Neil Young once wrote that when he found himself in the middle of the road he deliberately headed for the ditch. "A rougher ride." he noted "but you meet more interesting people." He could easily have been speaking for Dave Dobbyn. If there has ever been anything you could call a safe path through New Zealaud music (and that is debatable), then Dave Dobbyn was on it when he was turning out tidy pop records such as "Slice of Heaven" and "Loyal", or touring his catalogue of much-loved singalongs: "Be Mine Tonight", "Outlook for Thursday", "You Oughta Be in Love", "Bliss" ...
But with last year's Lament for the Numb he took a sharp turn off the main drag. Here were the darkest and most cerebral songs he has written, framed in stark, angular arrangements. Although a few listens revealed that his old melodic gifts and way with words were intact, he was no longer making it easy for anyone. He was opening up a new approach to his music that accommodated his talent for immortal pop choruses as well as wackier impulses he might once have suppressed. At a time when many of the so-called "alternative" bands were beginning to seek out mainstream approval, this established pop songwriter was, ironically, going underground.
Dobbyn met a lot of "interesting people" when he left the beaten track, and their influences show. His songwriting almost certainly benefited from working with G W McLennan, formerly of Australian alternative darlings the Go Betweens, for whom Dobbyn produced two fine indie-style albums early in the 90s. Even more significant were a couple of Americans who were on the Dobbyn team for Lament - producer Mitchell Froom, whose credits include the first three Crowded House albums, and recording engineer Tchad Blake who has worked regularly with Froom and was recently brought in to mix the Muttonbirds' Salty album. This pair also makes up half of the Latin Playboys, whose self-titled album from earlier this year, a feast of found sounds and song fragments, is a good reference point for Twist. Though Neil Finn replaces Froom in the production seat - and that inevitably brings shades of "White Album" Beatles - Twist is also the first disc Dobbyn has made that has sounded like a natural progression from the one before it. It is Lament's less psychotic younger brother. That album, recorded and largely written in Los Angeles around the time of the Rodney King riots, was fuelled with anger and angst. By contrast, Twist is joyful, a celebration of homecoming. The opener, "Lap of the Gods", sets the tone, its soaring chorus conjuring up the open spaces of the South Pacific in a similar way to much of Crowded House's Together Alone.
One of the things that makes Twist so endlessly surprising is its deliberate and sudden shifts in scale- it drops from the roaring rock anthem of "What Do You Really Want" to the almost African rural atmosphere of "Gifted"; from the meditative, Mellotron driven "Betrayal", one is lifted into the surging pop chorus of "Language". And then there's "It Dawned on Me", perhaps the most perfect song Dobbyn has written, with its "Yesterday"-style string arrangement and melody that taps some ancient Celtic muse; if Andy Haden was on the ball he would have Rachel pass this one to Rod for a readymade hit.
Twist is both abrasive and beautiful. Labels like "pop" and "alternative" are redundant; there are guitar sounds here that the Dead C would kill for, yet also choruses that will make your grandmother say, "Now that's a real song." When records like this are being made in New Zealand, it is an exciting time to be listening.
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