It’s a good time to be a Chills fan. You’ve had the live album Somewhere Beautiful (2013), The BBC Sessions (2014) and last years stunning Silver Bullets. So why should you invest in this attractively packaged CD +DVD book? Amazingly it’s not necessarily the music contained on the main CD (which is good but suffers from an odd distant vocal mix) it is the accompanying DVD Curse Of The Chills that should demand your attention. Supposedly a preview of a larger feature ( pretty generous at 72 minutes long) it is a substantial and essential documentary in it’s own right.
Now you could take Mark E Smith’s approach to the Chills (“If it’s me and yer granny on bongos, It’s The Fall”) but this is really the story of Martin Phillipps as much as it is as about The Chills as a band. The family, the girlfriends, the vinyl/ comic collection, the health issues and the songwriting process are all his. And it’s all represented here.
It starts abruptly with footage from the 1990 NZ Music Awards showing The Chills accepting their award for Pop Group of The Year and ends with a beautiful piano instrumental performance of Heavenly Pop Hit. Along the way we are treated to archive footage of old flats, music videos, clips from 1940’s Superman cartoons , vintage live Chills, family get togethers and stories that examine both the composition and performance of each song. All this is held together by Martins dry sense of humour and gentle delivery.
As the story of each song unfolds there are some great tales from all participants. Smoking heroin for the first time during the recording of the song Entertainer, Chris Knox handing him a note saying his sister had left the band, his father recalling being accosted at a Chills gig with the confused question “Why are you here?” My favourite however is the letter from Dr Suess who had to decline providing artwork for a proposed 1984 Chills release because of contractual reasons. It’s easy to get lost in the stories so the performances from the Moth Club Gig help connect you to back to the music. Illustrative but not definitive, they are beautifully shot and reminded me of Robyn Hitchcock performing in Jonathan Demmes Storefront Hitchcock film from 1988. That film has a similar simple setup and equally vibrant colour pallete. But what about the other shiny silver disc that is tucked inside this book?
Well stripped of the visuals, it plays like a live show where you are not standing to the left of the mixing desk (as you should always be) , but at the bar at the back with fans whooping it up at the conclusion of each song. Initally I found this mix offputting but repeated listens made me realise I jut had to pay attention to the recording and not just have it on as background music while I was cooking dinner.
The good news is that once you get over the mix you find Martin Phillipps in a relaxed talkative mood explaining the origins of songs, joking about support bands at soundcheck and generally enjoying himself. Who knew that he accidentally ripped off 1979’s Grammy song of the year Sailing by Christopher Cross while composing Kaleidoscope World? Or that Streets Of Forgotten Cool was written to order for a party held by King Loser?
Martin has always had a great ear for melody and quite a unique guitar jangle and his playing really shines on this recording. Thrashy when he needs it to be and jangly and ornate if the song requires it. Shorn of a band and some dated production, some songs really take on a new life. Bee Bah Bee Bah Bee Boe, Entertainer, and This Is The Way are three such songs. However not everything works. I Love My Leather Jacket and Oncoming Day both miss having extra members filling out their sound. But there are more hits than misses and s even a new song Eazy Peazy.
If it had been me I would have marketed this package in reverse. An amazing documentary DVD Curse Of The Chills that has a bonus live CD. Both have their merits but the DVD is really the winner. Forget Prime Rocks on a Tuesday Night, grab yourself a copy of this instead and share it with your friends because it is a great story well told that should be part of any discussion on NZ Music.