Release Date: Oct 30, 2015
Record label: Fire Records
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Indie Rock, Indie Pop
The older I get, the more I learn to appreciate companions. That’s what indie pop is to lots of folk, methinks – a circle of lonely comrades, who can relate with each others’ lack of words in social situations and can bond over something bigger than all of us. But even in this realm of hand holding and cheerleading, there are those who reach out even further, who shoulder the burdens of many a troubled soul and could offer love to nations.
Led by prodigiously-talented singer/songwriter Martin Phillipps, celebrated Kiwi indie-popsters The Chills released several legend-building early 45s plus their still-resonant debut LP Brave Words for respected NZ imprint Flying Nun before transferring to Warners subsidiary Slash for 1990’s majestic Submarine Bells. However, just as the band seemed poised to shake hands with mainstream success, things fell apart. Bad breaks and line-up reshuffles blighted their progress and Phillipps lost much of the late 90s to depression and drugs.
It’s taken 19 years for Martin Phillipps to get round to releasing the fifth Chills album (and the previous four took 16 years to make), but his manifold troubles in the years since Sunburnt haven’t diminished his melodic gift. The Chills always sounded very particular – spindly guitar lines atop organ-drenched backing, the whole thing slathered in reverb, with Phillipps spilling out words on top – and Silver Bullets fits snugly into their sparse back catalogue. There are links to the past – Phillipps is still worrying about the environment and geopolitics on Underwater Wasteland and America Says Hello – but there’s also an ambitious expansiveness on the eight minutes of Pyramid/When the Poor Can Reach the Moon, which resolves itself into one of Phillipps’s typical bouncing melodies, vocal harmonies tumbling over each other.
The Chills made a name for themselves in the '80s and '90s as one of the most tuneful and impressive indie rock bands from New Zealand, maybe the whole world. Their leader Martin Phillipps wrote plaintive and beautiful songs, then sung them in an honest voice that resonated deeply. After releasing many timeless singles and a few very good albums, the band fell apart in the early to mid-'90s, seemingly for good.
If there is one characteristic that has defined the music of the New Zealand group the Chills over the course of their 35-year, on-and-off, up-and-down existence, it’s their ability to summon a kind of effortless beauty. Their best songs occur in soft focus, the vocals of frontman and sole consistent member Martin Phillipps hushed and controlled, his guitar lines sturdy and gleaming like gold thread. His best melodies arrive as easy a sigh—gliding steadily through the center of "Satin Doll", spinning through "Tied Up in Chain" between tumbling piano.
As the sole constant member of The Chills, Martin Phillipps spent the 1980s dreaming up some of indie pop's earliest (and greatest) songs. Irrepressible single "Heavenly Pop Hit" spurred a brief commercial peak in the early '90s, which was followed by a couple decades' worth of all too real travails (addiction, illness, endless lineup changes) that contrasted sharply with the whimsical fantasies The Chills created on record. So it comes as one of 2015's most welcome surprises that Phillipps, backed by a new band, should return with Silver Bullets, his first studio full-length in 19 years.
Album cover for "Silver Bullets" from The Chills. Dunedin, a coastal town in New Zealand, produced an inordinate number of distinctive bands that had a profound impact on '80s indie rock. Even amid this sea of innovators, which included the Clean, Bats, Dead C, Straitjacket Fits, Tall Dwarfs and Verlaines, the Chills stood out, in large measure because of the bittersweet songs of singer-guitarist Martin Phillipps.
The Chills – Silver Bullets (Fire)Photo by Alexander HallagIt’s been 20 years, but Martin Phillipps and his band the Chills sound like they just stepped out for some fresh air. Silver Bullets sounds like a Chills album. That sense of melody and heavenly pop that kept them so central to the Dunedin sound hasn’t gone anywhere. But time has passed, and the band sounds clean and upgraded.
Scrutinising the sleeve-notes of the first studio album from The Chills since 1996’s Sunburnt reveals a lengthy feature-film-like list of locations, players and supporting cast members in the low-key yet epic story of the New Zealand legends’ long-trailed official return. Detailing multiple recording sessions going back to 2013 in studios spread across the UK, Thailand and New Zealand with a reconfigured five-piece line-up and a children’s choir alongside thanks given to everyone from fans, friends, family, staff at new label Fire Records to 6Music DJ Marc Riley, the sheer volume of those mentioned for their shared encouragement of Martin Phillipps – after years battling addiction, illness and music industry marginalisation – to lead The Chills out of the wilderness makes for a heartening enough comeback tale even before playing Silver Bullets itself. Part-acknowledging this debt further to those who helped nurture The Chills’ rebirth in a recent interview with UNCUT magazine, Phillips suggested that this full-scale LP was cut with the aim of re-connecting to the band’s distinctive legacy as well as providing a stepping stone to a future follow-up album that might see more experimental divergence.