A R T I C L E
A Retrospective Review of Albums by The Chills
By Dean Ballinger
2021 represents the 41st year of The Chills career, and is marked by a new album – Scatterbrain – and touring, including Tauranga on May 13, Auckland on May 14 and Raglan Town Hall on May 15. Dean Ballinger presents a retrospective review of the band’s recording career to date.
KALEIDOSCOPE WORLD (1986) Flying Nun.
The early line-ups of The Chills never recorded an album proper, leaving this compilation of the band’s first four singles (‘Rolling Moon’, ‘Pink Frost’, ‘Doledrums’, ‘I Love My Leather Jacket’), the 3 Dunedin Double songs, and the 6-track Lost EP from 1985 to serve as a proxy debut.
An essential release, revealing Martin Phillipps’ musical precocity and singularity as fully-formed from the beginning of the band. The core ingredients of The Chills sound are firmly established here: a wistful sense of psychedelic wonder and romantic melancholy, suffused with an elemental, ethereal vibe that is most clearly evoked on tracks like ‘Pink Frost’, ‘This Is The Way’, and ‘Whole Weird World’. A sure hallmark of greatness are B-sides as good as the featured single – witness the likes of the psych epic ‘Flamethrower’, the power-pop ‘Hidden Bay’, and garage instrumental ‘Purple Girl’.
Spanning a few line-ups, it is also important to remember how Phillipps’ songs rely on the sympathetic and versatile performances of musicians such as Terry Moore on bass, Peter Allison on keyboards, and Alan Haig and the late Martyn Bull on drums.
BRAVE WORDS (1987) Flying Nun.
The Chills’ first album is an excellent collection, full of some of the bands’ best songs. Recorded in London, Phillipps has expressed dissatisfaction with the reverb-heavy production, but as overseen by American psych-rock legend Mayo Thompson (Red Krayola and Pere Ubu), the album has a spacey, evocative quality that enhances the dreamy melancholy of the featured material, such as the poignant ‘Night Of Chill Blue’ and ‘Dan Destiny And The Silver Dawn’.
The ‘Southern gothic’ atmosphere of haunting loss redolent in ‘Pink Frost’ is on full display here in ‘Ghosts’, ‘Creep’, ‘Dark Carnival’ and ’16 Heart-Throbs’, as well as one of the band’s best punk-pop numbers in ‘Look For The Good In Others And They’ll See The Good In You’.
Musically, Phillipps had assembled one of his best line-ups – Andrew Todd on keyboards, Justin Harwood on bass, and Caroline Easther on drums – endowing the songs with more sophisticated textures and arrangements: Phillipps and Easther’s vocal harmonies add much to the album. The album is also notable for Phillipps’ increasing tendency for verbose songwriting: short songs like ‘Speak For Yourself’ and ‘Brave Words’ are packed with lyrics, while ‘Creep’ is a veritable short story. This trait will continue in songs on future albums, such as ‘The Oncoming Day’, ‘Heavenly Pop Hit’, and ‘The Male Monster From The Id’.
The CD version of Brave Words includes one of The Chills best ever songs, recorded during this period but only released as a European single – the elegiac ‘House With A Hundred Rooms’.
SUBMARINE BELLS (1990) Slash/Flying Nun.
For many fans and critics, The Chills’ finest hour. Signed to US indie label Slash records (a subsidiary of mega-label Warners), Phillipps and his band – Todd and Harwood, with James Stephenson replacing Easther on drums – deliver a very assured and polished 12 track album.
The lead single ‘Heavenly Pop Hit’, with its swelling choral refrain, is a statement of intent for the band’s transcendent approach to pop – “It’s a heavenly pop hit/If anybody wants it”. The album showcases the multifaceted dimension of the band’s sound: haunting ballads – ‘Don’t Be Memory’ and ‘Effloresce and Deliquesce’; jaunty psych-pop – ‘Dead Web’ and ‘Singing In My Sleep’; and punk-inflected introspection on ‘The Oncoming Day’ and ‘Familiarity Breeds Contempt’. Both sides of the album conclude with a couple of remarkable tone poems that evoke the elemental land and sea-scapes of Phillipps’ native Otago – ‘I Soar’ and ‘Submarine Bells’.
