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What's new in iJamming!...
Tue, Oct 23, 2001
ECHO & THE BUNNYMEN: "Flowers is Echo & The Bunnymen's finest hour since Ocean Rain."
An intrigue of early 90s New York nightlife.
NEW CHAPTER now online
From the Jamming! Archives:
U2 interviewed in 1984.
"It's not U2 that's creating this great art. . .There's something that works through us to create in this way."
My immediate reaction to September 11
PART 2: Messages from friends & family overseas
PART 3: Observations & quotes from others.
PART 5: COPING - 2 weeks later
iJamming! Wino/Muso:
"New world wines are just too techno for me."
Featured albums
(Hub, Slumber Party, DJ Harry, Spearhead, The Who tribute
Albums that sound different since September 11
(Charlatans UK, Arabian Travels, Cafe del Mar, Sugarcult)
Featured wine region 3:
Featured wine region 4:
iJamming! interview:
Jesse Hartman, aka LAPTOP
"Every New York band knows the meaning of failure"
MIX Albums:
Who, what and why you should bother (DB, Spooky, Jody, RSW, Bad Boy Bill)
FEATURED Wines (Langlois Cremant de Loire, Honig Sauvignon Blanc, Campbell's Muscat, Brumont Gros Manseng, Dr Frank Gewürtztraminer, Daubree CoteRotie, Dry Creek Chenin Blanc, Mas Saint Laurent Picpoul, Quivira Dry Creek)
"I don't think people realize that life can become so exciting and interesting that it can draw you away for long periods of time from creating music - & why not?"
From the Keith Moon archives:
the JEFF BECK interview .
From Homework to the Disco:
grows up and dumbs down
The iJAMMING! chat:

"If I was asked why Sniffin' Glue was so important, it was the way we conducted ourselves, the style of it, just the attitude. It had attitude in abundance didn't it?"
The Return of Shoegazing:
DOVES take New York by swarm
Forgotten Classics:
THE CHILLS: Brave Words
THE iJAMMING! Book Review:
SNIFFIN' GLUE: The Essential Punk Accessory
Musing with SALLY TAYLOR:
"I'm not interested in what the major labels have to offer."
From the JAMMING! archives: PAUL WELLER ON POP
Featured wine region 2:
From the JAMMING! archives: ALTERNATIVE TV
interviewed in 1978
Fran Healy explains why "you cannot own a song." (And why Liam Gallagher "is going to turn into a really great songwriter.")
Featured Artist Web Site:
From the JAMMING! archives: The Story That Spawned Creation
Featured vine:
Finally, a worthy rival to Chardonnay.
The iJAMMING! interview:
"Once you've had your go, what-ever it may be, they want you to piss off, and they can't bear it if you come back, they can't bear it."
They love rock'n'roll but they don't want to deal with the hassle
From the JAMMING! archives: RAYMONDE in 1985
The full iJamming! Contents

The idea for this section came from rediscovering boxes of cassettes that had been languishing in the basement of my house. The first selected album, Nowhere by Ride, didn't really merit the award in that it's easily available and widely revered. But the Chills' Brave Words is truly in danger of becoming a forgotten classic. The only copy I've owned all these years has been an unmarked Maxell XLII 46-minute cassette, which I must assume was an advance tape I got from Rough Trade, the label which released this album in the UK in the summer of 1987. Laying lie to the fact that cassettes rapidly disintegrate - but certainly proving that it's worth the extra pennies to buy chrome - this tape has stayed in excellent shape over the years. I can no longer imagine hearing the album any other way, and as it turns out, I probably never will. Periodically, I've packed it up with other unruly cassettes, but with equal regularity it seems to keep finding its way back into rotation.When I came across it again over the Christmas holidays just passed, I knew it was destined for this section. What I wasn't so sure of was that it would still sound this damn good.

