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The New Sound of New Zealand – Opposite Sex’s stunning debut

Opposite Sex
Opposite Sex

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Every rare once in a while a debut comes along that reinvents enthusiasm. An album by a young band that seems to arrive from over the hills like a fully-formed, spontaneously generated new species. Out of the thirty-four words that make up those two first sentences, the most germane is the second one. Opposite Sex’s self-titled first album is sufficiently special – sorry, no other word for it – to find itself in league with such idiosyncratic, assured debuts as Crazy Rhythms, High Land Hard Rain, The B-52s and Colossal Youth, to name but four. And not only because it’s exciting and fresh and adventurous and youthful and eager and multi-faceted and very dazzlingly good indeed, but because it’s honest, almost awkwardly so (though not, it should immediately be said, to a fault). It is the guileless, unself-conscious charge-ahead energy of this record, along with its almost tossed-off confidence, that lands it in the company of those debuts.

One can’t help but wax rhapsodic. There’s a spirit on this album that most of us had thought tamed, never to roam wild, free and this defiantly self-guided again. How wonderful to be wrong. This is music that seems delighted with itself, borne on that buoyant bouncing arc between the insouciance of high school youth and the shameless flush of hubris that animates one’s young twenties. It is fluent with possibility.

Over the course of thirteen tracks and slightly under forty minutes this one record will make you wish that you too were still that age (assuming, like this reviewer, you are not), if only so you could claim it as one of the landmark releases of your prime. Regardless, its energy and inventiveness will still pop open your personal time capsule of that phase of your life whatever it contains. But if you’re a bit younger than some of us and want to know what it felt like to be 22 years old and hear X’s Los Angeles LP for the first time, or Lene Lovich’s Stateless, or even Elvis’s  My Aim Is True, pop on the Opposite Sex album. That’s how it felt.

Just to warn you, one very possible impression on first listen might well be ‘what a fine record collection they – or their older siblings or, who knows, their parents – must have.’ And in fact you will hear a spectrum of suggestive references jumping in and out throughout this album. Delta 5/Modettes/Girls At Our Best is the most obvious, perhaps, but you’ll also find yourself nodding along and saying to yourself ‘Aha, The Fall,’ or ‘..The Raincoats,’ or ‘touch of Orange Juice there.’ Hell, on “Panther Fight,” you might even whisper ‘Morricone’ when the lonely horn intrudes around the two-minute mark. In certain passing moments a kind of shambling innocence in the sound could conceivably trigger a Shaggsian epiphany.

So, a stew then. Well, yes and no. As dotted and spiked as Opposite Sex may be with apparent dashes of all these previous flavors, the band have nonetheless carved out their own identity, which is always the beauty of an album like this and why, paradoxically, it sounds so fresh. All these varied ingredients yet the result is wholly their own, they sound like Opposite Sex and no one else. Certainly the influences are there (see interview) but they’re so wildly diverse and left-field odd and, to some extent, damnably conflicting that it remains a mystery how it was all distilled into this potent, intoxicating, and strangely time-specific brew that will make your head spin all the way back to 1979. Not that you’ll mind. If only all imponderables ended up feeling this good.

The trio themselves – Lucy Hunter (bass, most of the singing, piano and trumpet), Fergus Taylor (guitar, some keys) and Tim Player (drums, vocals, keys) – aren’t much help. They describe what they play as “an absurdist-logico mix of Euro pop, Beat poetry, and subterranean lo-fi adventuring,” which surely provokes as many questions as it answers. Their backstory doesn’t provide many clues either. Formed in 2010 in Gisborne, a modest town hugging Poverty Bay in northeast New Zealand, their main aim was to just, y’know, write some songs and play for their friends. This at least explains the ebullience animating these songs. You can feel how they were honed in performance, at parties, at small gigs (one of which, with NZ legends The Puddle, led to the band finding themselves in the studio recording this debut, with Fishrider label owner Ian Henderson – also The Puddle’s drummer – at the helm), playing them over and over as their friends hopped madly about in frenzied support. The wonderful thing here is how that sense of camaraderie and commotion has been faithfully transferred on to the record. You’ll swear you can hear the band smiling in these songs, which makes more sense than you think it does, especially once you hear the album. Fittingly, it all came together in a single weekend in Dunedin, as the record is spontaneity personified.

