Flock review - Xtra MSN (4th December 2002)|
- Gary Tayler
This is more a retrospective album than a traditional greatest hits package, covering the 11 years of history, and a few thousand miles of geography in the history so far of The Mutton Birds.
The songs themselves cover almost as much physical distance as the band have, ranging from a stroll down Dominion Road, deep rural New Zealand, to an Underground platform in Camden... and of course Wellington.
Interestingly enough for a band who's had a member (Don McGlashan) win not only an APRA Silver Scroll but also the Laureate Musicians Award, The Mutton Birds have not shied away from performing and recording works by others. Such as Wayne Mason's Nature or Blue Oyster Cult's, Don't Fear the Reaper and new for this album, Sneaky Feelings, Not To Take Sides.
Each one is a distinctive version of the original, the rockier edge of Nature, especially live. The haunting edge the 'Don't Fear the Reaper' (for Peter Jackson's The Frighteners soundtrack), made so by including non-musical samples and the otherworldly sound of the theremin and most recently taking the bitterness of the 'Not To Take Sides' and turning it into a song of haunting beauty and reflection.
Geographical transportation has long been the key strength to The Mutton Birds, each song has the ability to take you away, sometimes it's to be involved in a story, such as 'A Thing Well Made' or 'White Valiant'. Other times it's relocation to some back paddock with a wire-strung fence in 'Envy of Angels' or listening in on a conversation in a bar about bad relationships in 'She's Been Talking'.
Finally a note about the packaging of this album, it's an excellent little exercise in design, incorporating quality card stock, a semi-transparent film insert and some insightful liner notes from Don McGlashan, adding to the overall familiarity and intimacy of The Mutton Birds.
Flock review - Stuff.co.nz (3rd December 2002)
- Nick Gormack
'Tis the season of best-ofs, with everyone from Barbra (who shall I rope in next?) Streisand to the Litte River Bland cashing in for Christmas.
So, do yourself a favour and get a compilation which has been put together with thought and care. The Mutton Birds put out some great songs over the years - Dominion Road, The Heater, In My Room, She's Been Talking, Anchor Me etc - characterised by Don McGlashan's perceptive, intelligent lyrics.
For a group whose cover of the Fourmyula classic Nature did much to bring the song to a new generation, it's fitting this album closes out with another New Zealand cover - the only new song here - an exquisite version of the Sneaky Feelings epic Not to Take Sides.
Flock review - New Zealand Herald (30th November 2002)
- Russell Baillie
Don McGlashan pens a fine set of memories in the liner notes to the long-overdue and posthumous compilation of his band.
Here's the one to Anchor Me, one of their loveliest songs ... "We were rehearsing on the top floor above a pub and a hairdressers in Vulcan Lane, Auckland. I remember bringing in the verse and bridge, but not having much of an idea of the chorus, so I just made it up as I played it to the other guys, saying, 'This is too simple for the chorus - I'll get something better' and Alan said, 'No you won't, it sounds like it's finished."
That anecdote manages to encapsulate what made the Mutton Birds take flight.
For here was a band framework to McGlashan's boundless creativity which previously had taken in being half of 80s musical comedy and film-making outfit the Front Lawn, hitting things in From Scratch and being the singing drummer and one-third of Blam Blam Blam, by far the smartest band of the Class of '81 era.
He also played euphonium. He is possibly the best euphonium player rock'n'roll has ever seen - as tracks here like The Heater and A Thing Well Made still attest.
His past suggested that maybe he was far too clever for this sort of thing when he formed the band with guitarist David Long (who had played on the Front Lawn's terrific first album), veteran drummer Ross Burge, eventually dragging in Alan Gregg on bass, harmonies, occasional songwriting and chorus-spotting duties by the time of their DIY debut album in 1991.
The Mutton Birds created something that hadn't quite existed in New Zealand for some time - a pop-rock band for grown-ups, people who thought that lyrics mattered, but were happy to hoof around like the students they once were to the likes of the band's cover of Wayne Mason's Nature.