The sophisticated, orchestral feel of the album is to a large extent due to the exquisite keyboard playing of Andrew Todd, reinforcing the significance of individual musicians’ contribution to The Chills sound – something that would prove problematic on the next couple of albums.
SOFT BOMB (1992) Slash/Flying Nun.
This was something of a ‘make or break’ album intended to firmly establish The Chills in the American indie market, which unfortunately fell foul of changing musical tastes (the rise of grunge being a key factor) and led to the band being dropped from Slash/Warners. It’s an ambitious, sprawling but ultimately inconsistent affair, partially related to the lack of an actual band: apart from long-term bass player Terry Moore rejoining the ranks, The Chills are largely American session musicians, lacking the feel of the usual New Zealand line-ups.
A key track is ‘Song For Randy Newman etc’, a ballad in which Phillipps creatively aligns himself with such visionaries as Brian Wilson, Syd Barrett, and Nick Drake (the fact that many of these figures were also self-destructive proving prescient in terms of Phillipps’ later career). Phillipps touches such greatness with the epic ‘Water Wolves’, scored by Wilson collaborator Van Dyke Parks, but also reveals a deep ambivalence and cynicism about the music industry on songs such as ‘The Entertainer’ – “I’m just the taxi driver/You get driven around” and ‘Soft Bomb Part 1’ – “they say you have to give them what they want”. The embittered tone of these songs is fortunately offset by several choice slices of classic Chills pop, such as ‘Ocean Ocean’, ‘So Long’, and ‘Soft Bomb II’.
Phillipps also tries to further his ability at writing ‘message’ songs, but these come across as either overtly earnest – ‘The Male Monster From The Id’ (although this has grown into a welcome Chills standard over the years) – or downright clunky (‘Sanctuary’, about domestic violence, and ‘Strange Case’, written after the Aramoana massacre). Fortunately this is one area in which Phillipps would improve immeasurably on later Chills albums.
HEAVENLY POP HITS: THE BEST OF THE CHILLS (1994) Flying Nun.
Solid compilation of The Chills singles to date, and some choice album cuts like ‘Look For The Good In Others…’ and ‘This Is The Way’. ‘House With A Hundred Rooms’ is included. A good introduction to the band for new listeners.
SUNBURNT (1996) Flying Nun.
In recovery from his ill-fated American sojourn, Phillipps regrouped with a new line-up of Kiwi musicians (including Hamiltonian Jonny Armstrong on drums, formerly of Book of Martyrs) and attempted to relaunch his career with this album billed as ‘Martin Phillipps and The Chills’.
The recording in the UK proved ill-fated, when the NZ rhythm section were refused entry at Heathrow due to a Visa cock-up. In salvage mode, a couple of notable English session players were enlisted at short notice – drummer Dave Mattacks of Fairpoint Convention, and multi-instrumentalist Dave Gregory of XTC – which results in overtly polite and bland performances of largely underwhelming songs that needed more grit and colour to come alive.
This problem is enhanced by the production, which comes across as too glossy and clean (particularly with the keyboards), despite having Craig Leon (producer of Suicide and the Ramones) in the producer’s chair. Some of the stronger songs include the single ‘Come Home’, the moody ‘Lost in Future Ruins’, and the closing piano ballad ‘Secret Garden’.
SKETCH BOOK (1999) Flying Nun.
In the second half of the 1990s, the vicissitudes of his career had plunged Phillipps into depression and related drug abuse, which subsequently led to him contracting a severe form of hepatitis in the early 2000s. During this ‘dark period’, Phillipps maintained some profile by releasing this collection of home studio demos, which might sound unprepossessing but results in a surprisingly effective pseudo-album of sorts.
The demos are quite full in their arrangements, notably guitar, keyboard and vocal overdubs, and the song ideas on display – such as the moody psych-pop of ‘Haunt Me’, ‘Residential Green Cell’, and ‘Evermore’ – indicate the strength of Phillipps’ muse in the face of personal adversity. Several songs here cropped up in proper versions on later releases – ‘February’ and ‘Bad Dancer’ on Stand By, and ‘Warm’ serving as the basis for ‘Warm Waveform’ on Silver Bullets.
SECRET BOX (2000) Definitive Music.
