Hard News by Russell Brown


Friday Music: An unforced craft

Last Friday night, my friend texted to say her friend wanted to know what album she should buy "right now" – and my first thought was two albums that weren't quite out.

The first was Saint John Divine, the new album from SJD, which is, happily, released today. I've been enjoying this record for a while now and I can happily say that it's a rich, complex  and organic work.

It's also completely different to Sean Donnelly's last album, the Taite Prize-winning Elastic Wasteland. That record, with its shades of krautrock, was really a solo album and was played live as such, with varying degrees of success. It was dark, electric and, above all, tense.

That anxiety seems wholly absent from Saint John Divine. The theme is maybe captured in 'Little Pieces', the duet with Julia Deans, which contrives to sound happy about, or at least accepting of, the sea of human troubles in which we all swim.

Musically, I wonder if this album began in the little midweek show Sean played at the Portland Public House after Elastic Wasteland had done its dash. He fronted with just an acoustic guitar, sang his songs and seemed happy as anything to be doing so.

The next time I saw Sean play was at the 2014 Taite Prize ceremony as  the immediate past winner – so just under a year ago – and he turned up with a full live band. He also played a new song. I think I may have tweeted something to the effect that the new SJD song sounded like 'Sweet Jane'.

That was, of course, the first song to emerge from the album, 'I Wanna Be Foolish', another song about making the best of it, which is all about its organic sounds: the opening strum of a guitar, the splash of a cymbal, the thick pop vocal harmony, a chorus that sounds like a party with friends. It's hard to think of anyone else who would craft a song like this.

Much of the record's character stems from this kind of easy sonic richness, and the foregrounding of different instruments in service of the songs. The first sound on it is the first line of Sean's dreamy vocal on the opening 'I Saw the Future', which unfolds with a string section, background keyboards, a guitar delay. The key sound on the lovely 'Unplugged' is the soft, subtly insistent drumming. The warmth that Neil Finn's Roundhead studio can bring to a record is very well harnessed here.

There are a couple of lesser tracks – 'Catseyes' and 'Change the Channel' don't feel as realised as some of the others, although it's kind of cool that the latter sounds like Al Stewart.

It may be that Sean's work will always be a little too strange to reach the Mumford and Sons-loving masses, and it doesn't sound to me like this album will spawn any big advertising sync deas like Songs from a Dictaphone did, but this is a lovely record, made with a craft that seems both careful and unforced. 

You can buy Saint John Divine for $15 on BandcampI think you'll like it.

Note: I hear (from Angus McNaughton, who mastered it) that the vinyl version of Saint John Divine sounds brilliant, which makes sense, given its nature. If you like your wax, you might want that.


Anyway, it turned out that the Courtney Barnett album, Sometimes I sit and think, and sometimes I just sit, was already in the shops a few days before its official release, so I went and got that. I'm still working through it, but the same thing as is obvious from her live shows occurs here – she's in the best traditions of Aussie rock. I hear echoes of The Triffids, the Hoodoo Gurus, lots of things. What makes her different, of course, is her words. As she once sang, "I much prefer the mundane", and her way of conjuring with the everyday is something remarkable. Apart from the two singles, 'Depreston' and the blazing 'Pedestrian at Best', it's not exactly a collection of hits – the last track, 'Boxing Day Blues', is 15 minutes of lonely, shimmering melancholy – but I think I'll be playing this quite a lot.

It's seems quite the week for unusual songwriters, because Anthonie Tonnon's Successor is also out. I thought the 'Water Underground' single was a real step up for Tonnon's narrative-and-character-rich songwriting, and the album confirms that. Throughout, he fits unexpected ideas – I'm counting at least two songs about local government – into classic guitar pop settings (I take I'm not the only one getting a bit of Morrissey flavour from 'Sugar in the Petrol Tank'). You can buy the album for a more-than-reasonable $12.50 for the digital download on Bandcamp, and pre-order the vinyl for only $30.

You could also read Hadyn Donnell's excellent Pantograph Punch story on what makes Tonnon tick. Among other things, it offers a background to the Ecan theme of 'Water Underground'.

The five-and-a-half minute epic might be Successor’s most moving song, and it’s technically about irrigation.

The song has its origins in 2009, when Tonnon was writing for the Otago student paper Critic. He was assigned to interview Environment Minister Nick Smith about upcoming climate change talks at Copenhagen. Tonnon claims he saw through Smith, but his producer Pearce sees it differently. “He was probably trampled by Nick Smith. Because of Nick Smith being a bit of a PR genius in his own sick, weirdo way,” he says. “I think Tono learned a hell of a lot from that exchange. I think that’s a story that’s never really left Tono and I think he’s been observing Nick Smith ever since. And by the time it comes time to write this song he’s just got this massive picture of this man.”

The following year, Smith pulled the most dazzling stunt of his long political career, and that’s where the song begins.

Anthonie Tonnon plays an album launch show at the King's Arms tomorrow night.

Another new album I haven't been able to get my head around yet – there's work and there's cricket lately – is Death and the Maiden's self-titled debut on Dunedin's Fishrider Records. But I like what I hear so far of their atmospheric pop music and note that they have their album release show at Wammy Bar tonight.


NZ On Air has made a really savvy move in hiring recruiting former Kiwi FM host Charlotte Ryan to curate an Alt & Indie playlist on Spotify. Good curation and being where the listeners are are both important to NZ On Air's mandate in the digital music environment, and this works.


Unknown Mortal Orchestra's 'Multi-Love' is a beguiling pop song that bodes well for the album of the same name due to land on May 26. In the meantime, there's a new video:

UMO also note that:

Multi-Love is a not only a video, but a playable interactive environment. You can explore manipulate the world from the video on your computer by downloading these files:
Mac: http://smarturl.it/UMOMLmac
PC: http://smarturl.it/UMOMLpc
Unity Pro Source File: http://smarturl.it/UMOMLunity

I had a go. It's quite fun, although I did have to visit my Security preferences to get it to run as a file from an unregistered developer.


Of note on Audioculture this week:

Gary Steel does a nice job of setting The Spines in context

And Roger Watkins writes about his groundbreaking books When Rock Got Rolling, about Wellington's rock 'n roll history, and Hostage To The Beat, which covers "the Auckland scene" from 1955 to 1970.

Also, some local music that had seriously disappeared down the memory hole: New Zealand electronic music from the early 1980s. Matthew Talbot's Christchurch-based Lingering Sound art-music label has remastered the two releases from Mary Briefcase (whose name I do vaguely recall) on the unfortunately-named New Age label. Some of it sounds like this:

You can buy the remastered release here, either as digital download or as a cassette-and-digital bundle.


Yowza. Another great John Morales edit for free download – in the case of the first new Chic song in decades. If you dance in your kitchen tonight, dance to this ...

Another wistful Drake cover from Lontalius:

And finally, over on TheAudience, there are a few tracks by the strange-in-a-good-way Wellington folk band Fuyoko's Fables, including this one:

I might be a bit late to this, but rather like it. You can find out more about them on their Tumblr.


The Phoenix Foundation have got together and recorded a song for the Black Caps! Today!


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