That, of course, meant that to survive the Mutton Birds had to fly the coop, picking up an enthusiastic fan base especially in Britain and Europe - and, oddly, among Scottish thriller writers: Christopher Brookmyre's Not the End of the World had a character who raved about While You Sleep; Ian Rankin named one of his Rebus novels The Falls, after a song from final album Rain, Steam and Speed. Our own Peter Jackson was a fan, too - he got the band to cover Blue Oyster Cult's Don't Fear the Reaper for The Frighteners. It's an odd, out-of-context addition here, though, especially as it sounds like the band's heart wasn't really in it. Blame its inclusion on being big in Australia.
But there is a bonus to this, a stirring cover of Sneaky Feelings' Not To Take Sides, featuring former Feeling and one-time Mutton Bird guitarist Matthew Bannister.
Anyway, maybe those writers and film-makers appreciated the creepy characters in McGlashan's narratives - the brooding White Valiant still evokes something unsettling in a hitch-hiking story; there's the Christchurch sports-store owner in A Thing Well Made sending off a mail-order AK47 to a collector down the line; Frank who develops an unhealthy obsession for the domestic appliance in The Heater; or the redneck US Senator in Queen's English, one of the rare moments McGlashan went back to his Front Lawn acting roots.
As well as character studies, The Mutton Birds also did a fine line in geography to music - here represented by Allan Gregg's nifty Wellington, and McGlashan's tale of a desperate life in Auckland on Dominion Road.
Personally, I can't hear the jangle of Envy of Angels (the title track of their third album) without being reminded of a drive across a misty MacKenzie Country with it playing on the car stereo. Or being reminded that a few days before that trip I heard someone recite some of the lyrics of their greatest love song, While You Sleep at a wedding - mine. It got me then, it gets me now.
Memories, as Dean Martin once said, are made of this.
Rain, Steam & Speed review - Satellite Music (1999)
- Wyn Drabble
The Mutton Birds' fourth album is quite siniply one of the best albums I have ever heard from a New Zealand band. It belongs up there with Crowded House's Woodface and that is high praise indeed.
What it shares with Woodface is that it is a dud-free collection of songs with thoroughly infectious and easily accessible hooks. (I give every album four or five careful listens before evaluation but with both Woodface and Rain, Steam and Speed, the hooks were kicking in strongly by the third time through.)
Don McGlashan's 11 songs on this album are all fine examples of the pop songsmith's art in that the song structures and the hooks float around in the brain for days. How does he make such a simple phrase as "small mercies" appear so effortlessly - as if organically - from the verse of the song? How does he make such simple little curlicues of melody sneak out from dark comers to surprise and delight. Nearly all the songs are acoustic rhythm guitar-driven but stunningly successful relief is found in the trad British folk-sounding Jackie's Song with its tastefully sparse backing of acoustic guitar and E-bow guitar only.
Of course the Mutton Birds have to live and play in London to survive but I'll not bemoan their ex-pat situation as long as they keep sending back albums like this. And as long as they never forget they are a Kiwi band.
Rain, Steam & Speed review - Heat (6-12 February 1999)
- Paul Du Noyer
Achingly melodic story-songs from London-based New Zealand cult favourites.
If warm words were any guarantee of record sales then The Mutton Birds would be Brit contenders this year. But all the critical approval they won for their gorgeous album, Envy of Angels, failed to win the band a UK following much beyond their exile Kiwi fan-base - least of all at Virgin Records, who "right-sized" the group last year. Perhaps their "classic pop" isn't so popular now, but there must be enough people who mourn the passing of Crowded House to welcome these melancholic songs by Stipe-ish vocalist Don McGlashan, who can turn everyday feelings into poetry.
Rain, Steam & Speed review - Q (April 1999)
- David Sheppard
Fourth studio outing from kiwi popsters, now ploughing an indie furrow.
Singer-guitarist Don McGlashan writes melodic ditties that, in the capable hands of his three cohorts, arrive fully formed, fresh from the same cerebral powerpop motherlode that birthed Big Star, early R.E.M. and Counting Crows. Being dumped by Virgin has done nothing to dent Donovan-alike McGlashan's obsession with hook-laden, plangent pop-rock as evinced by the breathless opener As Close As This and the frenetic semi-anthem Pulled Along By Love. This time, there is a pleasing breadth of previously-lacking textural experiment. Euphonium and Farfisa organ caress The Falls - a wistful ballad, reminiscent in structure and lyrical tone of mid-period Go-Betweens; while the acoustic Jackie's Song comes replete with short-story-like lyrics ("the birds laugh like drunken garrison girls..."). Named after a Turner painting, Rain, Steam & Speed is itself something of a minor masterpiece.
Rain, Steam & Speed review - ArtistDirect.com (Jan 1999)
- Jack Rabid
Envy of Angels has a higher percentage of remarkable songwriting, as anyone who's heard the smooth, flowing, lovely-but-not-wimpy "April," "Come Around," "She's Been Talking," and "Come Around" can attest. But that's not such a bad tradeoff for an LP that sounds more immediate; the self-produced Rain, Steam & Speed is less streamlined than Envy producer Hugh Jones' otherwise typically brilliant productions. And a good four or five of its tracks stand up to the greatest New Zealand tunes ever, by the Chills, Straightjacket Fits, Bats, Clean, etc. In fact, marry those bands' burbling, mannered, subconscious pop mastery with a more strident guitar sound and more upfront presentation, and you have the brave-sounding, luxuriant, gorgeous pop of "Green Lantern," "As Close as This," "Pulled Along By Love," and "Ray." This predilection peaks on a radiant accomplishment called "Winning Numbers." It arrests right from the brief, lofty, descending a cappella vocal it begins with, like diving off into a pool. The melody and lyrics are stirring -- insisting he would rip up a winning lottery ticket, singer Don McLashan [sic] prefers his life over those of the rich and famous -- and his crystalline, sterling voice fits the circular guitar trills wonderfully. The band even pulls off a country track, with McLashan [sic] sighing that he's had enough of "The Goodbye Drug," a drug he "used to like." So far along from their naive, self-titled 1992 debut on kiwi label Bag, the Mutton Birds have modestly but assuredly stepped into the current void and reminded listeners of the luxurious pleasures and romantic mysteries pop still can seek.
Rain, Steam & Speed review - That's Entertainment (Northern Ireland (Feb 1999)
New Zealand has a healthy, if overlooked, musical heritage. From the acceptable face of MOR Crowded House to undiscovered gems like Alastair Galbraith and sonic innovators the Dead C, the island seems to inject a certain magnetism into the bands inhabiting it. The Mutton Birds are no exception.
The obvious geographical reference, however, is America and more specifically the alternative country scene where they would fit nicely alongside the likes of Lambchop, Bonnie "prince" Billy or a sober Royal Trux.
The Mutton Birds' romantic senibilities and sheer simplicity of songwriting could almost make them bedmates with Sebadoh, particularly on "Last Year's Shoes" and the inspiringly jaunty "As Close As This".
Nothing on "Rain, Steam and Speed" deviates far from the traditional two guitars/bass/drums set-up, but it's played with enough imagination and warmth to separate them from the stodgy grey mass of 'real' musicians who fear technology. In fact, this is how Fire in the Kitchen would sound, had they ever managed to live up to their full potential.
Anyone wondering what to spend that record token from Christmas on could do worse than make this their first purchase of '99.
Rain, Steam & Speed review - LAM Magazine (1999)
Having traded the cold, wet conditions of NZ for the chilly, precipitous ones of Britain, the Mutton Birds and in particular, head Bird Don McGlashan show that if the move was one in search of a particular muse, it would appear to have paid off. This is quite matter of factly, a beautiful fragile gift of an album. Think REM in nightswimming, and Everybody Hurts vein combined with Matthew Sweet lamenting about a certain Winona - two examples of as exquisite a guitar pop you'll ever hear, because that's what been encapsulated on the 11 tracks here.
As Close As This features a jaunty air propelled by a distinctive distorted, synth-guitar sound, but it's McGlashan's ability to come up with a chorus that enters space you weren't expecting but once experienced know that it's right. He's also got to be the only man who starts off a song with the line "I was on a Belgian Airlines plane". This is Winning Numbers and once again boasts a most swoonsome chorus where McGlashan proclaims he's not trading places with anyone. Meanwhile, deliriously heady backing vocals vie for your attentions in the mix of this song.
