Even though the Tall Dwarfs formed in 1981, the duo of Chris Knox and Alec Bathgate didn’t get around to releasing their first full-length album, Weeville, until 1990, only doing EPs throughout the 1980s. The album is something of a minor classic, and one of the best records to come from Flying Nun, the label which is to New Zealand indie rock what Motown was to Detroit R&B. The sound of the Tall Dwarfs is hard to convey, because it’s unique to the two band members and their acid-skewed world view. The duo play stringed and keyed instruments, but the percussion comes from primitive loops. You’d think this would keep them tightly tethered to the repetitive simplicity of the rhythms, but they neatly sidestep that trap with highly-developed song ideas. The only similar artist I can think of is Robyn Hitchcock. Not that they sound much alike, but both are steeped in the songwriting of classic 1960s artists (Beatles, Dylan, Kinks, Velvet Underground…etc.), but attack it like artists coming out of the punk era (Soft Boys for Hitchcock, Toy Love for the boys in Tall Dwarfs), with an experimental sense of humor, coupled with flashes of aggression and surrealist imagery.
Weeville gives listeners a chance to experience all the different facets that make up the Tall Dwarfs’ music. Album-opener “Log” is a piano-led ballad that could have come from the Ray Davies or Syd Barrett songbook, but again, there’s something in the backwards sounds that crop up throughout which could only have come from the Tall Dwarfs. The band’s punk roots get aired out on “Breath”, “Pirouette”, “The Winner” and “Ozone”, though the lo-fi performances and crazy lyrics have little in common with The Ramones, Clash or Sex Pistol’s kind of punk. My favorites among Weeville’s sixteen songs are the aforementioned Stooges/T. Rex romp “Breath”, the acoustic “Crawl”, and “Lucky” which features atmospheric slide guitar from Alec Bathgate. But really, all the songs are filled with interesting and creative performances you should seek out. Also, don’t forget to check out the lyric booklet, with artwork for each song by Knox and Bathgate that’s as fascinatingly twisted as the songs themselves.
Released one year prior to Weeville, Chris Knox’s solo album Seizure is like a reduced version of the Tall Dwarfs. The concept of live instruments over pre-recorded percussion is still the same, but without Alec Bathgate there to play Knox’s foil, and add another layer of vocal harmonies and instrumentation the songs feel held down by those repeating loops. Knox’s songwriting and lyrics are still fascinating though, and working alone he explores more personal stuff like sexual identity (“The Woman Inside Of Me”), anger towards New Zealand’s music industry (“Statement of Intent”) and decaying sexuality (“All Men Are Rapists”). He also gets romantic on “Not Given Lightly”, which might have even been a hit in more commercially-minded hands. The lyric booklet lacks the great artwork of Weeville, but Knox does aspiring guitarists a favor by listing the chord progressions to each songs.
These 2015 reissues from Captured Tracks don’t add anything to the original versions except another record company logo. There’s no new liner notes, no bonus tracks, and the sound doesn’t appear to have been remastered.