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Idiosyncrasy For A Deeper Purpose – “Heatwave” by Negative Nancies

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When things are said to have appeared ‘out of the blue’ the exact nature of the ‘blue’ is never specified. This seems a fundamental oversight. What hue of blue? A soft pale sky blue? An electric neon blue? Greenish? Purplish? Striated? Perhaps it’s a haunted melancholic blue, as would be the case for someone suddenly hearing Billie Holiday for the first time maybe. Then there’s the blue this debut album from New Zealand’s Negative Nancies comes bursting out of, a wild jagged giddy experimental primal funky cerebral blue that’s as unafraid of breaking your heart as it is breaking your brain. That kind of blue, a kind of color you’ve not quite ever encountered before, a blue to get you going, a blue to keep you there.

Released on vinyl by Dunedin’s Fishrider label back in April and newly available on CD from that label’s northern hemispheric partner Occultation, the first and perhaps most elemental thing we should have you understand about Heatwave is to not let your musical foreknowledge of that modest antipodean seaside town’s legendarily jangly, nun-flying history have any sway over your expectations. This ain’t that (as wondrously multivalent as that particular ‘that’ is). No, to go searching for precedent here, though arguably a fool’s errand, an adventure is in order, a spelunk of sorts through the concrete bunkers at the edgier end of the collective pop psyche as developed over the last four-plus decades, where fires flare and die out leaving sharp charcoal shapes along the walls that suggest in ghostly profile those that set those fires in the first place. Where No Wave refugees jittered through a febrile underground that somehow defrayed the cost of living in an otherwise unforgiving world, electrifying their own nerve ends just to feel something. Where, with undying verve, echoes ricochet and bang into each other and what was that you just heard that sounded glancingly like Kat Bjelland murmuring inside a lucid Beefheart fever dream. And yet, where also can be heard an almost perverse sweetness of sound, one betokened by a slightly bluesy ache and the weight of a weary vulnerability bringing tender balance to an often gravity-defying affair.

As if to illustrate this dizzying conundrum at its core, Heatwave pivots around a pair of tracks that share the same title – “Monkey Chest” – the first of which finishes side one of the vinyl edition in a slow-burning, late night acoustic stylee while its mate, starting off side two, opts for a far more rambunctious reading that in its noisy, melodically aggro way speaks with more affinity to the album’s overall mood. Though a whiplash mission statement it may well be, the gist of the juxtaposition might be found in the extent to which the ostensible accessibility of that first version is offset by not only the relative shock of its languidness but its minor key tuning that gives it a muso, guitar soli touch. On the flipside, lo and behold, the vice is somewhat versa as the latter version, because it’s more jarring on its face and a far busier piece of work, fits more smoothly into the album’s native terrain. Paradox, it’s what makes life life and what makes this record so lively and essential.

From its industrial heartbeat beat, drummer Emilie Smith seemingly recorded in a well-insulated chthonic closet somewhere, album opener “Pig in a Pen,” a restless song about restlessness, prowls with a primal drive not often heard in this post-Jesus Lizard millennium, the jungly frantic murk of “WWJS” boasts a spidery complexity at its center thanks in no small part to the squalling precision from guitarist Mick Elborado, “Banned” layers on a dog’s breakfast of seemingly conflictual elements – a heavy-footed, bass drum-heavy march cadence, unloosed feedback, a blatting synth – with a lurching certainty before “Agatha Christie” comes along, all calm at first before breaking into a riot grrl rage that’ll knock your prim socks right off your feet. And so goes Heatwave (the title track, we should mention, is a syncretic, off-kilter that closes the album in a haze of drone atmospherics that you could just about meditate to), it flares, it contracts, it makes intimate contact then goes flying off the stylistic handle with a charming, utterly beguiling petulance.

Manifesting this crazy quilt of melodic noise glitch indie inventiveness with a self-enforced minimalism of tools – drums, guitar, and Tess McKay’s Casio is all she wrote – might be perceived as an avant-parlor trick were it not for the purity of intent writhing and swooning just beneath the surface. And whereas we recognize that the preceding verbiage could well implicate this as a ‘difficult’ album – which, fair cop, easy listening it is not – the truth is that on a reflexive intuitive level this album is barnstormingly good, challenging your ears a bit while making the heart in your brain go ‘wow wow pitterpat.’

Fun, irreverent, as measured as it is off its head, Heatwave is not erratic, it’s not ersatz (the Negative Nancies ain’t copying anybody), it’s genius, idiosyncrasy for a deeper purpose. We are wholly, hopelessly won over.