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Tall Dwarfs - The Sky Above The Mud Below

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Artist: Tall Dwarfs

Album: The Sky Above The Mud Below

Label: Carrot Top

Review date: May. 2, 2003

Small Is Beautiful

This latest Tall Dwarfs record--the first in five years--sees Alec Bathgate and Chris Knox make their first foray into the digital realm. Inasmuch as Tall Dwarfs are synonymous with the terms "lo-fi" and "analog," just the thought of the duo going digital might seem like sacrilege--a contemporary, indie-rock equivalent, perhaps, of the transgression that made the narrow-minded Aran-sweater brigade boo Bob Dylan at Newport in 1965 and prompted the infamous Keith Butler to call him "Judas" a year later in Manchester.

Purists needn't worry, though. The Sky Above The Mud Below doesn't mark a dramatic change and Bathgate and Knox haven't turned into some slick techno duo. The long and the short of it is that they're still the same Tall Dwarfs, recording at home with an 8-track machine; the only difference is the use of Pro Tools software in the mixing and editing process. It's not that they're distancing themselves from their trademark DIY aesthetic, they're just playing around with some newer DIY tools to get the job done.

This follow-up to 1998's Fifty Flavours of Glue finds Tall Dwarfs in vintage form, cutting and pasting and cobbling together bits and pieces to deliver a familiarly eclectic batch of tunes. Indeed, The Sky Above The Mud Below ranges all over the musical map, covering Beatle-esque pop, simple folk-inflected ballads, a touch of glam, various shades of the blues, and more.

Something that's always come through on Tall Dwarfs records is the fact that the pair are big music fans. That might seem an obvious thing to say about a musician, but it's not something that's always apparent from an artist's work. Tall Dwarfs make no secret of it and many of these songs have a feeling of homage about them.

Inspired by Bathgate's chance encounter with the late George Harrison (who reportedly refused to admit he was George Harrison), "Meet the Beatle" is an acoustic-strumming Fab-Four pastiche, complete with a suitably nasal delivery, that underscores Tall Dwarfs' knack for catchy pop miniatures.

The stomping "Deodorant" is apparently a nod to T-Rex, but could also be a stripped-down version of ELO's "Don't Bring Me Down." (Either way, it proves that even tracks with a rather primitive drum machine can rock.) More subtle is "Baby It's Over," which doesn't stray too far from glam territory either, recalling early Eno fare like "Needles in the Camel's Eye." Its title notwithstanding, "Beached Boy" has little to do with the Southern California surf sound. It does, however, have a sweet, bluesy flavor--one of several bluesy tracks here. The most memorable of these, and one of the album's more bizarre moments, is the whacked-out, off-kilter "You Want Me Shimmy." Here, Bathgate, on slide guitar, plays Zoot Horn Rollo to Knox's Don Van Vliet. Knox outdoes himself, affectionately approximating the Captain's inimitable vocal stylings and also evoking something of the great man's surreal/nonsensical lyrics.

In keeping with the title, there is a sort of dualism at work on this album. The Sky Above The Mud Below does have a lighthearted, brighter side that comes across on the more playful, quirky numbers, but there's also a slightly darker edge to the proceedings. This declares itself on tracks with a satirical thrust like "Michael Hillbilly" and "We Are the Chosen Few," while other numbers are melancholy and introspective, both musically and lyrically: for instance, the appropriately titled "Melancholy," with its cooing Mellotron.

As an added bonus, this album comes bundled with The Weidenhaüsen Impediment EP, the first International Tall Dwarfs outing since 1997's Stumpy. Following the same MO as its predecessor, this features collaborations with several like-minded artists, some participating in person, others mailing their contributions on tape to be grafted onto tracks by Knox and Bathgate. Among the guests this time around are fellow Kiwis Graeme Downes (ex-Verlaines) and members of the Clean, as well as American friends Jeff Mangum (Neutral Milk Hotel), Laura Carter (Elf Power), and Jad Fair.

Although it's intended as a supplement, The Weidenhaüsen Impediment is perhaps more intriguing than the album itself. Displaying little of the hooky, song-based pop sensibility of the album proper, much of this material lies at the experimental end of the spectrum. On the mesmerizing fragment "Seduced by Rock 'n' Roll," Jimmy Page (sampled from an ancient Led Zep interview disc) slurs his way through the track, accompanied by queasy psychedelic noise. Similarly hypnotic, "Open Wide Your Pretty Mouths" has a mantric groove thanks to Knox's hey-nonny-nonny vocals and an eastern-sounding melodic loop. Recounting what sounds like a vaguely sinister Knox-organized camping trip, "Possum Born" features possum noises courtesy of Jeff Mangum and Laura Carter; the pair make a less unsettling appearance on the lilting clarinet-meets-Casiotone sea shanty, "Over the Waves."

Tall Dwarfs records are very much a labor of love, the materiality of the recording process itself seeming to be as important to Knox and Bathgate as the final product. Like a couple of master craftsmen, the duo work away on their handmade sounds with their trusty old tools (and some newer, digital ones here, of course) to produce records that, while not fashionable, certainly never go out of style.

By Wilson Neate

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