The Bats

TrackAlbum / EP
Made Up In BlueMade Up In Blue EP
TreasonDaddy's Highway
North By NorthDaddy's Highway
Yawn VibesThe Law Of Things
Smoking Her WingsThe Law Of Things
Straight ImageFear Of God
You Know We Shouldn'tFear Of God
Sighting The SoundSilverbeet
Afternoon In BedCouchmaster
Steppin' OutThe Guilty Office

The Bats photo 1

l-r: Paul Kean, Kaye Woodward, Robert Scott, Malcolm Grant

 

 

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The Bats playlist

 

 

Contributor: Marc Fagel

The Bats are not just one of the longest running bands in indie rock, a stable four-piece consistently releasing pleasantly charming new music since the mid-80s, but also one of the most woefully underappreciated. They emerged from the same New Zealand indie scene that birthed other legendary acts on the Flying Nun record label—bands like the Clean, the Chills, and the Verlaines (with Bats frontman Robert Scott serving double-duty as bassist and occasional singer-songwriter for the Clean as well). They sport a pastoral, stripped-down yet melodic sound, full of jangly guitars and casual vocals, that recalls the Feelies, with occasional bursts of more Velvet Underground-inspired catharsis.

They initially issued a series of terrific lo-fi singles and EPs beginning in 1984, later collected on Compiletely Bats. 1986’s Made Up In Blue and Trouble In This Town both perfectly encapsulate their early sound, with bubbly, percolating basslines driving ridiculously infectious hooks, Scott’s boyish vocals joined by guitarist Kaye Woodward’s buoyant harmonies in the chorus. Comparably charming are other early singles like United Airlines and the jaunty Earwig.

For their full-length debut, 1987’s Daddy’s Highway, they polished the rougher edges just a bit, resulting in one of the most winning indie rock releases from the past 35 years; a joyous, disarming array of catchy, jangling pop tunes just left of mainstream radio-readiness. Opening track Treason is simply perfect, its earworm melody joined by a delightful Scott/Woodward harmony throughout, perhaps the single best distillation of the band’s sound. The album’s joyful sweetness never flags, additional pop songs like Round And Down, Block Of Wood, and Mid City Team set off against quieter ballads like Miss These Things and Some Peace Tonight. The band cuts loose on North By North, a Velvet-y rocker with a fizzy guitar jam, more Clean-like than most of their repertoire. (The CD version appends the best of the early singles that later appeared on Compiletely, making the album that much more essential.)

 

While the band could never quite bottle the same bolt of lightning, 1989’s The Law Of Things is nearly as magical. The overall aesthetic is much the same, with jangly pop tunes offset against sweetly melodic ballads. Yawn Vibes has a sprightly spring in its step (rivaled by the catchy opening tune The Other Side Of You), while closer Smoking Her Wings is an absolutely entrancing mid-tempo stunner, a gorgeous ballad with an earworm hook in the chorus. (American indie singer-songwriter Barbara Manning does a wonderful cover, worth checking out.)

On the band’s next two records, 1992’s Fear Of God and 1993’s Silverbeet, they broke free from their lo-fi beginnings with a cleaner sound better suited to alternative rock airplay. The albums are still a long way from slick, and while the newfound sonic clarity sweeps away some of the mystery of the earlier work, Scott’s captivating hooks have a little more room to shine. Fear Of God, for all its delicate indie jangle, almost makes a case for the Bats as a more energetic rock and roll band, songs like the frenetically-paced Straight Image and You Know We Shouldn’t leaping out of the speakers, tethered by that trebly guitar and Woodward’s always-welcome harmonies. Silverbeet continues in a similar vein, upbeat tunes like Sighting The Sound, No Time For Your Kind, and Courage grabbing your attention, broken up by plenty of the quietly melodic tunes they seem to conjure with little effort. Courage doesn’t quite make my Top 10 but it’s representative of the Fear/Silverbeet era:

The band broke free from the sonic palette of the prior records with 1995’s Couchmaster. It’s a moody, almost psychedelic album, relying far more heavily on distortion and drones to create a hazy afternoon aesthetic, the band’s pleasant jangle mostly relegated to the background. It’s also one of their best records, albeit one that’s much less immediate and instantly catchy. Afternoon In Bed is slow and languid but hypnotic; Work It Out is upbeat and infectious yet still coupled with a strangely eerie psychedelic guitar line. For The Ride revives the distorted guitar rock of the earlier North By North, the closest thing the band had to a straight-out alt.rocker.

Couchmaster made for a strong closing episode to the band’s wonderful decade-long arc; they called it a day following its release. Scott spent the next few years releasing other projects, including new work with the Clean, solo albums, and another band, the Magick Heads (more on these projects below). The Bats also released a greatest hits collection, 2000’s Thousands Of Tiny Luminous Spheres, which serves as a decent introduction to the band (though the song selection varies somewhat from what I might have suggested).

