Bathe in the songs

by Nick Bollinger / 04 April, 2009
A marvellous new album from Don McGlashan.

From the Front Lawn to the Ponsonby backyard where he launched his latest album, Marvellous Year, Don McGlashan has consistently offered songs that are both startling and familiar.

The image of trees "turning red along the shore" might evoke a row of beachside pohutukawa, but it also amplifies an eeriness that runs through Bad Blood, a song from the new album in which a chance meeting on a bus leads to a loss of identity.

It is typical of an album that balances edginess and beauty, comfort and disturbance. On Marvellous Year, McGlashan draws more than ever on traditional forms - country, gospel, folk - yet chisels fresh melodies from these ancient -materials to carry his observations of the lives we live and the strange ways in which the profound and the mundane rub against each other.

As always, there are recognisable glimpses of New Zealand. In the title track, he breaks into a litany of human achievements, humorously skewed to a Kiwi perspective ("The Koran, the Torah/Interflora").

Yet the essence of these songs is universal. In You're the Song, he ascribes human traits to a set of guitar chords, which are echoed in the song's chiming changes.

Several tracks are epic in mood, if not duration. Not Ready is a beautifully compressed piece of writing, essentially a blues in form, that describes an ominous dream and reaches its shattering climax with a boldly angular string arrangement, scored by McGlashan and Victoria Kelly.

And on 18th Day, McGlashan plays a dirge-like piano to set the scene: the return by steamship of Te Whiti, after the Parihaka leader's long incarceration in the South Island. The song builds majestically with Neil Finn adding weight to the harmonies and the stinging tones of guitarist John Segovia heightening the drama.

Since Warm Hand, his 2006 solo debut, McGlashan has consolidated his band, the Seven Sisters, and their delicate, detailed playing helps make this album both more dynamic and more relaxed than its predecessor.

As a singer, McGlashan has conquered a new part of his range, and his increased use of falsetto pushes these performances into more vulnerable and emotional territory. He uses this to great effect in The Switch and again in the penultimate track, a version of Bathe in the River, the hit he gave to Hollie Smith. Wisely, he doesn't attempt the gospel fervour of Smith's recording, offering instead the quiet contemplation of a secular hymn.

But there are some funnier, looser moments that make a change for an artist who occasionally appears to be thinking too hard. Take C2006P1 (Make Yourself at Home), a rocking ode to the snappily named comet of the title, which McGlashan suggests would be welcome to collide with Earth next time around, provided our species has already wiped itself out.

And there is Radio Programmer, another in a series of McGlashan songs that examine how a character deals with a moral dilemma. You could hear it as a flippant cousin of Warm Hand's Toy Factory Fire, in which a corporate exec considered whether to bury the evidence of an industrial crime. In this case, his protagonist is a commercial radio jock, agonising over whether to add a local song to the playlist. The song is, of course, the one we are listening to, which McGlashan hilariously peppers with riffs reminiscent of the deathless radio classic Born to Be Wild.

If radio programmers don't feel blessed to have albums such as Marvellous Year landing on their desks, you wonder which country they are living in. Not the one I recognise in these marvellous songs, that's for sure.

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