With its kicking, rat-a-tat rhythm, “La Rat” is an ideal opener and the song that first grabbed many people’s ears, not least BBC 6’s influential Marc Riley (former Fall member as well, but then, who isn’t). A perky, brash, and pugnacious response to the often hurtful predicament of being a bit of an outcast, bit of an oddball even, the band jumps right in from the off, all three players pouncing on the first beat with trampoline efficiency. Perfectly short at 2:17 – brief and to-the-point opening salvos, the world loves them – it’s a succinct showcase of what’s to come. Lucy takes lead vocal, as she does on nine of the twelve sung songs on here (last song “Outro” is, as you might guess, an instrumental), and those comparisons mooted above to that year of music receive an immediate boost from the fact that her voice shares a timbre with Poly Styrene, albeit less shouty, less pouty, not as snotty. Nimbly hurling the song forward is some of the most syncopated drumming we’ve heard in some while, a constant from beginning to end here and you’ll come to agree that few musicians have been better named, or have lived as well up to their name, as Tim Player. Riding along, simultaneously atop and inside the structure of the song, providing a counterpoint melody line to the vocals and often as not matching the rhythm section chk for chk, the guitar of one Fergus Taylor is an inescapable and inimitable presence everywhere on this record. Popping, sinuous, tripping ahead with a splendid authority, seemingly – gloriously – impervious to the notion of decorous restraint, it’s the kind of offhand guitar virtuosity so many of us secretly wish was present in more of the current music we enjoy listening to, that would make those records all that more enjoyable.  “La Rat” may be short, but it’s long enough to make you realize that all the hype already front-loaded into this review – and,  should they read it, has no doubt made the band blush – is likely not misplaced.

And so, having firmly established their aptitude for getting your attention, the band immediately, of course, slows things down. Surprise, it soon becomes obvious, is their not-so-secret weapon. “Sea Shanty” is, well, a sea shanty, a spooky, lure-of-the-undertow tune it’s easy to imagine swinging a late night tankard of rum to. Entering in on deep plods of Lucy’s walking bass that walk right into the eerie strum of Fergus hitting your basic ghost chord, it eventually escorts itself into a mesmerizing waltz, a watery oom-pah-pah beat swirling around a tale of a lonely – or perhaps bored – young woman more than willingly allowing herself to be dragged out to sea by an old man on the beach. Accented as usual by a darting guitar line, its epic cinematic flourish comes from the trumpet, also courtesy Lucy, bringing the gravity and depth required to pull off this bizarre though sweet-natured whopper of a fish story. By song’s end our inadvertent mermaid is indeed stranded under the waves, there’s a touch of yearning, touch of melancholy, but all it seems to add up to in the end is a shrug of acceptance and we’re certain she’s out there still, willowing with the seaweed.

Though unusual in itself for a band this young to dip into rhythms often reserved for tubas and accordions, it’s obviously not too odd to the band themselves, as they utilize that slightly old-timey template two more times, in “Panther Fight” two songs hence – following an intro that will have your ears doing a double take, fooled for a sec into thinking it’s the Beatles’s “I Want You” – and on mid-album gem “A Year On Your Own,” a contender for album centerpiece.

The dreamier of the two, “Panther Fight,” helps bring sense to the bands self-description quoted above. With Lucy almost absently wondering who would win a rabbit-panther fight and the lyrics never seeming to veer all that much closer to sense by song’s end, the ‘absurdist-logico’ part of the tag is checked off the list with dead certainty, as well, one reckons, the Beat poetry. Musically it swings by in an agreeably woozy, half-sleepy parade of the usual elements, trumpet and guitar taking the break and again dancing with, against and around each other, cymbals splashing at their feet with every step.