The Chills formed in the early 1980s in New Zealand around singer-songwriter guitarist Martin Phillipps, who was famous for changing line-ups with every full moon; the group that made this debut album was line-up number nine (or was it ten?), and featured drummer Caroline Easther, bassist Justin Harwood and keyboard player Andrew Todd, all of whom also sung backing vocals. News of the band's greatness (and Phillipps always intended it to be a band, despite members coming and going) had spread steadily from their New Zealand homeland to my London home town, and a compilation album Kaleidoscope World had been released on Creation in 1986. It was good timing. The Chills had a jangly guitar sound that endeared them to British audiences still in the throes of the C-86 mini movement, but coming from New Zealand afforded them an emotional detachment from all trends except those which seem to permeate Kiwi music in general, so I find - a depth of lyrical content, a love of twisted melodies, and a desperate yearning at the heart of each song.

In fact, as its title suggests, Brave Words is - let's use the present tense for music that still sounds so alive - a fearless confessional. The agenda, both musical and lyrical, is set with the opening song 'Push,' which begins with a brief flurry of jangly guitar, gradually introduces a melodic bass line, some organs and drums (nothing too fancy, just a nice easy groove) and then a vocal that is harmonized throughout - but from lower down the scale rather than higher, serving to create an ominous mood. "First you push me this way and then you push me that way," Phillipps complains of the emotional tug of war at the heart of all relationships, concluding "So now I'll push you too," all the while emphasizing the "s" of "push" (a sound most recording engineers spend hours trying to eradicate!) as if hissing at his partner. A second verse repeats much of the first ("I always needed you so desperately...You sure know how to make things hard,") at which, point made, a second chorus is passed up and the song ends, one minute and thirty-five seconds short. It's an abrupt, understated thrilling start.

The subsequent 'Rain' introduces more Chills trademarks: stop-start rhythms that follow the vocals, and the sound of Phillips raising his voice an octave - or at least from a whisper to a scream - in mid verse. On 'Speak For Yourself' his voice leaps in immediately as if the message (the far more optimistic "These are the best of times") has to get out before the instruments get in the way. 'Look For The Good In Others and They'll See The Good In You' is almost a tribute to 1978-79 Buzzcocks, from lengthy title through "fa-la-la" singalongs, tinny guitar solo and Shelley-esque high-pitched lyrics ("I used to be in love but that was long ago"), only escaping charges of plagiarism through use of that distinctive fairground organ sound. Many Chills fans consider this the album's melodic highlight; for me, it has only ever been a precursor to the song on which Phillipps truly establishes his songwriting genius.

'Wet Blanket' - the very title hinting at all kinds of weaknesses - returns to the songwriting simplicity of 'Push', but runs far deeper emotionally. It opens sparsely, mid-tempo, each instrument given room to breathe. Finally, after 30 seconds, Phillips announces his concerns. "Well I'm not in love with anyone," he states, almost nonchalantly, pausing to let the guitars hammer half-heartedly at the same chord for a few bars, while measuring the impact of his next line, "but I could fall in love with you." It sounds intensely personal, and you know that he's referring to someone specific. There's more of that same chord under and over which the bass meanders, and then the guitar chords start to sound threatening, and Martin raises his voice with it. "Well I've no patience for anyone, anyone, anyone, but I've lots of time for you" - hanging on to the last word as if scared to let go. And for good reason, because in typically succinct fashion, he's already up to the chorus, which finds him accompanied by the same menacing lower harmonies as used on 'Push.' "Because you're so, so, so beautiful why aren't you mine?" he declares and simultaneously questions, but this time he doesn't pause; as if emboldened by confessing this perfectly simple (and musically, simply perfect) infatuation, he repeats the line three more times for confirmation, and then jumps into the next verse as if scared now to stop. "I've got nothing to say to anyone but I'd give my mind to you. " No pause. "I've got nothing to say to anyone but we can really talk us two." And then that distinctive raised voice, almost screaming with pain: "I've got nothing to say to anyone anyone anyone except you - I LOVE YOU," holding on once more to the word "you," holding on an eternity, as if screaming out to be loved in return. And then, just when we expect a trip back to that admirably simplistic chorus line, 'Wet Blanket' grinds to a halt. Like 'Push' before it, it's verse, chorus, verse, heart emptied, over and out.

