THE BATS: DADDY'S HIGHWAY (1987)
1) Treason; 2) Sir Queen; 3) Round And Down; 4) Take It; 5) North By North; 6) Tragedy; 7) Block Of Wood; 8) Miss These Things; 9) Mid City Team; 10) Some Peace Tonight; 11) Had To Be You; 12) Daddy's Highway; 13*) Calm Before The Storm; 14*) Candidate; 15*) Mad On You; 16*) Trouble In This Town; 17*) Made Up In Blue.
The Bats are Robert Scott on rhythm guitar, vocals, and songwriting duties; Kaye Woodward on lead guitar and vocals; Paul Kean on bass; Malcolm Grant on drums. The Bats formed in 1982, released their first EP in 1984, but had to wait half a decade before releasing their first LP, Daddy's Highway, in 1987, featuring twelve original compositions by Scott and also making additional use of session guest Alastair Galbraith on violin. Oh, and they are, of course, from New Zealand (from the wonderfully named city of Christchurch, to be exact).
These are the dry facts that no one need deny. The accompanying assumption is that The Bats loved their homoplastic relatives The Byrds, and everything that had to do with folk-pop jangle in general. Subsequently, they did not exactly invent what is informally known as «Kiwi pop», but they very much defined it and helped substantiate its stereotypic «nice and jangly» image — and they themselves were never nicer and janglier than they are on this here LP debut.
Few things are simpler than the Bats formula — maybe the Ramones, but then, punk thrives on simplicity, whereas folk-pop need not necessarily be as one-dimensional as Daddy's Highway. Steady, danceable rhythm, usually taken in mid- or fast tempo for optimal effect; two guitars — one with lower pitch, one providing the jangly flourishes; quiet, relaxed vocals, either solo or with doubled harmonies, always keeping fairly low in the mix; inobtrusive, usually introspective, lyrics that are not meant to be paid serious attention to. This description pretty much applies to every one of these twelve songs, as well as the five bonus tracks taken from B-sides and EPs and appended to the CD reissue.
If you really like this sound as such — and, for all its minimalism, it is a pretty seductive sound, and it must have been even more seductive, coming on the airwaves in the synth-pop dominated 1980s — Daddy's Highway may appear to you as an endearing sonic masterpiece. Compared to something like R.E.M. or The Smiths, the music is clearly «fluffy», but, on the other hand, it is not here to accompany a pretentious, «artsy-fartsy» personality like Stipe or Morrissey: Robert Scott humbly stays out of the spotlight, letting the music always speak for the man. This is not an endorsement of those who hate pretentious personalities — just a reminder that there is a time for everything, including a time when the simple, pretty, monotonous music of The Bats might work more efficiently than the more demanding, but not necessarily more satisfying music of R.E.M. or The Smiths.
Individually, the songs are not divided into highlights or lowlights: from the opening life-asserting guitar dialog of ʽTreasonʼ and right down to the bass-heavy sounds of the title track, the songs are all nice, mildly memorable, and generally interchangeable. Vivacious tempos help out a lot — every time the band slows down, like on ʽMiss These Thingsʼ (with surprisingly out-of-tune guitar, which might have been intentional), they tend to lose my attention. But almost every song, at the very least, tries to generate and develop its own hook, even if it does not always succeed — subsequent listens, once you've gotten past the similar atmosphere and start picking up the actual differences in melody, reveal that some songs are better written than others.
For instance, I would suggest that ʽTreasonʼ, with its ascending-descending riff, is better than ʽTragedyʼ, with its rather tired and worn-out folk chord pattern; or that ʽNorth By Northʼ, with its gritty rhythm section workout and «quasi-spooky» echoey vocal overdubs, rocks harder than the happy bounce of ʽTake Itʼ; or that the siren-esque double guitars that open ʽBlock Of Woodʼ are a much catchier introduction than the somewhat distracted strumming that opens the way-too-Smiths-like ʽSir Queenʼ. I could suggest all this and more — but then, in the end, this would all look like nit-picking, and rather belong in some parallel world, where The Bats are recognized as the greatest band of all time and armies of musicologists are paid to offer competing interpretations of each chord change in each of their songs.
Therefore, having said all I really have to say, I leave you here with a thumbs up and an extra recommendation for the bonus-tracked edition: the last song here, ʽMade Up In Blueʼ (the title track from their 1986 EP), shows that The Bats were capable of «anthemic» choruses as well, and rocks almost as hard as ʽNorth By Northʼ.
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