Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Affecting albums - Submarine Bells - The Chills

(Click on the links in the song titles to be taken to Spotify for a listen)

The Chills were and are a band that never quite made it. With the only  constant in a constantly changing line-up being Martin Phillipps, the band struggled for traction, with stability being hard to come by with Phillipps' struggle with addiction and hepatitis adding to the strain of changes of personnel.

The output of the band in terms of recorded work has, therefore, been somewhat limited over the years - it took seven years for the band to release it's first LP,  and their output to date is limited to four albums, and about as many EPs.

The album under review here was the band's second, released in 1990, and reached No. 1 on the NZ charts, and did quite well in other markets, but wasn't the huge smash that I think was hoped for.

There are some absolute pop gems here - Heavenly Pop Hit being the prime example. A fantastic organ chime theme runs through the song, and the dream like lyrics culminate in the line "It's a Heavenly Pop Hit if anyone wants it". This insecurity of the worth of his work runs through Phillipps' songs on this album:  In Oncoming Day, he sings -

"I think of words to tell you
I find nothing fine enough to say.
Nothing worth anything,
Nothing worth nothing,
Nothing left in this lump of grey,
That even vaguely says I love you,
In a way that pleases me.
So I'll let the oncoming day say it for me"

This, in a song that is one of the most lyrically beautiful songs you might hear, says a lot about the state of mind of the writer. The music to this song fits the worlds very well - a driving insistent beat and rhythmic guitar driving the song, just as Phillipps is driving himself in the lyrics to beat the oncoming day and produce something worthwhile. Of course he doesn't need to worry - he has.

Many of Phillipps' songs are to do with the world, and his seeming belief that pop has the power to change it - Singing in my Sleep, with it's wonderful bouncing rhythm and bell-like riff, is one of those songs, and the fine ending lyric "Singing in my sleep songs of such beauty and sadness, Earth's emotions encaptured, but the songs fade away when I wake".

There are harder edged moments on this album - Familiarity Breed Contempt shows Phillipps in a darker mood, with the music to match - "Hard people make hard times far worse, not the reverse", with an almost shouted verse line and wall of sound building up to the biting final line "Familiarity breeds contempt - and I'm not exempt", a fine end to a pop jeremiad against cynics and idiots.

There are delicate gems on this album as well - Don't be - memory is a plaintive song about lost love, where really the title says it all - wonderful minor-key vocals, and a sparse chorus lending a sadness that lingers after the final chord.  There is some other beautiful vocal harmonic work on this album as well, I Soar being perhaps the best example - a song where simplicity creates beauty.

The final masterpiece is the song that gives the album it's name. Submarine Bells is another song about love, and is a wonderful, dreamy, evocation of the beauty of the moment.

I've surprised myself with how much I realise I love this album - every song is a winner, and it's a shame that The Chills didn't get wider airplay, and that they've released such a limited amount of material. I highly recommend this album.

Submarine Bells is available via iTunes, or Amazon.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

1 comment:

  1. What a well written blog!

    I also have an interest in New Zealand music and I can thoroughly recommend Brooke Fraser, a very talented young artist from the Wellington area.

    She combines her passion for music with traditional values and is an inspiration to young people everywhere. Have a listen. I think you'll find the experience genuinely uplifting.

    Ken of Kingaroy