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V/A - Not Given Lightly: A Tribute to the Giant Golden Book of New Zealand’s Alternative Music Scene

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Artist: V/A

Album: Not Given Lightly: A Tribute to the Giant Golden Book of New Zealand’s Alternative Music Scene

Label: Morr Music

Review date: May. 12, 2009

In 1997, two scenes – one which was on the decline, another which had yet to begin its ascent – converged when, in Germany, exiled New Zealand singer-songwriter Graeme Jefferies enlisted musician Markus Acher, of the Notwist and Village of Savoonga, to play drums in the Cakekitchen. Transitioning from a studied math-metal outfit into a soothing electronic balm, it’s possible that the pop bug bit Acher around this time, and in turn informed Lali Puna, Tied + Tickled Trio, and a number of artists on the Morr Music imprint.

Morr’s output ramped up at a time when rock music was fading out, and it leveraged that period with lab-tested digital tones offset against pop’s melodies. High-gloss, high-design and highly accessible, the Morr roster reflects the tastes of the few, transposed onto the wills of many. Spread out across the current decade, Morr releases represent a point of stability in a quickly changing market, with sounds that, on paper, would seem to be all-encompassing, and a primary driver to the arc of interactive ennui that we live in today. Certainly projects such as the Postal Service have taken cues from Morr artists to great success, and there is a market for what the label does, even in these troubled times.

These statements provide a backdrop for Not Given Lightly, a double-disc compilation that, at least in part, pays tribute to a handful of New Zealand artists. Morr’s latest signing, Surf City, hails from New Zealand, yet that act chooses not to take part in the first disc, an 18-track love letter from Morr-minded artists to an overall very safe list of NZ staples. The success ratio for these covers, from the mechanical take on the Verlaines’ “Death and the Maiden” by Tarwater, to the plangent wall of guitar of Electric President’s Yo La Tengo tribute in David Kilgour’s “You Forgot,” is about half and half. The material selected – songs originally written by the Chills, the Bats, the Clean, Jean-Paul Sartre Experience, Tall Dwarfs … hell, a group of eight or nine people responsible for the lion’s share of their country’s quality musical exports – shines through whatever treatments they’re given, unless that particular treatment doesn’t click with you. Hearing B. Fleischmann’s breathy take on Chris Knox’s dazzling ballad “Not Given Lightly” is a treat, even if his version sounds like it ought to be overlaid on the end credits to some hour-long drama on HBO. It’s a great song, and would be very difficult to mar, but Morr artists don’t necessarily make errors.

But questions surface immediately after the first listen, which is admittedly a narrow interpretation of what’s good from New Zealand. It’s important to know that several European labels played a large part in getting out some of the more obscure artists from the country. Avalanche in Scotland, Turbulence from the Netherlands, and Raffmond in Germany (likely the point where Jefferies and Acher were introduced) were vital in bringing the releases from cassette-based label Xpressway to light. That’s in no way represented here, aside from a somewhat faithful rendition of Peter Jefferies’ weeper “On an Unknown Beach.” I can understand why abrasive acts like the Dead C. or Bailter Space might not have made the cut, but why no Terminals tracks on here? Where’s Sandra Bell? How about the 3Ds, for that matter, who were very much a part of the Flying Nun empire, from which all but one of these songs originated? Choice is choice, but when a compilation that’s trying to do justice of largely forgotten artists elects to slot in two covers of the Chills’ “Pink Frost,” one has to wonder where the compiler’s head is, and what pressure these artists, almost all of which have worked with Morr, experienced in making these recordings.

More suspicions mount once you hit disc 2, which has only vague connections to New Zealand music. Surf City appears here, offering up an unreleased track, along with everyone else on this disc. Many of the artists doing the covers return here with some scrap or rarity from the Morr vaults, making it difficult to tell if this really is a tribute to Kiwi pop or just another way for Morr to get a backlog product out there. Either way, it’s incongruous; a better idea would have been to license the Flying Nun catalogue and make a personal NZ best of, if for no other reason than to provide a frame of reference for what Morr’s artists accomplish here.

Despite their completely opposing approaches to the music they made, the bands of Morr Music’s roster and those of New Zealand’s heyday share a discipline of craft, one that informs the looseness and grandeur of the melody, and the importance of making challenging pop. However, the approaches taken between these two entities seem too often at odds with one another, and that’s a fundamental problem that Not Given Lightly doesn’t even begin to consider.

By Doug Mosurock

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