New Zealand, a country that’s delivered more than its share of great guitar pop in the last 20-odd years — the Chills, the Clean, the Verlaines, the Bats, Split Enz, and Crowded House, to name a few — has done it again. The Phoenix Foundation, a six-piece from Wellington, deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as its illustrious countrymen. Unfortunately, that won’t get a band very far these days, especially in the United States, where most rock fans remain woefully ignorant of all New Zealanders who don’t have the surname Finn. In fact, it’s something of a miracle that Horsepower, the Phoenix Foundation’s 2003 debut full-length, made it to these shores at all. Although the band members applied to the New Zealand government for a grant to subsidize an international release, their application was denied. Undaunted, the band kept plugging away — the second album, Pegasus, came out last year and is still available only as an import — and eventually found a label to distribute Horsepower in the States.
It was definitely worth the wait. Though not always easy to describe (a friend and fellow fan says it’s like trying to hold water in your hands), the Phoenix Foundation’s music is exceptionally easy on the ears, a hypnotic, often melancholy brand of atmospheric alt-rock that combines beguiling vocal melodies with radiant guitars and eccentric production touches. Sometimes, as on the lazy, impossibly lovely opening track, “Sister Risk,” the band sounds a bit like a cross between the Go-Betweens and Yo La Tengo; sometimes, as on the shoegazer-glitch workout “Let Me Die a Woman,” it evokes Radiohead without stooping to any obvious Thom Yorke-isms. Other highlights, such as the gentle folk-rock hymns “The Swarm” and “Sally” and the delirious garage-pop organ dirge “Going Fishing,” are sufficient reason to spring for the follow-up, outrageous import price notwithstanding.
M. Ward is only 31, but he’s an old soul. Like his spiritual brethren Andrew Bird, Tom Waits, and Jolie Holland, he draws on a wealth of musical traditions — Appalachian folk, Delta blues, smoky jazz — to forge his own out-of-time Americana. His last album, Transistor Radio, celebrated the glory days of broadcasting (think crackly 45s), and last year he compiled and produced the John Fahey tribute I Am the Resurrection, a worthy homage to the visionary antiquarian. Although Post-War, Ward’s fifth album, taps similar sonic sources, it sounds a bit more collaborative than previous efforts, a bit less insular and idiosyncratic. Ward calls Post-War his “first band record,” and the supporting players, many of whom have been touring with him for the past year and a half, lend a sense of spontaneity that’s been largely absent from earlier efforts. Although Ward’s signature gifts — his virtuosic, Faheyesque fingerpicking and his drowsy, sweetly weathered tenor — are still in plain view, they’re not always the first things you notice.
“To Go Home,” a Daniel Johnston cover, features giddy, headlong drums by Rachel Blumberg (the Decemberists) and joyful unison singing by indie sweetheart Neko Case. With its dueling drummers and dreamy slide guitar, the instrumental “Neptune’s Net” is the missing link between Western swing and surf rock. Quieter tracks, such as the ambling love song “Eyes on the Prize,” the sleepy parlor ballad “Rollercoaster,” and the cascading folk tale “Chinese Translation,” are nicely balanced against more rollicking moments, from the distorted guitar that snakes through “Right in the Head” to the choogling swamp-boogie rhythms of “Requiem” and the tipsy singalong choruses of “Magic Trick.” The war may not be over yet (if it ever ends at all), but Post-War provides some much-needed preemptive festivity.