Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Chills

  • Brave Words [Homestead, 1988] A-
  • The Lost EP [Homestead EP, 1988] B-
  • Kaleidoscope World [Homestead, 1989] B+
  • Submarine Bells [Slash/Warner Bros., 1990] A
  • Soft Bomb [Slash/Reprise, 1992] A-

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Brave Words [Homestead, 1988]
Like the Go-Betweens, these sexually integrated New Zealanders give the impression that they could write about anything they wanted--they choose love as a subject out of formal tact, because it's appropriate to the genre. Though they have more tunes than most--more tunes than the early Go-Betweens--what makes them stick is Martin Phillips's cracked, straining, nervous delivery, fit to break down with the next cliche (not too many formal tacticians write songs called "Rain" anymore). Side two isn't as catchy, but shows off a few other options--one song opposes settling down, another is pro. Bet they take a while making up their minds. A-

The Lost EP [Homestead EP, 1988]
Recorded '84-'85, two years before Brave Worls, and it sounds it. First side you wonder why the songs aren't quite there--maybe it's you. Second side crumbles the quandry with "Whole Weird World" ("Nearly there . . . nearly," they claim) and the four-part (suite?) "Dream by Dream." Neither title is sufficiently ironic. Not juvenilia--they'd already been around four or five years. But only New Zealanders would guess. B-

Kaleidoscope World [Homestead, 1989]
"Eight Songs From Eight Members From Eight Phases of the Chills!" announces this '82-'84 singles comp, extensively annotated for the collectors it's aimed at. And unlike the mid-period Lost EP--next they'll construct an album from work tapes by Martin Phillips's pre-Chills Same--it doesn't bog down in horizon-stretching. These are simple pop songs by young people who are proud they can play them. They're slight, but they have the spirit. Best in show: the meaningless "Satin Doll," which Phillips wrote when he was seventeen--presumably for the Same. B+

Submarine Bells [Slash/Warner Bros., 1990]
I might never have known without the printed lyrics, but there's no evidence here that Martin Phillipps is in love with death. He just sees too much of it. So don't dismiss the printed Greenpeace propaganda as gratuitous--for the Chills it's an antidote. What distinguishes them from so many politically well-meaning popsters is that neither cheery music nor dour message is one-dimensional or pro forma--they generate plenty of punk gall and a surprising complement of bliss. Maybe "Heavenly Pop Hit" is about waking up as an angel, but I say Phillipps believes there can be a heaven before he's dead, and if his vision of transcendence is a bit nature-bound for my tastes, it's the thought that counts. Anyway, his true theme song is "Singing in My Sleep," about all the other theme songs--"a word from the wise for the mindless," "a stinging reproach against violence," etc.--that he can't remember in the morning. A

Soft Bomb [Slash/Reprise, 1992]
As with so many formal coups, one of the pleasures of Submarine Bells was how incorrigibly it challenged unwritten rules (about brightness, concreteness, pretension, keyboards) while adhering to the ones you really can't break (about tunefulness, concision, savvy, guitars). This is just the opposite: adventurous on a surface that accommodates depressive codas and Van Dyke Parks strings, but produced with Martin Phillipps's newly acquired phalanx of L.A. sidemen in mind. Though most garage-pop improves when the beat gets solider, the hooks get clearer, the singer moves up in the mix, and Peter Holsapple adds a guitar, these devices are misconceived for the evanescent Chills. Even when they're all 20 seconds too long, however, Phillipps's tunes stay with you. Reordered to close on "Song for Randy Newman Etc.," a living metaphor for the difficulty of his craft, and to surround the personal songs with the social context Phillipps captures so much more vividly than he thinks he does, this would be a worthy follow-up. I suggest a tape that goes 1-2-3-11-8-6-12-10-13-14-4-9. Skip the fragments, and the long dead metaphor for the shallowness of his craft that implicates a defenseless cab driver. Continue to foreground "Male Monster From the Id," a Greenpeace supporter's bleeding-heart analysis of the sexual power play. A-

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