Alec Bathgate / Bandcamp
The return of Alec Bathgate to the world of recorded music has been a lovely surprise. Chris Knox’s silencing – via that damned stroke – has, on some level, been Bathgate’s silencing too. Or at least that’s how it has seemed to me. Bathgate made a great album back in 1996 and then an even better one in 2004 – so he was hardly prolific in the solo stakes. But if he’d never made either of those albums (and thank fuck he did) there’d forever be the legacy of being in three of New Zealand’s great bands – The Enemy, Toy Love and Tall Dwarfs. In all of those groups there is the connection with Knox. As Tall Dwarfs it was just the two of them; a couple of Kiwi lads with a back-shed ethos against the world. And sometimes it felt like the very best music you’d ever heard anywhere, even as it also still sounded utterly without polish (sometimes to the point of seeming unfinished) and it seemingly stole from all the best bands you knew and loved (Beatles, Beach Boys, T.Rex) and some of the ones you didn’t really know at all (Olivia Tremor Control).
A couple of months ago Bathgate returned to releasing music, after returning to recording it just a year or so ago. Out of nowhere, and on Bandcamp only, you can find (and purchase) Phantom Dots. An instrumental collection that features film music to a movie that will never be made (Crick) and little motifs where a naïve melody suddenly seems like the whole world of music (In C Major).
It’s just a lovely thing to spend time with – overdriven T.Rex guitars one minute (Crushed Velvet), John Cale piano-bashing the next (Black Gully Hop). Many of these little ditties only just extend over a minute, are all wrapped up certainly before two minutes ticks by on the clock. But in that space a wee dream reverie is conjured, and the same old licks and tricks repurposed once again; familiar motifs from the (velvet) void and/or Velvet Underground given another life, surf-rock and no-wave and lo-fi and punk and indie all swirling in a pinwheel of primary colours.
I have a new favourite tune each time I hear this. The opener, Danger Boys Saves Crookston, arrives like a demo for the perfect pop song, and almost sounds like that third wave of Flying Nun bands that arrived in the late 90s ready and eager and ripping off the best bits of the first and second waves.
Sonic Blue is next up, and is one of many reminders on this collection, that Bathgate would have had a great secondary gig as a film composer – and could/should still. It has hints of some of the Phoenix Foundation’s (Moniker) work in this area. Revert To Saved is a weird little organ grind that is just a small handful of notes and the same one idea on a loop yet the magic is in the feel and mood of it. Imposter Syndrome features a scrunched up bass riff riding alongside Hamish Kilgour’s playhouse drum loop; the title track is a kaleidoscope of drum-loop, revving guitars and rudimentary piano, like Revolver-era Beatles was fed through a tube into the nose of noise-rock. And then Edison Hall has that calmness and tranquillity of David Kilgour’s best recent work.
Bathgate has, alongside Kilgour, long been my favourite of the “Dunedin SoundTM ” guitarists (and I guess really there’s only Shayne Carter to chuck in that list) but I love the distinctiveness and the combination of familiarity and surprise in every sound. We’ve heard this before – but never quit like this.
Inky Spheres, a worrying grumble of guitar noise, a wee chrysalis of sound, is currently my favourite track here. But only as I’m listening to it right now. What I love most is how we never “see” (hear) the butterfly actually emerge.
The next time I listen to this I’ll probably elect the 48 seconds of Mr Kite meets Sister Ray no-frills circus keyboards called This Room Unavailable as my favourite song. Or it might be the more conventional rock-song plod of The Science of the Unitar that wins me over most.
Or A Period of Purple Crying, which I’m choosing to believe is the Flying Nun tribute to Prince but feels far more like a silvery-edged cheap-disco facsimile of Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain as it does anything by Prince.
My only worry when listening to this is that the Eno-esque finale is called Disappearing Act. I love the tune but worry about the sentiment. I hope this is not a hint that Bathgate just popped up to say hello (without ever singing at all) and now is going back down below. But at any rate I’m so happy to have Phantom Dots – it’s like an old friend sent a lovely long email detailing that they were happy and sane and still the same. And I’m reading it and re-reading it. Over and again.
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