Spank: Slap-Up And Noblest EP

Hailing from the Wairarapa but laced with an indie Brit-pop influence, Spank have a re-jigged line up since the 2014 EP ‘In Their Natural Habitat’. With plenty of clean guitar jangle and an abundance of verve this engages from the outset. The band’s point of difference is trumpet-playing vocalist Nikki King, who leads the group with conviction and confidence. The rhythm section’s (drummer David Heath and Pete King on bass) synergy is demonstrated nowhere better than on opener Crowd Mentality, which oozes urgency despite being a mid-tempo pop track. King’s mellow trumpet lines lead in I Quit before the band deliver a manic strum fest. With a wide range of influences imbedded in their sound Spank manage to retain a characteristic element of Kiwi pop which serves them well. Between the horn and guitar melodies there’s also a regular hint of Mexicana, adding a unique flavour to the songs. Recorded in one sitting at Tsunami Sound Studios in Levin, these five tracks are full of energy. • Stu Edwards

Gareth Thomas: Fizzy Milk

Former Goodshirt keyboardist Gareth Thomas is known as the co-writer of that band’s prevalent NZ #1 song Sophie in 2001, and for his lovely, delicate 2010 album ‘Lady Alien’. This second solo album brings with it the incredibly catchy All Eyes In The Room – an effervescent and quirky ode to seeing a former partner again for the first time. ‘Fizzy Milk’ is a glorious pop album, packed with intelligent, hook-filled, infectious songs. Some started life as potential Goodshirt tracks while others were written solely for this, but all creep into the brain. Particularly guilty of this is second track I’d Like with its seductive Bowie-esque vocal melody and simple, but memorable, guitar riff, and Girlfriend On My Hofner (co-written with Amelia Murray, aka Fazerdaze), a bluesy garage-rock (true) story of Thomas’s partner becoming attached to his new guitar. While the underlying style here is pop in all its guises, traces of spaghetti western guitars, funky beats, electronica and reggae are woven within the overarching sound to create something unified, diverse and arresting. A mix of sincere, often playful lyrics and inventive melodic hooks sung with warmth and charm. ‘Fizzy Milk’ is a gem. • Amanda Mills

Trip To The Moon: Ambient Planet

Being jazz-based instrumental recordings, radio has never been an outlet – and being evidently performance-shy, touring and gigging has not earned them a following. Still, it could well be that you are more familiar with Trip To The Moon than you think. If you’ve locked in to Shortland St at any stage over the last 20 or so years you’ll likely have heard their music – not that they deliberately make music for syncing to local television or film – well, not until recently at least. Richard Thorne caught up with Tom Ludvigson, the duo’s keyboard playing composer, recording engineer, producer – even video maker – to discuss their latest album offering, ‘A Traveller’s Tale’.

Starting out as A Trip To The Moon, Tom Ludvigson and Trevor Reekie released their first album, ‘Jazz Hop’, in 1996. Regular Sunday afternoon get-togethers in Ludvigson’s garage/home studio have resulted in a steady stream of subsequent Trip To The Moon albums, all variously blending the realms of trip hop, jazz, electro-acoustic, ambient and electronic world music soundscapes.

2012’s ‘The Invisible Line’ was album number five, and 2016 brings ‘A Traveller’s Tale’, the most consistently realised of their albums to date – and also the most determinedly ambient.

Over almost 20 years their composition process has typically involved working tracks up from beats and drum loops, meaning a strong rhythmic element as a start point, with the creation of a new album the end goal. The pair wanted this time to be more ambient, and initially set no other agenda.

“Instead of working with that intent and compositional ideas we just set up and played [and recorded]. For probably a year we kept meeting once a week, as we have for years, and took the approach of not planning it.”

Their recording space (his open plan lounge) is neatly populated with a variety of keyboards on desks and stands, a baby grand piano dominating one corner. There are a couple of matched condenser mics on stands but nothing looks state-of-the-art-new. Every Sunday Ludvigson would set up some of his older synths, which he says offer far greater user friendliness than computer-based versions in terms of sound tweaking while you play – “… new models don’t have any knobs to turn and so are less expressive,” as he notes.

“We accumulated a lot of recordings, and the constant factors meant that we had quite a lot of room to collage this material together in interesting ways. Trevor sees them as all being in one key [G minor] but they weren’t really. I know that he likes to tune his guitar in open tunings and most of the time he plays in open D or open G, I think, maybe DADGAD, but depending on what bass notes you put underneath it becomes a different note in a different key!”

Over a few hours together they would play and record just two or three long stretches of spontaneously created music. With a bit of in-computer engineering at the session end they’d each get a rough mix of the day’s playing. After a year of this they started listening back and decided they should make another TTTM album after all.

