From the early 1980s, the New Zealand pop scene has flourished, mostly through the Christchurch-based label Flying Nun Records. Bands such as The Clean, The Chills and The Bats emerged from beyond the South Island of New Zealand environs with a distinct type of pop music -- often spare, minimal -- catching attention of like-minded musicians stateside. Singer/songwriter Barbara Manning has recorded a number of songs with a who's who of Kiwi indie pop; Magnetic Fields' Stephen Merritt recorded with Chris Knox and The Bats' Robert Scott on his side project as "The 6ths" (Wasps' Nests); Superchunk's Mac McCaughan recorded with Scott and The Clean (and signed the band to his Merge label); and Luna recruited Chills bassist Justin Harwood from the mid- to late-’90s.
In the annual "Music Issue" of the cultural magazine The Believer, The Bats' leader Scott was one of the featured musical guests on the excellent CD compilation. So it comes with little surprise that The Bats' latest offering, Guilty Office, the band's eighth album, is a sterling mixture of melancholic, catchy and raw pop that perhaps catches a certain mood of its East Coast New Zealand atmosphere (contrary to the Flight of the Concords-like persona).
The songs on The Guilty Office don't really deliver a new direction for the band, whose line-up of Scott (guitar, vocals), Kaye Woodward (multi-instrumentalist, vocals), Paul Kean (bass, vocals) and Malcolm Grant (drums) hasn't changed since their first full-length release in 1987. That record, Daddy's Highway, was a skeletal pop affair heavily influenced by The Velvet Underground, as was their self-titled third record. And that too seems to be a blueprint for The Guilty Office. Twenty-plus years' experience has led to a musical maturity that allows them sound both savvy and innocent, seemingly with little effort.
The first track, "Countersign," sets the tone, opening with a mid-tempo, chunky guitars/bass/drums rhythm, followed by Scott's (slightly dark) deadpan vocals, accentuated by Woodward's high, yet fragile, backing vocals, reminiscent of VU's drummer, Mo Tucker. The succeeding song, "Crimson Enemy," a rare rocker, displays The Bats' ability to come up with a brighter, infectious, upbeat number with subtle pop hooks. These elements all come together in one of the record's highlights, "Satellites," which crescendo with Scott and Woodward's dual vocals.
"The Orchard" beautifully closes the album with its finest song, a mid-tempo romantic pop number, tempered with the eloquent strings contribution of Alan Starrett. It's what The Bats do best: songs that are not attached to any particular time period, evoking a quality akin to aspects of modern Brazilian music -- both melancholic and beautiful. It's fortunate that The Bats have continued recording, and with their first release since 2005's excellent At the National Grid, The Guilty Office is yet another Bats/Robert Scott basketful of timeless pop gems.