“A Year On Your Own” is a decidedly more manic beast, the waltz of it seemingly uncomfortable in its own skin and taking the first opportunity to go scurrying madly out of it. A kind of existential romp concerning itself with the unreliability of both time and our experience inside it (‘so I spent an hour staring at a chair / to turn around, turn around to find it wasn’t there’), “A Year..” really tries to behave itself inside its rhythm, Lucy presenting the lyrics like a young, questioning college student (which she is, they all are) pursuing a degree in philosophy, positing, via an insinuous hook, how “we all got it wrong.” Even when it hurries into that chorus-of-sorts about the chair that isn’t there, the song maintains a certain loopy decorum, everyone playing to type, skating in the same direction. It’s the ensuing crazy bridge that you’ve gotta watch out for, it’ll get you all dizzy and adrenaline jumpy, which is not perhaps the safest state to be in while crossing a bridge. But, hey, not to worry, just as quickly as that headlong bash came on it settles back down into its more stately Waitsian waltz and escorts you safely to the next track. And here then another of the band’s unique charms, a rattly unexpectedness that just about makes your neck crack followed by an abrupt return to a pretend-it-never-happened calm that’s almost as startling. You’re left happily gasping for breath, with various serrate guitar lines, explosive drum patches and persistent vocal hooks hanging in your brain like so many flashbulb flashes. Indeed, if you don’t emerge from “A Year..” with that one central refrain – “I think we all got it wrong” – lilting through your thoughts in a mad loop then you’ve either a will of steel or cloth ears.

However much the three of them brought widely eclectic influences into Opposite Sex, it seems safe to bet that each of them, somewhere back in their Gisborne-bound unbringing, spent a fair few impressionable hours at the Kiwi version of county fairs or anyway some manner of shepherds hoedowns. There is, in fact, a whirligig, carnivalesque quality to much of this record. In sound and energy, in attitude, it asks you to imagine yourself, young – late teens, very early twenties – on some sort of midway, a night out, the blur of lights, the zing and the rush, not knowing what kinetic, vertiginous lark might be coming next but being up for anything. That’s the gist of listening to this album.

Not that it’s all rural Straussian jigs, of course. It’s also a jerky antipodean funky hoedown (“Mary Lu”), a driving space opera workout (“Vague Notion”), it’s Josef K falling down the stairs and laughing (“Got To Eat”) and the Fall marching at double time such as they themselves haven’t done with such loose-limbed panache since early in the Blair years (“Dada Creep,” and that grumble you hear is a certain Mr Smith muttering ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’). It’s a trampling romp that you just bloody well better get the hell out of the way of (“Hamish & Chips”) and, just for good measure, the trio go scampering into full-out rockabilly meltdown shenanigans on “The Bones Of Dr White,” a piece originally considered by the band as little more than a spot of warm-up fun – they had to be persuaded to include it on the album – but just happens to shred your socks in a pomade-slicked fury.

There is even, shock of shocks given Fergus’s wizardry, a track that eschews the guitar altogether. Seeming to carry over an insinuation of menace from previous track “Dada Creep” (‘watch yourself when you take that call, watch your shadow when you’re on the phone’)the two interrupted only briefly by the almost vocal-less “Vague Notion” – “Master/Slave” takes that song’s creep quotient and ups it closer to asylum status, or at least a restraining order. First it’s the piano, acting quite suspiciously indeed as it drops the deepest, most portentous note imaginable into your ear, lets it hang there a half measure then instantly leaps up on to the upper ivories and begins tinkling around all innocent-like. You know something’s up, especially as all the while the drums pound along with a kind of hi-hat hi-jinks and sure enough some four measures later the expected hell breaks expectedly loose and we’re tumbled into a tug-and-pull tale of obsessive love, of infatuation and feigned indifference, a pastiche of co-dependency, the back and forth of the chase and the (not so) chaste. It brims, of course, Lucy’s measured, damn near demure vocal barely managing to defuse the muffled, next-room yell of Tim’s vocals during the chorus interplay, which is more ‘coo and shout’ than ‘call and response.’ Moved along with a spanking rhythm wherein the bass and drums seem to be chasing each other’s tail (not to get too Freudian), it’s not until the end, Tim’s last wail falling into a final troll through that same stalker’s soundtrack that opened the song, that you might – might – realize there’s been no six-string mayhem for the previous three plus minutes. A little doubtful, though, since the song still barrels over you in what by this point in the album has already become something of an Opposite Sex trademark: the relentless but somehow well-mannered stampede, tempered where suitable by the mood-laden interval.

