Here's a blast from the past. The Bats, who once stood with The Clean (the other
Robert Scott band), Toy Love and The Chills at the heart of the Flying Nun empire, have returned from a ten-year recording hiatus with more of the jangly, soft-yet-muscular songwriting that defined the mid-eighties New Zealand sound.
At the National Grid, which takes its name from John Kelcher's Christchurch Studio, brings together the band's four original members -- Robert Scott, Malcolm Grant, Paul Kean and Kaye Woodward -- for the first time since Couchmaster. It was recorded more or less live, and gains a loose, communal feel from those circumstances: you can hear Scott wondering whether his mic is working in the opening to "Western Isles", then settling into the song's gently undulating groove. Happily, the warmth and immediacy of the one-take approach wins out over any glitches. The simple, almost-folky high-register vocal melodies blend with the ragged tangle of guitars, and the measures are hooked together like train cars, the end of one melodic line curving inexorably into the next.
While the rhythms are insistent -- Malcolm Grant's drumming will remind you of Bill Berry in his prime, creating exactly the same kind of tension and structure as REM's drummer did -- the songs themselves are dreamy. The ideal posture for listening to "Bells" can't be achieved without a hammock, a sunny day and a slight breeze, but even if you lack all that, the song will make you feel as if you don't. Even the more driving cuts, like the very REM-ish "Single File", with its interlocking guitars and driving beat, have a relaxed aura. The lovely, album-defining "Pre War Blues" is all moody harmonies, stitched together with cymbal slaps and slow, reverberating bass notes. Mandolin-like guitar patterns are layered atop each other in a haze of hypnotic complexity.
Robert Scott's high, soft, sweet, nasal vocals are an integral part of The Bats' sound, but one of At the National Grid's loveliest moments comes when he hands the mic to Kaye Woodward in "Mir". She sounds fragile and feminine, rising above the refracting colors of guitar sound like a happier Margo Timmins or a more emphatic Hope Sandoval.
The album closes on a strong note: "Flowers and Trees" pits melodic sweetness against a rush of speed, the eighth-notes pushed fast enough that they nearly connect in a dense rhythmic web. Against this bed, a slower guitar solo emerges, distorted with feedback and overlaid with flute notes. It's an almost perfect balance of hard and soft, melodic and aggressive. Closer "Crazy Crowd" replaces guitar notes with piano runs and distorted violin swoops from longtime collaborator Alastair Galbraith.
At the National Grid isn't the kind of record that grabs you by the throat. Like all The Bats' albums from Daddy's Highway on, it's a slow-burner, requiring repeat listens to sink in. For longtime fans, it's a continuation rather than a sharp break with the past -- consistent with and, indeed, very similar to the other Bats CDs you're likely to have in your collection (Silverbeet and The Law of Things, for instance) -- but more of a good thing is still a good thing. At the National Grid may be out of step with current crazes -- it may remind you of things you listened to ten or even twenty years ago -- but it's as fresh and satisfying now as ever.