Shayne Carter makes his masterpiece

by Nick Bollinger / 27 March, 2004
YOU'VE GOT TO HEAR THE MUSIC, Dimmer (Festival/Mushroom)

There have been few successful reinventions in New Zealand rock, but Shayne Carter is an exception. He slipped out of Straitjacket Fits - the finest of the so-called Dunedin bands, of which he was charismatic frontman and abiding axe hero - to develop an entirely new identity as Dimmer. It took a long time and a few false starts, but the transition was accomplished in 2001's I Believe You Are a Star; a sophisticated package of post-rock, in which guitars took a backseat to electronics, textures replaced tunes and indie-rock-pounding gave way to a creeping funk beat comprised of loops and samples.

Star was sonically compelling and had the odd great song, the single "Evolution" being a standout. And yet, one couldn't help feeling that in his determination to avoid becoming a rock dinosaur, Carter was denying some of his strongest gifts. His vocals - always an outstanding feature of the Fits - seemed disembodied and adrift among the loops and bloops. That would have mattered more if he had had something substantial to sing, but in his quest for a fresh identity, songs seemed to have been largely shelved along with the guitars. Cuts like "Powercord" had Teutonic traces of avant-noise.

Compared to how long Star spent in gestation (seven years from the breakup of the Straitjackets), You've Got to Hear the Music has had a relatively easy birth. Now that Carter has mastered the new technology, he is relaxed enough with it to look to some of his long-dormant talents. The music this time is more generous, both melodically and emotionally.

And he is writing real songs again. "Only One That Matters", with its sweet-and-sour chord sequence, might in some parallel universe have been a Straitjackets' tune. But where the Straitjackets were always brimful of noise, the sound here is spacious, building slowly over a sparse drumbeat to an ultimate crescendo of strings arranged by Graeme Downes of the Verlaines.

You can still hear the machines at work in the tweaked drum tracks and layered soundbeds. But the mood this time is less Portishead, more Prince. "Lucky One", in particular, is a slow-burning groove (with crisp funk fills by drummer Willie Scott) that wouldn't have been out of place on Lovesexy.

Carter's clear passion for black American music underlies the whole thing. There are overt homages, like the almost-actionable appropriation of a Sly Stone groove for "Getting What You Give", the album's first single, with Wellington funksters Fat Freddy's Drop punching out horn parts that could be straight off Fresh. And there are the beautiful, spare guitar figures of "Concentration", in which Carter evokes Hendrix - not the feedback-and-fireworks version, but the less imitated one of Electric Ladyland's "1983", all rippling liquid beauty.

Though Carter hasn't lost his love of the lyric as pure sound, the sentiments here come from the heart more than the head. As well as several love songs, there are aching songs of separation.

As if to underline the music's inherent sexiness, he performs several as duets with Anika Moa, and they shadow each other's moves intimately. At times, their timbres blend so exquisitely that they might be a single voice, double-tracked. Bic Runga makes it a threesome for the Eastern-flavoured funk of "Happening".

But if Music finds Carter getting in touch with his inner soul brother, there aren't any embarrassing grunts or screams or faux-black moves. His confiding close-miked tones are more reminiscent of late-60s John Lennon; more White Album than any black album.

Recent months have seen good releases by a lot of young local acts. But Dimmer's second album has a depth and soul that others don't come near. To make an album like this you've got to have lived music for more than 20 years and yet never settled for clichés or self-parody. You have to have been daring, passionate and driven and, after all this time, still feel like you've got to hear the music.

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