Certain songs we associate with particular periods in our lives, and for me 'Wet Blanket' will always recall that dreary English summer. As it happened (and this is the short version), at the time I first heard that song, I was stuck in miserable wet London, not in love with anyone. Except that in New York, where I wanted to be, was an (English) girl I could easily fall in love with, a girl for whom I had patience I never found for anyone else, with whom I could talk so effortlessly and share my thoughts so readily, and who seemed to take as much delight in my own company, yet who I had passed over once before and who now had her own boyfriend and never gave any indication of wanting to change partners. Night after night that summer - and I have to confess, for much of the following year or two, during which we both emigrated from the UK, though to opposite parts of the world - I went to bed singing to myself, "Because you're so so beautiful, why aren't you mine?" As in 'Wet Blanket,' the question went unanswered.

Brave Words could have ended there, as far as I was concerned, and it would have been a flawless five-song EP. And it's true that the rest of the album doesn't quite scale the same emotional heights (or depths?) as these opening cuts. All the same, its half dozen other songs better most act's entire albums. Swirling fairground keyboards are all over 'Ghosts,' 'Night of Chill Blues' and the perfectly titled 'Dark Carnival.' Semi-acoustic guitars punish the suspended fourth chords as per Pete Townshend in the title track. The unusually brisk 'Dan Destiny and the Silver Dawn' finds Phillips' vocal at its most intensely high-pitched, holding the listener rapt, while Easther provides gorgeous backing vocals. There are several more declaratory couplets: "There's always sleep, just out of reach" (from '16 Heart Throbs'), "I'd much rather go down fighting cos at least I can go with pride" (from the title track), and finally, from 'Creep,' a sense of romantic satisfaction: "You're the answer to a prayer time after time, year after year."

"Albums this pure, this racked with emotion, this naked, this willing to take musical risks - to come up with perfect choruses and then perform them just once, to end songs so frequently on the imperfect cadence - do not come along very often. And when they do, they should be heralded from the rooftops."

The same conclusion could be made about Brave Words, which has continued to sound like a musical prayer answered every time I've played it this last decade-plus - even as the lyrics have held less burning relevance over time. Really, albums this pure, this racked with emotion, this naked, this willing to take musical risks - to come up with perfect choruses and then perform them just once, to end songs so frequently on the imperfect cadence - do not come along very often. And when they do, they should be heralded from the rooftops.

To an extent, that's how Brave Words was received, gaining great publicity for the Chills in all countries, especially the States, where it was released on Homestead in 1988. And yet almost all reviews came with a caveat - that Phillipps' remarkable songwriting and the group's emotive playing had been thoroughly let down let down by the album's wafer-thin production.

Phillipps was manly enough not to blame producer Mayo Thompson for the album's many sonic deficiencies, but instead hold responsible the limited recording time - two weeks including mixing. For my part, I echo the point I made when writing about Ride's debut. Yes, Brave Words is poorly produced. And yet that remains, for me, part of its lasting charm. Every band should record one great album with a minimum of polish, and this was the Chills' offering. Besides, the group made the most of its rising status by, shock horror, more or less staying together (only Easther departed), and signing with Slash Records, who teamed them up with Throwing Muses/Connells producer Gary Smith and gave them as much time as they needed in the luxurious English countryside studio Jacob's.

The album the Chills emerged with, 1990's Submarine Bells is, in many ways, a superior record to Brave Words: it's certainly better produced, better sung and performed. You could even argue that the songs are better, too: the opening single 'Heavenly Pop Hit' and the furious 'The Oncoming Day,' to name but two, equal anything on Brave Words. But that's not really the point: by the time of Submarine Bells the Chills were so highly revered that we expected wonderful things from them. The charm of Brave Words, on the other hand - a debut album that elevated the group from indieland semi-obscurity to major label big-time contenders - could never be repeated. Nor would or could Martin Phillipps ever return to the (failed) romanticism of that album.

