johnstone emotes heartily and with a tinge of nervousness. It would’ve made a fantastic mid-’90s single, and the same can be said for “Blue for You,” its intermingled rainy-day gal-guy vox and copious viola actually bringing The Vaselines to mind.

Given the nature of the first two tracks here, this isn’t as surprising as one might think, and the reality is that songwriting persisted as the core of Eyes Rind, as did an occasional seesawing of pop and racket; the gnawingly corrosive tunefulness of this concise LP’s “Hieronymus Bosch” lands them right on the precipice of the following record’s essence. It leads into this album’s closer, “Crocodile Tears” offering a sturdy hunk of lo-fi pop abrasion highlighted by wobbly viola, a surplus of amp scuzz, Johnstone’s slightly off-kilter singing, and a solid ditty amongst it all.

Some have assessed Eyes Rind as If Beggars as hit and miss, but to these ears it endures as The Garbage and the Flowers’ apex and a crucial document of the inspired u-ground activity of its decade. That shouldn’t insinuate The Deep Niche as second-rate; to the contrary, for intrigued newbies this is a very smart place to begin.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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