Culturally speaking, 2007 has been New Zealand’s year.
The breakthrough of The Brunettes, Flight Of The Conchords
, the debut of Liam Finn and a new album by the reunited Crowded House all indicate a new level of brouhaha simmering down under Down Under.
The Grey Race, a Brooklyn three-piece built around the songs and voice of Kiwi Jon Darling, might be Wellington’s newest outpost for aesthetic diplomacy. Produced by bassist Jeff Hill and drummer Ethan Eubanks, the band’s debut, Give It Love, makes a serious run for the gold medal in this year’s Pop Masterpiece competition, without ever revealing any overt ambition toward it.
This album is what might've happened if Elliott Smith had been blessed with Ray Davies’ sense of humor and Coldplay’s self-esteem. The songs swirl and shimmer, gently oscillating in the gravitational pull between Darling’s leathery falsetto and deceptively asinine lyrics. The centerpiece is “Cracks,” an unwilling anthem with a mantric chorus (“It’s easy without the pain / and twice as boring / mix it up and keep the blood ?owing”) and a humble restraint applied to what is essentially the disc’s defining fuck-you moment. From here, Darling continues to ebb and ?ow between memories of childhood classrooms (“From Me To You”) and decidedly adult manipulations (“The Johnsons”) without so much as the ?ick of an eyelid. The music offers little resolution to these twists and turns, only the assurance that they’re all somehow connected in an in?nitely circular scope.
But Give It Love is far from another listless exploration of ill-defined emotional states. The aggression of “On The Chin” is initially belied by the candied tones of Darling’s vocal delivery until—like the buzzing of a cracked bell—the chorus begins to resonate with disillusionment toward the song’s intended target. “Through Your Eyes” opens as a paean to a lost lover, but soon reveals an identity crisis; the protagonist doesn’t want the lover back, she just desperately needs to see the world the way she once did.
By allowing Darling’s transcendent melodies to be the primary color for his lyrical sketches, the band is never forced to back away from the inherent weight of his subject matter. In fact, it succeeds in spinning it all in a manner both arresting and empathetic, the kind of stuff that could just as easily be the soundtrack for a high-school make-out session as for a brutal divorce. Give It Love is a stunning debut, fully formed yet enigmatic enough to warrant suspicion that The Grey Race’s best work is yet to come.