When punk rock made its way across the equator to New Zealand, it wasn’t its thrashing energy, political preoccupations, or fashion-minded aesthetics that seduced the hearts of Kiwi-pop’s first wave. What many bands on the now legendary Flying Nun label heard was a conviction-over-virtuosity approach to making music: Being able to play an instrument helped, but merely wanting to could be just as good. And so the Tall Dwarfs experimented with sounds and recording techniques, and the Clean put its palpable enthusiasm down on a chintzy four-track. And the songs sparkled with an energy that outstripped the limited means the bands had to record them.
Nearly two decades later, though, punk has undergone so many co-opted iterations that mall rats can buy studded belts at Hot Topic without the faintest clue as to who Sid Vicious was. And the proliferation of digital recording has eradicated tape hiss and warbling pitch from most home-recording operations. But then there’s Nick Harte, a.k.a. Shocking Pinks, who still records in his bedroom in Christchurch, on New Zealand’s South Island. After beginning his musical career as the drummer for the Brunettes’ touring band — the Lil Chief Orchestra — he struck out on his own, teaching himself all the instruments he’d need to realize his own musical vision along the way. The result sounded like some freshly excavated relic from the early days of Kiwi-pop. But where that first wave of bands drew inspiration from the Velvets, the Modern Lovers, and Television, Harte’s muses are a little more diffuse: post-punk, from Joy Division to the danceable end of the no-wave spectrum; ’80s synth-pop bands; and ’90s lo-fi indie-pop such as Belle and Sebastian and Sebadoh.
If that inventory of influences sounds scattershot, it’s because it is. Shocking Pinks’ first stateside release — which pulls from its two New Zealand-only LPs, Dance the Dance Electric and Mathematical Warfare — will frustrate some listeners with its disregard for stylistic continuity; his playful irreverence will win over others. Still, even if Harte’s production can be unapologetically sloppy, his vocals garbled, and some songs simply languor in underdevelopment, there’s no denying the magnetism of his best work. “This Aching Deal” is some distant cousin to New Order’s “Ceremony,” all mechanical drumming, minimal guitar, and yearning vocals. “Second Hand Girl” crosses wires between a Malkmus-style kiss-off and fuzzy Guided by Voices riffing. The echo-drenched melancholia of “Girl on the Northern Line” tugs on the heart with every pluck of Harte’s acoustic guitar (replete with string slides, of course). But his songs often sound like impromptu documents of ideas rather than fully fleshed-out compositions. Without question, part of Shocking Pinks’ charm is the intimacy of its unpolished production values, but, with a little more patience and rigorous revision, it’s easy to see Harte’s best songs being even better.
“End of the World” MP3: