Graded on a Curve:
Tall Dwarfs,
Unravelled 1981–2002

On August 19 Merge Records does the world a great service by compiling the work of the exquisitely sui generis New Zealand duo Tall Dwarfs onto four LPs and two CDs in the collection Unravelled: 1981–2002, its songs curated and its box designed by half of the twosome, Alec Bathgate. For the time span of the title, he and Chris Knox combined exploratory and at times even psychedelic textures with uncommonly robust songwriting and came out sounding like nobody but themselves.

I’m far from the first to make the observation, but when Tall Dwarfs emerged into the 1980s underground scene, it wasn’t easy to connect the sounds made and the songs crafted by Chris Knox and Alec Bathgate to specific precedent. And what’s particularly striking about this circumstance is that the difficulty didn’t subside as the decade progressed.

This is to say, that as the duo’s music continued to gradually expand its subterranean global reach beyond the isles of New Zealand, they remained just as resistant to easy style tags as must have been the case when clued-in Kiwis heard the debut EP “Three Songs” upon release in 1981, notably not on Flying Nun but on the Furtive label.

Today, it might be easy for a Tall Dwarfs newbie to make quick associations to lo-fi and to DIY, but neither of those terms was really common parlance in the 1980s, which left many listeners scratching their heads over just what are these cats were up to, and had many writers making some interesting comparisons, spanning from predecessors Syd Barrett and The Beatles to contemporaries Butthole Surfers and Half Japanese.

This slipperiness of classification isn’t due to an influx of abstraction on the part of Knox and Bathgate. As Unravelled makes so wonderfully clear, they have songs in abundance. They have so many songs in fact, that the very one that served as my introduction to the Dwarfs, “Gravity,” as heard on Homestead Records’ hulking 2LP various artists compilation Human Music, isn’t even on this set.

As said, these guys had songs to spare, so “Gravity,” which was unreleased prior to Human Music’s 1988 release, was immediately striking and intriguing on repeated listens, plus a rocking piece of business, if in a decidedly lo-fi way. And “Gravity” led directly to my purchase of Hello Cruel World, a collection of tracks from the Dwarfs’ first four EPs (“There Songs,” ‘82’s “Louis Likes His Daily Dip,” ’83’s “Canned Music” and ’84’s “Slugbucket Hairybreath Monster”), which came out in ’87, also on Homestead (that label having done a great service in hipping US ears to the whole Flying Nun shebang).

Unravelled’s first LP also draws from those four EPs. Hearing those tracks in the late 1980s provided a jaw-dropping gateway into the possibilities of recording at home on a 4-track. Much more of an enticingly weird DIY experience than a mere kickstart of what came to be known as lo-fi, the songs revealed both the sheer ingenuity of Knox and Bathgate (“Turning Brown and Torn in Two” might be the greatest tape loop song of all time), but also the sheer beauty that can occur when the pressure is off and your making music for the sheer fucking joy of it.

Prior to Tall Dwarfs, Knox and Bathgate had been in Toy Love (springing from the ashes of punk band The Enemy), a five-piece whose sole album was released in 1980 with a sound much closer to the melodic punk/new wave norm of the time. Indeed, the LP and few singles even made the New Zealand charts. After Toy Love’s breakup, Knox and Bathgate could’ve taken a more commercial route, but luckily they chose the path of strange melodiousness instead, with their pursuits yielding undiminished returns across the two decades and a year covered by Unravelled.

A whole lot of outfits start out in the deep weeds of the bizarre only to gradually wander into the idyllic pastures of relative normalcy. That Tall Dwarfs, who consistently hit the ear like a band rather than a standard duo, never nixed the weirdness is one of the best attributes, the other being their ability to come up with solid tunes. Put ‘em together and you get the Don Kirshner meets Ween action of “Gluey, Gluey,” originally from 1998’s Fifty Flavours of Glue, which opens side eight of this collection.

That albums three and four of Unravelled are as rewarding (if not as groundbreakingly brilliant) as one and two make this a truly essential undertaking for anyone looking for a deeper than surface survey of Tall Dwarfs, one that still allows for further discovery (just wait until you hear “Gravity”) and strengthens any collection of ’80s-’90s u-ground sounds. And even if you already own the albums, there’s no way you’ll make a mixtape/playlist as strong as Alec Bathgate’s sequence here. It’s a utter joy from “Nothing’s Going to Happen” to “Over the Hill,” and it’s sure to be one of the best box sets of the year.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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