Alec Bathgate and Chris Knox know a thing or two about lo-fi pop songs. They've been Tall Dwarfs for more than twenty years -- and while, like many other iconic New Zealand acts, the elapsed time between their albums is often longer than most Stateside bands' careers, the quality of their output always puts paid to complaints about its quantity and frequency. Yes, a new Tall Dwarfs record is cause for celebration, but such is the looseness of Knox and Bathgate's association that fans can never be entirely certain that the band still exists until they emerge, locust-like, from their extended hibernation and drop another record on an unsuspecting world.
Needless to say, it's time to get out the party hats.
The biggest news about The Sky Above The Mud Below is that the Tall Dwarfs have finally moved into the realm of digital recording ("finally" sounds wrong here, as much of the technology involved didn't actually exist, or at least wasn't readily accessible, when 1997's Stumpy was recorded). Oh, they still recorded the album onto half-inch analog tape in Bathgate's garage, but they did an extra round of tinkering with a newly-acquired copy of ProTools. Fear not; for Knox and Bathgate, using ProTools doesn't mean surrendering to the soulless world of digital pitch correction and associated Britney Spears-style sleight of hand; it's an opportunity to move their production techniques (cut-ups, tape loops, pitch alteration, etc.) into the digital domain, where such processes are far less time-consuming. With the time they save using ProTools, The Tall Dwarfs may be able to release albums every three years instead of every five.
Musically, The Sky Above... offers an extensive and pleasingly eccentric array of delights. Opener "Meet the Beatle" is a minor miracle of three-chord jangle, with reverse-gated electric guitars under its verses and sharp piano accents on the chorus. It's a simple, silly song about badgering the late Sir George Harrison, and like many Kiwi-pop tunes, it just seems obvious -- as if we've all heard it in our heads before, but it took Knox and Bathgate to pull it, fully formed, from the Mysterious Dimension of Songs Just Waiting To Be Written. You'll notice the same phenomenon at work elsewhere on the album; "Deodorant", "Baby It's Over" and "OK Forever" all seem to be anchored in an intangible collective experience, though "Meet the Beatle" remains the front-runner in the catchy-chorus stakes.
The Tall Dwarfs are more daring than their peers when it comes to pushing the creative envelope, especially where vocals are concerned. Knox's layered harmonies add body to the otherwise under-formed "Michael Hillbilly", while the slowed-down vocals and thick, chugging percussion on "Right at Home" give the tune a surreal edge -- although at one point, a bit of discordant organ stretches that edge a little too far for comfort, thrusting the song briefly into horror-movie territory. Knox can also sing sweetly when it suits him; his cheerful, open vocal on "Melancholy", combined with Bathgate's warm Mellotron, borders on twee.
Check out "We are the Chosen Few" to hear the fruits of the Tall Dwarfs' sonic tinkering: they stretch riffs into squelchy synth beds and hack distorted chords into syncopated bowstring swipes, add Knox's most strident and confident vocal performance, and create a sort of pastoral guitar waltz-anthem. Listen to "You Want Me Shimmy" to hear the Tall Dwarfs at their most self-indulgent; it's ninety-odd seconds of sub-JSBX dirty blues silliness that jolts the album off its rails, then dovetails into the equally incongruous -- but conceptually superior -- quasi-Aerosmith romp "How the West Was Won". Was this really necessary?
If you prefer the Tall Dwarfs in experimental mode, stick around after "Your Unmade Eye" for The Weidenhaüsen Impediment, an eight-song EP by the band's collaborative, tape-trading arm, The International Tall Dwarfs. These eight songs, recorded patchwork-style with the aid of the Verlaines' Graeme Downs, all of The Clean, Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel, Jad Fair and Elf Power's Laura Carter, eschew pop-song structure for broader, less structured explorations, often rooted in prog-rock and psychedelia. Hint: if "Meet the Beatle" thrills you beyond measure, there's a good chance you'll skip over this portion of the album after your initial listen.
Twenty-plus years into their career, the Tall Dwarfs' appeal remains obvious: although the rise of cheap digital recording technology has advanced their production techniques, their music has a "seat of the pants" edginess that implies a musical Iron Chef aesthetic. Their ingredients sometimes clash (see "Right at Home"), but they clearly regard the constraints of their process -- musical, technical, whatever -- as challenges rather than impediments. When they make obvious choices ("Meet the Beatle", etc.), the music is stronger, brighter, simpler, more obvious at a brainstem sort of level. When they leave the beaten track, there's no guessing where they'll go. No wonder The Sky Above The Mud Below sounds as fresh as it does.