Graded on a Curve:
The Moles,
Flashbacks and Dream Sequences

Born in Australia (where the Bee Gees and the Go-Betweens began), influenced by neighboring New Zealand (where the Flying Nun label sprang to life), extended visitors to New York (where The Velvet Underground forever altered music history) and England (where Syd Barrett lived with his Mum); The Moles surely have an interesting tale to tell. With Fire Records’ release of the enormously worthwhile retrospective Flashbacks and Dream Sequences: The Story of The Moles, their narrative is set effectively into motion through the label’s characteristically exhaustive aplomb.

Carl Zadro, Glenn Fredericks, Richard Davies, and Warren Armstrong formed The Moles in Sydney Australia in the late-‘80s. They kicked up a little dust, bailed on the home country for potentially greener pastures (like many Aussie groups before them), and issued some high-quality but underappreciated records as they reportedly got gobsmacked by the sheer bustle of Gotham.

From there they cut a Peel Session, only to have their selfish nogoodnik manager rip off the fee to fund his personal drug/sex/party weekend (I know, what an utter shit), and then inevitably broke up. Afterward, with the blessing of the other members, Davies made one more Moles disc essentially as a solo artist with some estimable guests including Hamish Kilgour from The Clean and David Newgarden of ‘90s indie supergroup Run On and then retired the name for good.

And as Flashbacks and Dream Sequences methodically unwound, I can’t deny that it inspired in me a growing sense of nostalgia. Indeed, as I get better acquainted with this very welcome and completely necessary collection of tracks, 35 of them in all completing an almost formidably abundant 2LP/2CD package, I’m reliably transported roughly a quarter century back to the moment, shortly before the explosion of Grunge, when lo-fi indie rock/pop and noise all colluded to put a massive drain on my bank account.

The scribbled or painstakingly typed recommendations were mostly to be found in assorted and quickly dog-eared fanzines. Looking back on the stream of discoveries, it was definitely a blast, but it was also inexact by nature; miss an issue of a rag that raved over the quietly-issued debut 45 of some left-field entity, and by the time three or four other mags had published reviews, the self-released 7-inch could easily be out of print.

Plus by 1990 a definite change was in the air, with the number of records in the racks absolutely huge, and I’ll confess that on the first go round The Moles managed to slip right by me, with the nostalgia conjured by Flashbacks and Dream Sequences related to the band’s era and not directly to their output. Of course, I later caught up with not only The Moles but also Cardinal, Richard Davies’ subsequent collaboration with Eric Matthews, but I’ll admit that Fire’s diligent assemblage of their oeuvre presents The Moles in a whole new light.

The unacquainted might be thinking that 35 songs is a rather unwieldy way to wade through a musical trajectory, but Fire has constructed this whopper in their typically user-friendly manner; the LPs contain the previously issued full-lengths Untune the Sky (made as a band) and Instinct (Davies alone), CD one combines them for convenience and CD two holds the EPs, 45 and rare/unreleased stuff (the compact discs are also available as a standalone item).

Like the vast majority of musicians and artists in general, The Moles created their whatsis in reaction to previous models, but they also forecasted significant developments to come. Right out of the box the lo-fi bagpipe-psych of “Wired” illustrates this quite well, coming off like a mix of J. Spaceman and Rob Schneider.

Additionally, there’s a healthy current of non-rockist ambition on display. For example, “Curdle” opens with rumbling piano that a neophyte (and we’re all greenhorns once, y’know?) just might mistake for freakin’ Cecil Taylor before it reverts to relative songlike normalcy; from there the tune is like the results of the Television Personalities recording a session for Alan McGee.

However, with its opening drone and layered vocals, “Nailing Jesus to the Cross” connects like a strung-out cousin to a certain song by The Vaselines, a cover of Kraftwerk’s “Europe By Car” eschews the easy layup of Krautrock influence by revamping it as sprightly post-punk, and “Surf’s Up” (not the Beach Boys ditty) kicks aside the climes of lo-fi for the lush environments of ‘60s-kissed pop.

The 1960s, and specifically the decade’s intersection of psychedelia and pop song structure, figures mightily in The Moles’ work. “Minor Royal March” inspires visions of Robin Gibb gallivanting in a pair of red tights, “Let’s Hook Up and Get Some” is acid trip abstraction that borders on audio collage, the heavy “Already in Black” is loaded with early Floyd damage, and the tweaked oddity that is “The Crasher” basically harnesses what many of us back in the late-‘80s were naïvely hoping Syd would generate after deciding to come out of retirement.

“What’s the New Mary Jane?” is clearly the psych-pop centerpiece of The Moles’ discography, though. Based on lingering thoughts of what a then-lost and legendary Beatles track actually sounded like, The Moles re-imagine it by deemphasizing and rechanneling the twee and then broadening the aural depth of field, all while avoiding the gloopy.

The ‘80s alt/u-ground was also impactful on The Moles’ overall thrust. “Rebecca” is remindful of the Go-Betweens early Able singles, the indie pop of “Accidental Saint” soars in the choruses but brandishes tough strumming throughout, “Drink Talking” begins as No Wave/Fall-esque thud-stomp and then develops into a full on rocker, both distinctive versions of “Bury Me Happy” recall the Flying Nun sound as proffered by The Clean and The Bats, and “Propeller” is a beautiful three-way pileup of TV Personalities, The Clean, and The Wedding Present.

Also, the two recordings of “Rich Man” deliver a taste of the outstanding Flying Nun duo Tall Dwarfs blended with the post-Spacemen 3 Sonic Boom-project Spectrum, though the trumpet and hazy production brings the rarely discussed ‘90s UK outfit Spaceheads to mind. And speaking of seldom talked about, “Flex,” a marvelous cover of a tune by excellent and undersung Flying Nun act the Jean-Paul Sartre Experience, really accentuates the power of The Moles’ Kiwi attraction.

There are other rewards along the way, such as the sly touch of vocal reverb in “Heart Attack Mind,” a loose and somewhat oddball version of the Don Nix-penned blues staple “Going Down,” the guitar line that arises four minutes into “This is a Happy Garden,” and the stop-start rave up ending to “Breathe Me In.” And things get especially intriguing on CD two; “Propeller” is a total doozy of a single, the third VU LP strum of “We Need an Electric Guitar” positively oozes the band-practice directive “Turn on Thy 4-track and Create,” and the possibly unfinished instrumental “Mystery Song” serves as a perfect coda.

It suddenly occurs to me that my response to this set is far from just straightforward nostalgia for a bygone period of widespread personal discovery; in chronicling the lifespan of a vastly important and highly neglected group, Flashbacks and Dream Sequences has rekindled a bit of that long-ago energy and excitement, but even the lesser tracks (there are a few) remain resonant and are thus totally relevant to the here and now.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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