New Zealand’s Stefan Neville calls his music “makeshift pop,” and that’s good enough for me. There’s absolutely a pop structure behind most of these tracks, and others can be seen as fundamentally folk songs. I’d like to say that Neville is deconstructing those styles in true experimental style, but my feeling is that he’s still trying to write pop or folk songs.
Stripped down to their most basic parts – Neville’s voice and his acoustic guitar – I think we’d find something worth keeping. I imagine that if he could pull off these songs live – and I see him alone, on stage, playing with effects to layer noise and reverb over his voice and guitar – the result might be intriguing and compelling. But on album, these tracks feel incomplete, sparse, and, for the most part, ineffective.
Before going further, I’d readily admit to not being familiar with the New Zealand sound that spawned bands like The Clean and Tall Dwarfs (the latter of whose singer’s new project features Neville). Fans of that scene may indeed find a comforting and modern take on the style in Neville’s music.
The album starts off soundly enough, with a rollicking 70s rock-n-roll vibe as seen through a haze of feedback and noise. But all momentum from the upbeat instrumental is lost in the fractured “Bold / Old,” as Neville sings morosely over some noise-filtered acoustic guitar. The pop rears its head in the noisy and incomprehensible “Stop Over,” and you can almost tap your feet if you don’t mind the layered vocals and ever-present reverb. “Northland” is a pleasant enough instrumental ditty reminiscent of Sebadoh, but before you chalk up the instrumentals as the album’s standouts, “Spike / Spear” is 11 repetitive minutes that kills the album completely. The noise is less painful on the more upbeat – yet still chaotic – “The Only Doosh Worth Giving,” but again momentum is lost as “Onion Union” is eight more minutes of repetitive knocking and noise-laden guitar scrawling.
Oddly, one of my favorite tracks is simultaneously the most unlistenable. On the six-minute “Greenock,” we’re treated to accordion and drums in addition to the screeching guitar and incomprehensible, monotone lyrics. It’s at times a painful mess, but it’s different and creative, and I the experimental nature of the track reminds me of Lou Barlow’s Sentridoh project along with the similarly morose and experimental Black Moth Super Rainbow. I’m not sure I’d listen to more tracks if they were all in this style, but many would.
Using effects for effects’ sake is not a good thing. I get the sense that Neville can write good songs, and when he plays his electric guitar, I get a retro-pop vibe that would be quite interesting. Unfortunately, he piles so much noise and reverb over his guitar and vocals that you can’t really find his songs. These tracks aren’t really a mess, unless that’s an intentional mess, but they’re frustratingly difficult to wade through. Neville says this is his “umpteenth” full-length release, but I think he has a way to go to bring out his talent, here only hinted at, in a more listenable way.