However, should this little ax-free episode have triggered any doubts (or any tremors of withdrawal), the band spends the rest of the album dispelling them and does so with an almost petulant glee. After “A Year On Your Own” we get thrust into “Got To Eat,” one of those frantic bang-alongs where there’s much more going on than first seems evident. The standard Op Sex elements are present, yes – Fergus’s guitar dashing around in its Rip Rig & Panic dance, Lucy’s bass sneaking about in its most sprightly aplomb yet (she is a marvelously dexterous player, those puffy-noted runs of hers more than vital to the band’s signature sound), Tim’s drums propelling his bah-bah vocals at adroit, breakneck speed – but lurking in crucial support is an organ track that on the one hand is all Farfisa having a fever dream while down at the low end it’s a cricket blowing its little cricket whistle, which isn’t to mention the moaning zombie backup vox from Lucy that help spirit the song through a final conniption and into its shambolic close, everything collapsing in a heap while that keyboard lifts into space then blinks out like an old TV screen. It’s here you might realize, if you haven’t already, that nuance and a sort of mischievous subtlety are as much a part of this album’s success as the more out-front ramalam.

Speaking of which, though, “The Bones Of Dr White.” A hopscotching blaze that’s unabashed in its good-time rockabilly zeal, this is Fergus’s showcase and holy bejeezus, it’s like someone stuck a quarter in him and off he goes, the payoff is immediate and only gets better. After bringing in the track with your stock – and typically crackerjack – junkyard licks a la Stray Cats if said cats were feral and spittin’ nails, he settles into a swinging pick-fest to accompany Lucy’s vocals but by the second chorus he just can’t stand it anymore, he comes uncaged and lets rip with a manic, teeth-baring squall that’s as deft as it is careeningly mad and can’t help but remind of Derwood Andrews’s wig-out at the end of Generation X’s “Youth Youth Youth.” It’s Link Wray in a teenage rampage, there just ain’t no stopping this guy. Brilliant.

Slotted between that glorious stomp and the lovely ‘thank you and good night’ “Outro,” is a slice of mortality. “Listen,” oddly enough, doesn’t quite have the glue and excitement necessary to enforce what its own title demands. Though it does boast an agreeably DIY, falling-down-the-stairs snottiness, has all the requisite components in place and is still a fun listen (it’s got a nice hitch in its gait), it remains meandery and unfocused through its short life and seems to fade out with apologies. But so what. After the ride they’ve taken us on, how churlish would it be to not forgive them this brief, if game, and minor, stumble.  This is a band that could sing the phone book and most of us would pay to listen.

When one considers the ‘whatever happens’ nonchalance with which Opposite Sex came together, and further considers the only marginally overlapping colors of influence each of them brought with them, this debut had every right to be a Jackson Pollacked, tri-polar bomb blast of an album. Instead, it’s a brisk, bracing, riveting, rambunctious and, critically, balanced piece of work. By braiding the caroming pinball ricochet of a band that can, at any time, sound on the brink of pulling itself to bits, with the tight, crazily precise rhythmic focus actually on display here, then applying it to a set of songs almost every one of which could wear out the buttons on a juke box, you get one beautiful little miracle of a record. Be excited, be very excited, this one’s worth it.