As a longtime follower and frequent champion of antipodal sounds (and having written extensively about the lands down under from the mid-'80s through the early '90s), your humble scribe must confess to being rather nonplussed in regard to New Zealand bands of the past half-decade or so. It's easy enough to pinpoint when things started to go wrong in Australia; take one Rollins Band tour, stir in some Sonic Youth fandom, and top off with the Nirvana effect, and pretty soon you've got an islandful of former underachievers aiming to make a gleefully derivative punk/noize skronk en route to side-stage semi-glory at the annual Big Day Out Festival (the Oz version of Lollapalooza).
Kiwi rock, on the other hand, never really suffered from lack of ambition (in NZ, everyone goes to art school). Too, by assuming their geographical locale as advantage rather than limitation, some amazing pockets of musical activity sprang up in the '80s as chronicled by labels such as Flying Nun and Xpressway. On the country's twin islands, the Dunedin, Christchurch and Auckland population centers were distant enough from one another to spark isolated bursts of creative energy similar to that of the post-World War II German rock scene in the '60s and '70s, which was sufficiently isolated on a city-by-city basis to give rise to distinctively different styles in Düsseldorf, Munich, Cologne, etc. Still, for reasons unexplained, NZ seemed to go into musical hibernation by the mid-'90s.
Meanwhile, the Auckland school chums who would form Garageland were coming together, united by a mutual love of classic Flying Nun bands as well as influential U.S. indie-scene tastemakers of the day, and by '96 Garageland was a Flying Nun band. Two albums into the game -- 1997's Last Exit to Garageland plus 1999's Do What You Want (recently issued here by Los Angeles' Foodchain label; the band's catalogue can be purchased at www.foodchainrecords.com) -- and a two-year world tour in between, Garageland is unquestionably the brightest new kiwi product since sheep's-hoof dildos. Do What You Want starts off on a splendid note with "Love Song," a clever slice of heart-smittenness featuring a killer signature guitar hook and an equally memorable Pixies-like dynamic twist in the chorus. From there an ocean of groovy references and icons floats past: Paul McCartney guest-starring with the Clean on "Trashcans" (talk about references: Dig the Pink Floydian lyric "set the controls to the heart of the suburbs"), Neil Young taking Pavement out on the road with him, circa Arc/Weld, for "You Will Never Cry Again," Brian Wilson conducting the My Bloody Valentine symphony in "Good Morning," even a little slab of dissonant pop noir called "Middle of the Evening," which sounds like something David Lynch forgot to put on the Twin Peaks soundtrack (that's former Garageland member Debbie Silvey in the Julee Cruse mike role). And as befits the NZ art-school-rocker tradition, the band closes its album on an additional cinematic note, the brief but romantic Morricone-esque "End of the Night." Clearly, a group that reveres the "musical journey" aesthetic of album-making.
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Comparisons aside, Garageland reclaims that indefinable quality of kiwi sexiness, a blend of jittery-but-expectant second-kiss familiarity that, in years past, sent many a long-distance suitor (yours truly included) bursting into wordy superlatives immediately prior to consulting travel agents as regards NZ Airlines rates. Luckily, with a U.S. deal and some crucial touring groundwork already in place, Garageland may be coming to your town, ready to help you party it down, in the near future.