Ludvigson had been working up his video skills and raiding their work for backing, so had already been looking over the material. Sections that were half an hour long might provide just a few minutes of selected content, but surprisingly he describes the reduction of all those recorded hours down to the components of a dozen tracks as being easy.

“You pick one to work with and if it’s satisfying you finish it. If it’s not you pick another one. We threw away probably a third of the material we had worked on, sometimes tracks that we might have spent 30 or 40 hours on! It’s actually part of our process, we always make more than we need. Then when we decide that some isn’t as good as the rest we are improving the overall quality, throwing some away means that what’s left is only the best stuff.

“We could probably make another album, or two from what’s left, but there’s another thing about music in that it’s related to its contemporary context and so it grows old and becomes history. So maybe the best things are still there – but I doubt we will ever dip in to look at them again.”

With documentaries and Shortland St being the main revenue sources for TTTM, ‘A Traveller’s Tale’ does have origins in music for syncing, and to some extent is a more musically populated version of a recording they mastered en route, for distribution to decision-makers in the local film and soundtrack scene.

“Trip’s music has often been too busy for that kind of background music role as there is always something happening,” Ludvigson notes smiling. “So we in fact mastered an album that we called ‘5.5’, and made only a dozen copies of it, which we sent to people who use music in film because that was tailor-made for background.”

Key to the difference in overall sound from previous TTTM albums is that for ‘A Traveller’s Tale’ they decided not to get their usual master-musician collaborators involved in track creation, rather leaving their involvement to later in the process.

Songwriter Greg Johnson has been a regular contributor with his trumpet since ‘Jazz Hop’. Guitarist Nigel Gavin and Jim Langabeer (soprano sax et al) have both featured on most albums since. Though photographed together with their instruments for the album’s CD liner, the other musicians recorded their parts individually – especially in the case of the LA-based Johnson.

“It might be that Nigel did an overdub on one and Jim did an overdub on another and then we decided to put them together onto a new hybrid track – and many of the tracks were created like that. They became what I call an ‘epic’. An epic is a track that has at least three disparate sections,” Ludvigson chuckles. “There are very marked transitions into something new in some of the tracks.”

In the case of the two Auckland musicians he would take his very portable recording system – his laptop, a digital converter, headphones and mic – to them.

“It’s so different from last century. With Greg’s overdubs we just emailed him the tracks and he did them in his LA studio and sent them back.”

The Auckland-based four played as a band for the last album release and will be coming together again to release ‘A Traveller’s Tale’ in late August.

Callum Gentleman: Self-titled EP

Self-contained and slowly creeping into the dark thoughts of the subconscious, Callum Gentleman (real name Stembridge) takes his Bob Dylan-stylised writing and makes an exception in delivery as he slightly twists each song to hold a moment of optimism. It wouldn’t be wrong to be mildly confused by the direction of this self-titled EP, and this helps draw the listener to journey along as he explores the idiosyncrasies of the modern day, eager to see the arc in his story. Beresford Street is a good starter, the lyrical cynicism offset by the jaunty optimism of the musical backing. Final track Joseph bears a different tone to the rest. His saloon-echoed guitaring, with influences of Chris Isaak, themed in the theatrics of the tune and back-up singing from Alayna Powley, give the impression of a typical hero and damsel situation. Several other quality musicians pitched in, while Ryan Green recorded and mixed. Overall, Gentleman writes with a true sense of blues/folk noir and then takes that to the old country saloon bar to have a jam, saluting to the fact that life is hard. You can either moan about it, have a reminder of the dark soldiers from the night before – or combine both and write an EP out of it. • Holly McGeorge

Lichtbeuger: Pizoelectric EP

Lichtbeuger (which translates as ‘light bender’) is the collaboration between Auckland lads Adam Colgrove and Drew Lyon. They make no pretense of trying to sound anything other than what inspired their 2011 formation in the first place – the last two decades or so of EBM (electronic body music – or danceable industrial music), along the lines of Front Line Assembly, Skinny Puppy, Velvet Acid Christ et al. On that level they totally hit the brief with this 6-track EP, which came out via Albuquerque’s DSBP Records. Angry synths, rasped/hissed/spat cynical and criticising vocals. For a two-piece they fill a lot of space with thumping beats, synthetic melodies and just the right amount of attitude. Not trying to be new, or spectacularly different, they nonetheless put their own stamp on the scene in an authentic way, albeit with their self-professed retro style. This is a great release, exploring and showcasing their sound. The vocal effects are particularly cool. The punchy production kicks butt. I want to see the gear list. “The beau-ty of de-cay” (Cobalt) indeed! • Ania Glowacz