Graded on a Curve:
The Chills,
Somewhere Beautiful

The music of the 1980s New Zealand/Flying Nun scene has undergone a welcome retrospective resurgence of late, and as we await the reissue of the seminal early work from the exceptional Martin Phillipps-led pop act The Chills, a superb collection of recently recorded live tracks from the group has appeared. Somewhere Beautiful, issued through a partnership between the UK label Fire and the NZ imprint Far South, finds the latest version of Phillipps’ ongoing concern giving a very fine performance on a wide range of classic songs, but it’s the collaboration with noted Kiwi painter Shane Cotton that will make this 3LP a necessary acquisition for serious longtime devotees of the band.

After considering the dangers of perceived hyperbole and debating over taking a more measured approach, there’s really no reason to beat ‘round the bush about it; as leader of The Chills, Martin Phillipps is simply one of the great undersung pop wunderkinds to have emerged in the last thirty-five years.

And even though much of The Chills’ existence hasn’t exactly been subterranean and the above lines are far from the first in praise of Phillipps’ sheer talent, after typing them I can already hear the dubious reactions of those unfamiliar with the man’s stuff. If he’s so damned good, they’re wondering, then why haven’t they heard of him? Well, if not really an underground proposition (though throughout the ‘80s that’s just where his band largely resided), The Chills’ discography has been one of fits and starts, problematic distribution, and momentum dashing lineup changes.

If they were u-ground in the ‘80s, this circumstance was mainly related to geographical circumstance rather than musical design. Had the band’s early singles, which resulted in a string of hits on the New Zealand pop charts, reached the rest of the world by channels other than Kaleidoscope World, their initial motions might’ve brought them faster acclaim.

That 1986 compilation remains an exquisite guitar-pop jewel, especially in its expanded CD format, but by the time it hit stores a handful of the tracks were nearly a half decade old. And its delayed assemblage was offered to Brits through Creation and to Yanks by Homestead, both independent labels that essentially catered to those already clued in to and principally interested in underground sounds.

In fact, the Homestead label did an admirable job of turning the four pillars of ‘80s Flying Nun-spawned Kiwi grandeur, namely The Clean, Tall Dwarfs, The Verlaines, and naturally The Chills into a minor stateside u-ground phenomenon. In the case of the later two and The Chills in particular, a subsequent debate resulted; was the by no means inaccessible music found on Kaleidoscope World and their excellent ’87 debut LP Brave Words just too good for wider popularity, or was it merely being hindered by external factors?

The eventual signing of both groups to the much higher-profile Warner Brothers subsidiary Slash offered some needed insight. In the case of Phillipps, the answer was a combination of both. On one hand, The Chills did turn out to be too good to reap the massive success of their less-ambitious countrymen Split Enz or Crowded House.

But stronger distribution did result in a larger fan base for ‘90’s Submarine Bells and ‘92’s Soft Bomb, finding the band graduating from the u-ground and entering the Alternative milieu, with Bells bringing them their biggest international success via the minor rumblings of the single “Heavenly Pop Hit.” However, the dissolution of yet another incarnation of the band (Phillipps’ thirteenth lineup, with Soft Bomb notably featuring Peter Holsapple of the ‘dB’s as an auxiliary member) derailed their progress before it could’ve potentially transcended the situation.

Submarine Bells is an outstanding record, its dozen songs succinctly charting Phillipps’ movement from lightly psych-tinged (ala Syd Barrett) guitar-pop nuggets towards a broader and more sophisticated sonic spectrum. And Soft Bomb, if hindered a bit by the Phillipps’ gestures in a palpably “adult” direction, remains underrated in The Chills’ discography (the Van Dyke Parks-arranged “Water Wolves” is a masterpiece of advanced pop construction.)

Taken together, the Slash recs detail one of the few examples of an established “indie” group’s migration into the land of major labels that didn’t resonate as a highly dubious maneuver. Well, except for the huge fact that other than the very good 2004 EP “Stand By,” a disc that found The Chills returning to the Flying Nun roster, and a nifty digital-only track released earlier this year on Phillipps’ birthday titled “Molten Gold,” the band’s studio output comes to a close with Soft Bomb.

