Tall Dwarfs, David Kilgour

NZ Listener

THE SKY ABOVE THE MUD BELOW, Tall Dwarfs (Flying Nun)

A FEATHER IN THE ENGINE, David Kilgour (Arclife                         

Chris Knox - with his solo albums, comic strips and assorted other projects - may be the more visible half of Tall Dwarfs, but Alec Bathgate, his fellow Dwarf of twenty-odd years, is every bit as audible on The Sky Above, The Mud Below, the duo’s tenth long-player. It’s his “Meet the Beatle” that opens the disc, a timely memoir of an encounter with the late George Harrison with a charmingly early-Beatlesque melody. Bathgate’s contributions tend to be lighter and poppier than the Knox-led songs; in “Baby It’s Over” he even has a bubblegum tune with a chorus to match.

But even Knox is in a relatively genial mood. The ugly mire of deep held feelings isn’t stirred too much this time; no severed heads, hairy breath monsters or brains that won’t die. Instead, he’s improvising nonsense syllables in “You Want Me Shimmy” and finding new and expressive ways to use his voice, notably in “Beached Boy” where he makes a virtue of what sounds like a hangover and a strep throat.

To augment the duo’s own armory of small but perfectly formed sounds (Casiotones, oventrays, the usual stuff) they have, for the second time, summoned the International Tall Dwarfs – musical colleagues from around the globe whose offerings of tape loops, basslines and other sonic ephemera are used as backing tracks for new Dwarfs songs. But such minor innovations aside, the Dwarfs don’t depart from their modus operandi; they simply apply it to a bunch of songs that are a little warmer and fuzzier than usual.

Similarly, A Feather In The Engine has the distinctive signature of David Kilgour. Long regarded as the godfather of Dunedin guitar bands, his latest solo album shows why he’s revered in the lush layers of reverberating strings that grace this disc. Acoustic, electric, backwards, forwards – guitar tracks are stacked in every direction.

Oddly for an axe hero, though, you’ll barely find anything resembling a lead break. Rather you get textures, harmonies and melodies, all given equal weight.

Clearly of less concern to Kilgour are the words. Half of the songs are purely instrumental. And even the poppy “I Lost My Train” with its appealingly nonchalant vocals and undeniable couplet (“I lost my train/my train of thought”) seems more like an excuse for a good guitar part. Whether or not the songs hold up, it’s all quite beautiful. Highlights include the pyschedelic raga of “Instra 2” and its Graeme Downes-arranged reprise, which pitches Kilgour’s tensile guitar against the honeyed tones of a string quartet. Could this be... Kilgour by candlelight? 

Tags: flying nundunedindavid kilgourchris knoxchristchurchtall dwarfsalec bathgate

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