From thereon in, unfortunately, it was the familiar music biz story for Phillipps and the Chills. Submarine Bells scored accolades, but not great sales; the next album, 1992's Soft Bomb, produced by Gavin McKillop, was again hard to fault on any surface level, but was nonetheless darker and moodier, more political in content, a harder sell and a commercial disappointment. When the group ended their Soft Bomb tour at Tramp's in New York, Phillipps shocked all by announcing from the stage the Chills disbandment. Some joked that no line-up of the Chills was ever together long enough to disband in the first place, but Phillipps was true to his word: the Chills, as a major label international touring band, were never heard of again..

So what is Phillipps up to now? Without the web, I might now know. But the Chills' former label Flying Nun's web site pointed me straight to the Soft Bomb web site, endorsed by Phillipps and run by a pair of fans split between the USA and the UK. Phillipps, it turns out, is still alive - if not necessarily well. His career disappointments reached such a trough in the nineties that he saw hard drugs as a way out. (Read his reasonings here.) He survived his addictions to make it through rehab but not before catching Hepatitis; now, in his occasional but always honest e-letters to his audience he sounds weary, though not yet ready to give up the fight. In fact, he is about to privately release a triple CD box set of early recordings entitled The Secret Box (priced at a mere £20/$28 including shipping). Both on this set and a previous album Sketchbook that gathered his home recordings from the years following Soft Bomb, Phillipps appears to have learned the value of imperfect recordings, stating of Sketchbook that "I have chosen to release the material that stands on its own, warts and all, as having some sort of magic within."

In other news, Phillipps recently split after twenty years with Flying Nun, which put out a Martin Phillipps and the Chills album Sunburnt in 1996. He has been performing occasional Chills shows but the web site lets on that he cannot even afford the computer and music recording software as most American college kids take for granted, something that sales of The Secret Box are intended to rectify. As a clearly-revered figure in a country that has produced few internationally successful pop acts beyond Crowded House, it seems a travesty that Phillipps should be in such ill health - both physical and financial - but of course no one ever said this game of music is fair. (And though I have never met the man, I think it's safe to say that someone who went through band members so quickly and wrote such naked songs could not have been easy to get on with.) While Martin maintains he can't work full time on music until his health is better, he also insists that his current musicians are committed to the Chills long term. Encouraging though this sounds, the Chills as an international, commercial proposition, ended a long time ago.

Heading in the opposite direction from Brave Words, a rummage through my basement full of vinyl found an American copy of Kaleidoscope World (on Homestead again), that compilation of early singles from 1981-84, of which 'Satin Doll' and 'Purple Girl' best hinted at the group's pop potential. I also listened again to the self-mockingly titled The Lost EP from 1984-85, which has two obvious highlights - the brief pick-up song 'Don't Even Know Her Name,' which would have sounded right at home on Brave Words, and the brooding, ambitious five minute 'Dream By Dream.'

Finally, in writing about Brave Words, I figured that owning nothing other than an unmarked cassette of such a classic album was blasphemous, and ordered the CD, with three tracks I don't know about stuck in between my old-fashioned side one and side two. I was planning on reporting back on those songs, and the sonic differences between my faithful cassette - where one often excuses aural deficiencies as the fault of the medium rather than that of the original recording - and the CD, where imperfections are generally more pronounced. But sadly, it hasn't arrived, despite two separate orders to two different online stores. Brave Words, a classic, would appear to be out of print. It should certainly never be forgotten.

(Given how hard it is to find this album, go to the following sites to hear MP3s, Windows Media and Real Audio clips: CD Now, Soft Bomb, and Barnes&Noble,) For evidence that beauty is in the ear of the beholder, check In Sound's one para dismissal as an example of some of the strangely bad press the album has been forced to endure; my copy of the Trouser Press Record Guide is equally cruel. Fortunately, the far more effusive CMJ review from the era has been preserved on CD Now .)

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iJamming! Site Copyright Tony Fletcher 2001.