But after a decade-long break, the Bats returned with 2005’s At The National Grid – and they’ve been quietly releasing new albums ever since, albeit at a relaxed pace. I’ll confess that I have spent far less time with the latter-day records than with the original run (as my Top 10 makes evident), but this is not to say the more recent work isn’t worthy of attention. For the most part, the half-dozen records from the past 15 years see a return to the lo-fi aesthetic of the Bats’ early days, while the music is often more understated, with fewer riff-happy pop tunes and greater reliance on quiet mood pieces. Still, the albums are reliably consistent, and invariably have a couple poppier tunes that jump out. Songs like National Grid’s fizzy Horizon and the jangly Things are a good reminder that Scott can still craft a catchy hook. I’ve included just one latter-day example in my Top 10, the perky Steppin’ Out off 2009’s The Guilty Office (which, in another Feelies parallel, calls to mind the work of Feelies-adjacent folk-pop band Speed The Plough). A pretty solid compilation could be drawn from the latter-day work to rival Luminous Spheres, though the albums – I’m partial to 2011’s Free All The Monsters – stand up fine as complete works.

The most recent release by the Bats, 2020’s Foothills, confirms that the band has lost none of its magical touch. Scott’s vocals have grown a bit more weathered, lacking the boyish charm of the early days, but the record still weaves a quiet spell, and tunes like Field Of Vision provide occasional bursts of more upbeat energy.

Fans looking to branch out beyond the core Bats discography should start with The Clean, the elder statesmen of the New Zealand indie rock scene. While guitarist David Kilgour tends to dominate, Scott has taken the lead on a few tracks over the years, most notably I Wait Around off 1990’s fantastic Vehicle and E Motel from 2001’s more eclectic Getaway, the latter in particular sounding like a great lost Bats tune.

Scott’s solo albums are a bit more experimental than the proper Bats albums, with strains of ambient and electronic music, but 2014’s The Green House is particularly Bats-like, with the chiming Vertigo slotting in comfortably alongside the band’s best work. Scott also spent the Bats’ mid-90s break recording a couple albums with vocalist Jane Sinnott under the moniker The Magick Heads. The combo draws a bit more from UK folk (Sinnott, who sings lead on most tunes, clearly takes some cues from Sandy Denny), but for the most part hews closely to the Bats’ playbook. Sinnott’s vocals give the songs a little more variety (making me wish Kaye Woodward took on a bigger role in the Bats); a few of the Heads’ tunes, like Before We Go Under from 1995’s album of the same name, are at least as good as anything Scott has done with the Bats.

 

 

The Bats official website

The Bats Bandcamp

The Bats at Flying Nun Records

The Bats at Discogs

2020 Bats Interview

The Clean – Toppermost #262

The Bats biography (AllMusic)

Marc Fagel is a recovering lawyer living outside San Francisco with his wife and his obscenely oversized music collection. He is the author of the recently-published rock lover’s memoir “Jittery White Guy Music”. His daily ruminations on random albums in his collection can be seen on his blog of the same name, or by following him on twitter. Marc’s previous posts include Matthew Sweet, Badfinger, New Pornographers, Bettie Serveert, Flaming Lips, Neil Young, My Morning Jacket, Raveonettes, Phish, Luna, Jesus and Mary Chain, Feelies, Genesis, Wilco, King Crimson and Brian Eno.

TopperPost #933

6 Comments

  1. David Lewis
    Feb 5, 2021

    Criminally underrated. Barely scratched the surface here in oz, in a sense. Compared to other NZ acts, they didn’t get the same recognition. But a superb band. And an article that more than does them justice.

  2. Marcus
    Feb 5, 2021

    I would pick an entirely different list of essentials, which only makes me appreciate this well-reasoned appraisal more.
    My list is almost equal representation, chronologically: Take It, The Law of Things, Time to Get Ready, It’s a Lie, No Time For Your Kind, Work It Out, We Do Not Kick, Simpletons, No Trace, Warwick.
    Back to the shelf to listen through Marc’s ears.

  3. Andrew Shields
    Feb 5, 2021

    Enjoyed this one. Have to confess I knew nothing about The Bats before reading it. Some very fine music – cheers.

  4. Ian Dalziel
    Feb 7, 2021

    Let’s not forget Kaye, Paul & Malcolm have a side-band – Minisnap – and a very recent iteration as The Sundae Painters: Kaye, Paul with Alec Bathgate (Toy Love/Tall Dwarfs) and Hamish Kilgour (Clean/Great Unwashed/Mad scene).

    • Marc Fagel
      Feb 12, 2021

      Thanks, Ian, I’ll check these out!

  5. Country Paul Payton
    Mar 2, 2021

    Highly recommended: “Bells” from “At the National Grid” (2005). I first heard it on WFMU, one of the world’s greatest radio stations, whose monthly dispatch referenced this webpage, which brought me here today. Thank you for the further enlightenment about The Bats, about whom I knew next to nothing except for this wonderful track.

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