Graded on a Curve:
This Kind of Punishment,
This Kind of Punishment,
A Beard of Bees

New Zealander Graeme Jefferies is noted for his work in the often terrific Cakekitchen, and his brother Peter has been rightfully praised for a handful of solo LPs, but in the early ’80s they were the main pillars in one of the finest if too seldom heard Kiwi outfits, the startlingly original This Kind of Punishment. To describe their self-titled 1983 debut and its ’84 follow-up A Beard of Bees as post-punk isn’t wrong, but it does feel more than a little reductive, and in the global underground of that era both albums’ contents rank high. And additionally, right now; fitfully available in the decades since initial release, they’ve just received their first-time vinyl reissue by Superior Viaduct.

I remain fond of classifying The Clean, The Chills, The Verlaines, and Tall Dwarfs as Flying Nun’s Big Four; this is in part due to persevering reputations, but it’s also because in the late ’80s, due to a licensing agreement between that crucial New Zealand label and Homestead Records, those acts were the easiest to hear in the US. And for a while, it wasn’t easy to hear much else, which only intensified the notion of the Flying Nun “sound” as melodic, catchy and guitar-based (with Tall Dwarfs only somewhat excepted, as that two-man unit, if psych-tinged and proto-lo-fi, also wielded a sharp pop sensibility).

However, time has reinforced that Flying Nun’s stylistic reach was much wider than many youthful Yanks once assumed. There was the moody post-punk of Pin Group, whose “Ambivalence” 45 was the label’s first release; there was the loud and heavy Gordons, who slowly morphed into Bailter Space; there was the artier pop-punk of Bill Direen and his group the Builders, whose Beatin Hearts was Flying Nun’s first LP; and of course, there was This Kind of Punishment.

Before Graeme and Peter emerged with TKP in 1983, they were part of Nocturnal Projections, a band formed in 1981 in the North Island municipality of Stratford. Today, their 7-inch and two 12-inch EPs go for major scratch, and even the out-of-print Nerve Ends in Power Lines comp CD from ’95 is rather pricey. This is a shame since the Joy Division-ish post-punk found in their grooves illuminates how the brothers Jefferies didn’t just conjure the excellence of TKP out of thin air.

For many, This Kind of Punishment takes a back seat to its follow-up, but the difference in quality is small enough that folks looking to investigate this nook of the Kiwi u-ground will want ‘em both. Especially striking is the debut’s opener “After the Fact,” which establishes a sparse by gripping atmosphere of piano, chiming guitar, and Peter’s distinctive vocal that gets injected with jags of distortion, melodic remnants of their moody post-punk past, acoustic strum, and later in the track, the entry of drums.

A word regularly employed to classify TKP is dour, and that’s not inappropriate, but rarely has the attribute been accompanied with beauty moves of such a high level. Having almost nothing in common with stereotypical ’80s gloomsters, this disconnect is heightened by the Jefferies’ attention to instrumental texture and detail, an aspect further highlighted by the interweaving of just piano and budget keyboard in a selection simply titled “Instrumental.”

The presence of piano has been tagged as bringing a classical bent to This Kind of Punishment’s work, and that’s right-on, but don’t misconstrue. TKP’s debut is ultimately nearer to the early-’80s Brit DIY scene, a similarity magnified by the eccentrically forceful emoting and offbeat homemade post-punk of “Don’t Take Those.” It’s an unusually forceful scenario for the group, and indeed a group, as the Jefferies brothers were assisted on both albums by Chris Matthews.

But neither should they be boxed into a DIY thing. For example, through much of its duration, “In View of the Circumstances” is minimal and gradually paced, but then, after a bit of pumped in crowd applause, Peter adopts a stuffy accent as a sawing viola underlines ties to Cale-era Velvets. Likewise, the intermittent VU-ish amp grumble of “Two Minutes Drowning,” but the cut’s repetitive piano line triggers thoughts of ’70s NYC minimalism ala Glass.

However, the piece’s multifaceted structure underscores the brilliance that defines This Kind of Punishment’s existence; that it was harnessed by a 4-track recorder only enlarges the accomplishment. But if employing modest tech, don’t get the idea that TKP was a standard forerunner for the lo-fi generation; no, like Tall Dwarfs, the modesty of the setup was in service to increased intimacy and naturalism, and for evidence just soak up the ambiance “If an Axe is an Arm” achieves with just acoustic guitar and multitracked vocals.

With music of TKP’s emotional thrust, there’s always the danger of succumbing to the monochromatic, but “Just Another Funeral” avoids this, scaling back to just piano and Matthews’ vocals, and then follows it with a pair of Peter-sung gems. First, the guitar-focused “Some More Than Others,” and second, the sustained tension and cyclical piano in closer “Ahead of Their Time.” Both tunes radiate more than a slight ’79-’80 Rough Trade vibe, and for ears that love the Scritti Politti/ Robert Wyatt side of that Brit label’s output, it’s a safe bet they’ll dig This Kind of Punishment too.

The same is likely true for A Beard of Bees, though the follow-up is distinguished by an even deeper attention to gestures of instrumental splendor, a development evidenced right away by the gorgeous non-vocal “Prelude” and its abrupt segue into the needling, raw, and layered “From the Diary of Hermann Doubt.”

Where TKP’s first album has the welcome aura of a few smart guys working up some fine ideas into songs in a room with a 4-track, Bees registers as more painstakingly constructed as it zeroes in on the sonic whole, this growth reinforced by the album’s self-release, which documents a brief break with Flying Nun, not due to any bad blood but reportedly simply because the Jefferies preferred the sound of the vinyl from a different NZ pressing plant.

Plus, the songs on Bees are just a hair stronger overall, with “The Horrible Tango” connecting like three of them in one, beginning in an arty sound collage-like place, moving into the expected TKP moodiness, and then ending in a zone one could tap a foot to, if so inclined. Interestingly, it and the later, also Matthews-sung “The Sleepwalker” are the closest Bees comes to a tangible, if still quite dark, pop angle (on ‘87’s In the Same Room, Matthews was gone, having moved on to Headless Chickens from Children’s Hour and replaced in TKP by numerous notable contributors including Alastair Galbraith).

Not that they’ve sacrificed the Peter-sung piano bench balladry and Graeme’s vaguely Velvety guitar; “Trepidation” has that, while “East Meets West” amplifies a congruence to the art-rock side of the post-punk sphere, meaning fans of This Heat, Red Krayola, and Pere Ubu (again, a decidedly Rough Trade scenario) should take note.

In songwriting terms, “Turning to Stone” is a highlight, but one with an unpolished approach that emphasizes the toil of invention. This is what lo-fi does at its best, as the guitar/ drums/ vox setup of “Although They Appear” illuminates TVP’s influence on and eventual inclusion in the roster of NZ’s esteemed Xpressway label. After “The Sleepwalker,” the methodical yet non-ostentatious loveliness of the extended “An Open Denial” points toward the Jefferies’ considerable subsequent achievements and brings the record to an exquisite close. Hopefully, further reissues are in the works.

This Kind of Punishment
A-

A Beard of Bees
A

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