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The Chills - Snow Bound Music Album Reviews

An architect of New Zealand’s fabled Dunedin sound returns with another dose of heavenly pop. This time, he may even be happy.

A happy man is a platitudinous man. In his sixth decade, the Chills’ Martin Phillipps sounds this note of wary optimism. “Even bad sugar makes bitter taste sweet” goes the first chorus of Snow Bound, his classic New Zealand pop band’s sixth album in thirty years, barely a minute in. The same songwriter who penned the rumbling, wounded classic “Pink Frost” goes so far here as to title a song “Easy Peazy.” Of course, calling a heroin-triggered hepatitis C survivor and admitted hevay drinker a happy man attests to the delusionary glint inherent in Phillipps’ heavenly would-be hits. Hoping Snow Bound succeeds on what’s left of college radio is its own kind of delusion, but the Chills always had a knack for being slightly behind the times. Still, Snow Bound is the Dunedin native’s most winning album since 1990’s Submarine Bells—brash, tensile, and enormously confident.

Phillipps’ has a penchant for huge keyboards, the kind that fans of the Cure’s Disintegration know well: the kind that billow and unravel like storm clouds moving across plains. Oli Wilson’s criss-crossing organ and Cars-indebted synths over Todd Knudson’s walloping drums during “Scarred” will be familiar to fans of early ’80s AOR. Rolling piano lends “Lord of All I Survey” an insistent optimism, as Phillipps wills himself to be happy. But no Chills album is without its melancholic whorls, as when Phillipps announces during the title track, “You cut through the city like a surgeon’s knife/On a quest for life but saving no one.” As a writer and bandleader, Phillipps has learned to trust his instinct for the topic sentence, supported by gradations of sound and thought as lucid as citations.

Sure, some fans might long for the mysteries of Submarine Bells, where the songs shone through subaqueous environments. But Snow Bound’s mid-tempo churners, like “The Greatest Guide,” offer plenty of mystery through Phillipps’ guitars, anyway. If there’s an analog, it’s the last album of the first run by the Chills’ Australian contemporaries the Go-Betweens, 16 Lovers Lane. With an eye on the charts, that quintet wrapped acoustic guitars in pastel gauze, though the tension between two gifted songwriters resulted in a minor sunshine-on-a-cloudy-day masterpiece, bleak and rueful and suspicious. Snow Bound similarly trembles with Phillipps’ effort to cheer himself up. On these 10 songs, noticing other people and accepting the damage done are synonymous.

By his standards, Phillipps has entered a prolific release regimen: Snow Bound comes three years after Silver Bullets, a follow-up to an EP released during Dubya’s first term. Distinguished by Phillipps’ insistence on redressing mistakes and a welcome awakening to global political trends, Silver Bullets was the comeback he and we needed. But as the keyboards twinkle above the guitars on Snow Bound’s final cut, Phillipps avers, “We still, still, still believe in harmony,” it’s clear that this is even better than the old times. Harmony at large is Phillipps’ equivalent of the Lord’s Prayer: a practice done for keeping aloneness at bay, for Phillipps the intensest rendezvous.

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