16 Aug 2016

The Prophet Hens and Blair Parkes

From The Sampler, 7:30 pm on 16 August 2016
The Prophet Hens

The Prophet Hens Photo: Supplied

Nick Bollinger ponders the jangling pop of The Prophet Hens and Blair Parkes.

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Auckland was always the place musicians went in this country if they wanted to produce shiny, up-to-the-minute-sounding pop. With today’s laptop technology, there’s no reason why that should still be the case. Yet it sometimes feels as though the further away from Auckland you get, the less musicians care about what current pop sounds like anyway.

The Prophet Hens are a four-piece from Dunedin whose music makes few concessions to current pop. They are not deejays, they don’t use drum loops, MPC samplers, synthesisers or auto-tune. In fact their music gives little indication that we’re even in the 21st century. And that can be quite a refreshing thing.

Not only does one get the sense that The Prophet Hens have been immunised against any popular music made since some time in the 80s, but it also seems as though the music they have been exposed to has been of a specific local strain. They remind me of other Dunedin bands from earlier decades - particularly the more melodic ones that inhabited the Flying Nun convent in the 80s like The Chills or perhaps Sneaky Feelings. Some of that comes down to the instrumentation. It’s the classic line-up of guitars, bass, drums and keyboards. But it’s also the songs: wry vignettes that often seem to end in thwarted romance. Could there be a more downbeat – or quintessentially Dunedin – title for a love song than ‘Drunk In A Park’?

The he-and-she vocals of Karl Bray and Penelope Esplin are one of the real strengths of the group, with the pair swapping between the lead and harmony roles from track to track. Performance-wise it’s got a whole lot tighter, the songs and arrangements more ambitious. The jangly guitars and warm beds of organ may feel familiar, yet they still find fresh voicings and little harmonic details, which, in combination with the lovely woozy harmonies, take their essentially traditional songwriting to some new places.

If The Prophet Hens are a relatively new band with echoes of 80s’ Flying Nun, Blair Parkes is a southerner whose roots can actually be found in the Flying Nun archives.

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This Christchurch-based songwriter-musician – and visual artist – released his first recordings with his then-band All Fall Down on a Flying Nun EP in the 80s. Since then he’s played and recorded with various Christchurch bands including Creely, Range, and the L.E.D.s, while building up an impressive catalogue of solo recordings. Cardigan Bay is the latest of them.

‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’ is the title of one of Kris Kristofferson’s immortal songs, but Parkes might have the written the matinee version here. He calls his ‘Sunday Evening Coming Down’ and performs it with co-writer Andrew Moore. It’s not a drunkard’s lament like Kristofferson’s, so much as a gentle psychedelic reverie with a dash of melancholy, and that’s the prevailing mood of this album.

You can hear in this song – or any of the eleven tracks here – Parkes’ love of lush melodic pop. He layers his gentle, tuneful vocals, then swathes them in reverbs, creating the harmonic landscape of a late-60s soft-rock record.

The album’s title hints at the nautical theme that runs through it. There are songs about boats, fish, and stormy seas and he creates appropriate musical settings, that bathe you in deep, warm, currents of sound. But my favourite track has its feet firmly on land. It’s called ‘Footpath’. It’s a song about standing still as time moves on, and feeling okay about it. ‘I love the past/I’m from the past’ he sings. And the tune lets you know he means it.

Not one of these tracks clocks in at more than a modest 3 minutes in length. No drawn-out intros or protracted solos. Parkes usually starts with a vocal right from the opening bar, and when the song’s over, it’s just over – always too soon, leaving me with no choice but to play it again.

Blair Parkes

Blair Parkes Photo: Supplied

Cardigan Bay is available on Bandcamp.

The Wonderful Shapes Of Backdoor Keys is available on Fishrider Records.