Finally, there’s a complete box set of New Zealand’s Tall Dwarfs, the musical partnership of Flying Nun Records rockers and lo-fi indie proginators Alec Bathgate and Chris Knox! Merge Records has released Unravelled 1981-2002, a 55-track collection spanning the band’s gloriously ramshackle discography. But why did it take so long to honor their glory in this way? There are, like, box sets of the Beatles’ bathroom breaks clogging the record plants.
Regardless, kiwi-pop aficionados and newbies alike should do everything in their human power to plunk down for this godlike genius. You only need one kidney, just sayin’. (Funnily enough, the Beatles have been an oft-used comparison to Bathgate and Knox’s sound world. It’s a treasure trove of indelible hooks and cosmic melodies, but if you took the “Tomorrow Never Knows” demo alt-takes and immerse them in a fuzzified soup of Venusian atmosphere, and found-at-home effects, well… the Beatles bathroom breaks might be justified here. But oh, it sounds so much better.)
Bathgate’s and Knox’s sound evolved from their deep roots in the New Zealand punk world: formerly members of both the Enemy and Toy Love, those Kiwi groups burned down the pubs in the late ’70s, the latter garnering some high ranking as antipodean punk ambassadors. Then the duo pulled away, and engaged with the sounds of merely sitting in a room and making something completely different. Tall Dwarfs was born in 1981.
You only need one kidney, just sayin’
By the mid-90s, Knox grew to increasing prominence as a solo artist (amplified by the fact the two never were fully local to each other, slowing the duo’s evolution.) Sadly, Knox suffered a stroke in 2009, which severed the pipeline of his great creations for the most part. Bathgate, meanwhile, has created some stellar solo releases of his own.
My first Tall Dwarfs illumination came via a Flying Nun Records VHS compilation. Crammed with heavenly pop hits, I popped it in and suddenly on the screen appeared “Turning Brown and Torn In Two,” from their 1983 release Canned Music. And good lord! It was a flickering, otherworldly melange of primitive 8mm supercuts, one weird scenario after another, with scrawl written directly on the film. I was grabbed by the sound of a cheap amp emanating thoughtfully sparse vibrato guitar, courtesy of Bathgate. Then, with equal dominance in the mix: Knox’s intimate croon intoned over what sounded like a gobbling, growling Snuffleupagus stuck in a loop, whirring around.