Unless you count ‘96’s Sunburnt, of course. An LP credited to Martin Phillipps and The Chills, it features Dave Gregory of XTC on bass and Dave Mattacks of Fairport Convention on drums, a reality stemming from two Chills members encountering visa problems that put the kibosh on their entry into the UK for the album’s recording. And why wouldn’t one count Sunburnt?

After so many different lineups (now grown to around twenty, for crying out loud), if Martin Phillipps showed up at my house for an impromptu live set with an entourage of drunken legionnaires wielding accordions, kazoos, and a battery of bongos, I’d have nary a quibble calling them The Chills. And as they tuned-up, I’d sit down in a comfortable chair, loosen up my ear holes and get ready to witness something worthwhile. But thankfully for us all, Phillipps chooses to associate with a better breed of musician (though I don’t really have anything against legionnaires, boozed-up or otherwise.)

For on Something Beautiful, a consistently outstanding 20-track live document/art object captured at a private birthday party/New Year’s Eve show in 2011, he put together a five-piece band (described by the leader in Fire Records’ press materials as the third-ever Chills quintet) consisting of Erica Stichbury on keyboards, electric violin, and rhythm guitar, Oli Wilson on keyboards, James Dickson on bass, and Todd Knudson on drums, with everyone save Knudson contributing backing vocals.

And those partial to the ‘80s discs should be well pleased, for this baby opens with a pair of selections from Brave Words, “Night of the Chill Blue” and “Wet Blanket.” Unsurprisingly, the former is edgier than the studio version, a quality that’s mostly due to the intensity in Phillipps’ voice and the presence of Stichbury’s violin. Likewise, “Wet Blanket” is less lush and bolder, becoming more forthrightly guitar-pop in delivery.

Obviously, this falls into line with the very raison d’être of live albums. But from my perspective at least, Phillipps is part of a pop tradition that can often lose much of its appeal in performance settings, and that he never flounders here is a real testament to the adaptability his artistry. Though after consideration, part of his success in this regard does come through the reliable injections of rock flavor that were particularly evident in The Chills’ pre-Slash material.

To wit, the masterful “I Love My Leather Jacket,” which here is even more aggressively fuzzed-out than in the original take that’s included on the CD of Kaleidoscope World. But even when tackling the fragile aura of “Pink Frost,” one of Phillipps’ hands-down greatest compositions, the shift into a more assertive environment lacks any air of disappointment.

Serious hardliners for the early Flying Nun-era might get a little bummed over Somewhere Beautiful lacking anything from ‘85’s brilliant “The ‘Lost’ EP” but the appearance of “Lost in Space,” an early Chills number heretofore only available in an ’82 version that opened disc one of the 3CD live and obscurities collection Secret Box, should get a nice thrill.

Speaking of obscurities, there’s a terrific run-through of “I Think I’d Thought I’d Nothing Else to Think About,” and along with “House with a Hundred Rooms” from Brave Words the record closes with “Rolling Moon,” the a-side to the band’s sweet first single. So partisans of the early days should have no reason to complain. And fans of the Slash-period should also be chuffed, since there are four cuts from Submarine Bells including the title track, “Part Past Part Fiction” and yes that grand statement-of-purpose “Heavenly Pop Hit,” plus two from Soft Bomb in the bargain.

The reading found here of Soft Bomb’s title tune is a stone joy, and that less-celebrated later pieces like “February,” “True Romance” (both from Stand By) and “Walk on the Beach” (from Sunburnt) really emphasize the non-diminishment of the man’s songwriting talent over the years. There’s even a taste of Phillipps’ skills at interpretation via a take of “Matthew and Son” that (from the perspective of this Cat Stevens agnostic) blows the doors off the original.

All of the above leaves Shane Cotton’s magnificent art to consider. And it’s a fully realized alliance, with Cotton’s diptych “Rolling Moon” painted in reaction to this live set. Suffice it to say that anybody possessing a copy of Secret Box will surely want this beautiful object in their collection. Those on tight budgets might make do with the CD version, but I can’t imagine that any major Chills lover with the cash to spend would be satisfied with anything less than the deluxe 3LP package.

Altogether, Somewhere Beautiful is a seamlessly lovely late work from an absolutely crucial pop music figure. That it spotlights his perseverance is a pleasant turn of events, but in underscoring Phillipps’ continued vitality it shapes up as a truly wonderful ride.


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