A limited release 3CD set of Chills B-sides and rarities, of most interest to hardcore Chills aficionados. The first disc, containing live recordings of fantastic early Chills songs like ‘Juicy Creaming Soda’, ‘I Saw Her Silhouette’ and ‘Balancing’, evokes despair that this material was never formally recorded.
STAND BY (2004) Martin Phillipps Music.
By the early 2000s Phillipps had become the equivalent in NZ music circles of figures like Syd Barrett and Brian Wilson, whom he had written about on Soft Bomb’s ‘Song For Randy Newman etc.’: a songwriting wunderkind whose career had derailed into cult obscurity due to psychological issues and drug abuse.
Self-released by Phillipps, this 8 track mini-album seeks to belie this impression by offering up some classic-sounding Chillsian pop, such as the first 3 tracks ‘Liberty Or Love’, ‘February’, and ‘Bad Dancer’: ‘Little Boy’ is interesting as a rare acoustic guitar number. The low-budget recording and mastering lessens the impact of the songs a little, but this release was a welcome reminder to not write Phillipps off prematurely.
SOMEWHERE BEAUTIFUL (2013) Fire.
The recent renaissance of The Chills begins with this live album. Recorded at a private party in 2011, the band attracted the attention of a wealthy patron whose support helped the band get a record deal with established UK-based indie label Fire Records, this album being the first fruit of that agreement.
The live performance on display here is very good. Despite his health problems, Phillipps sings and plays with gusto, backed by a solid and energetic band – multi-instrumentalist Erica Stichbury/Scally, keyboardist Oli Wilson, bassist James Dickson, and drummer Todd Knudson – who formed the most stable line-up of The Chills, playing on the next two albums.
The hits are all present and correct, but fans are likely to appreciate the album for featuring deep cuts from all phases of the band’s career – even Sunburnt gets a look-in with a nice piano-led rendition of ‘Walk On The Beach’ – and the welcome revival of early Chills’ songs such as ‘Lost In Space’ and ‘The Other’, along with rarities like ‘I Think I Thought I’d Nothing Else To Think About’ and ‘Canterbury Go!’.
SILVER BULLETS (2015) Fire.
The Chills’ comeback album proper is a highly successful endeavour – well played, well produced and tonally consistent, with songs that wouldn’t sound out of place on ‘Brave Words’ or ‘Submarine Bells’. One key ingredient is the production, which is heavy on reverbed guitars and atmospheric textures (Scally’s violin is a welcome addition to the band’s aural palette in this respect). This suits the Chills psych-pop and also enhances the underwater imagery of several songs (‘Warm Waveform’, ‘Underwater Wasteland’, ‘Liquid Situation’).
Another is that Phillipps has by-and-large mastered the art of writing ‘message’ songs without sounding too laboured or mawkish: environmental themes are featured on ‘Underwater Wasteland’ and ‘Aurora Corona’, with socio-political commentary on ‘America Says Hello’ and ‘Pyramid/When The Poor Can Reach The Moon’. ‘Tomboy’ is perhaps a bit too laboured in its gender commentary, but features some nice aural textures.
‘Pyramid/When The Poor Can Reach The Moon’ is also notable for being perhaps the longest recorded Chills song, an 8 minute epic with several different movements that indicates Phillipps’ is not resting on his songwriting laurels but still interested in developing his music.
SNOW BOUND (2018) Fire.
Having culturally and critically re-established themselves with Silver Bullets, The Chills consolidate their comeback with another solid album.
Snowbound comes across as a more accessible and poppy album than Silver Bullets, with straighter production and a more upbeat tone to the songs overall, as reflected in the lush album opener ‘Bad Sugar’ and the title track. This tone helps soften Phillipps’ self-reflective lyrics, dealing with middle-aged topics like mortality, change and disillusionment, in songs like ‘The Greatest Guide’ (about the deaths of musical icons like Bowie and Lou Reed) and the closing rallying cry for optimism, ‘In Harmony’.
Of the two comeback albums, Silver Bullets has the edge over Snowbound due to its more adventurous musicality, but both achieve Phillipps’ goal of restoring The Chills to an active fixture of today’s musical landscape, rather than a cult or nostalgia act.