Small mercies has an addictive, central guitar riff that sounds like an off centre coursing of blood and is immediately contrasted by the crashing waves of guitar and snare that is Green Lantern. No let-up is on sight on this tightly reined and contained intimate affair with the magical first single Pulled Along By Love showing up some eight songs into the track listing. Hopefully, radio programmers will do the right thing so people's days will be enlightened. At this time of the year when fine musical product is thin on the ground, the Mutton Birds will stand up and stand out. - Gareth Gorman
Rain, Steam & Speed review - Telegraph (30th Jan 1999)
- David Cheal
They come from New Zealand, they're named after a rather dull-looking bird from that part of the globe, they make plaintive guitar music, and they were chucked off their last label for not selling enough records. Will this one, released by an obscure independent outfit, put them on the map?
Possibly: it's as good as anything they've done before, probably better, a strong collection of stirring pop-inflected songs with more than a hint of the Byrds and Crowded House. Pulled Along By Love is the standout track, more than a match for the tune which had hitherto become their anthem, Anchor Me - a cracking chorus, propelled by brisk, thrumming guitars.
If there is a problem, though, it is the predominantly maudlin tone of the material. Singer-songwriter Don McGlashan is a wistful, introspective chap; I imagine he's the type who sits on the stairs at parties, deep in conversation, rather than jumping around to Fatboy Slim. His lyrics are very personal accounts of love affairs, relationships and life-changing episodes, which, while giving the album an air of emotional honesty, does become a trifle wearing and self-indulgent. His voice, too, sounds rather flat and thin at times; it's stronger in the more up-tempo songs when it has to fight against the guitars to be heard. Having said this, it's all thoroughly listenable and pleasingly varied, from the full-on guitar fest of As Close As This to the folksy Richard Thompson-esque Jackie's Song.
Not a masterpiece, then, but there's enough good material here to suggest that the Mutton Birds are by no means an endangered species.
Rain, Steam & Speed review - The War Against Silence (Jan 2000)
- Glenn McDonald
Given how many statistics I record, it's probably odd that I don't keep track of how many times I put an album in the stack of things I plan to write about on Wednesday night, but reach Thursday morning without getting around to it. I do know the date I got something and the date I wrote about it, though, so I can calculate the gaps, and with the exception of some singles and a handful of albums I intentionally saved to review with the rest of a series, Rain, Steam & Speed holds the current procrastination record by a comfortable margin. At least half a dozen times, over the course of the last nine months, I've reached the end of a brace of pop records only to realize that I'd drifted too far from the Mutton Birds elegiac melancholy for the transition to make sense. If I'd had more Crowded House records to talk about, I'm sure I would have gotten to it sooner, as the Mutton Birds have come to seem to me like the perfect candidate to take over from their fellow UK-transplanted New Zealanders, in the way I thought Hothouse Flowers might take over for the Waterboys, or Manic Street Preachers for the Alarm, or Everclear for Nirvana. As of 1997's Envy of Angels there was still a dark undercurrent that kept the Mutton Birds from achieving Crowded House's pop purity, but an album later one of us must be less anxious, and the pop reveries into which these songs throw me feel uncannily similar to the ones I reach through "In My Command" or "Distant Sun" or "Fall at Your Feet". The verses of "AsCloseAsThis" are sharp and bleating, with compressed rhythm guitar and squeaky lead yelps, but the bass line and breathy percussion smooth out the bounding chorus. The Jules Shear-like "Winning Numbers" is striding and expansive, bright with guitars I keep mistaking for pianos. "Small Mercies" is sparer, nearly a folk song but for Alan Gregg's ascending bass lines; "Green Lantern" is brash and loud, McGlashan's slightly nasal voice sounding more like Bob Dylan than usual. "The Falls", with McGlashan adding a mournful euphonium, lies somewhere between the Blue Nile and Radiohead. The measured, pulsing "Last Year's Shoes", if it weren't for the surges of reverse-reverb backing vocals on the choruses, might nearly fit in on Del Amitri's Waking Hours. "Jackie's Song" is an old-fashioned British folk dirge of the sort Richard Thompson might have written, just McGlashan's reedy acoustic guitar and Don Mitchell's E-bow accompanying the grief-stricken narrative. The clattering drums of "Pulled Along by Love" are closer to Mitchell Froom's treatments of Crowded House, but the snarling guitars and looping vocals edge towards the Frames or the Frank & Walters. Stuart Nesbit adds pedal steel to "Goodbye Drug", and Ross Burge obliges with a country-ish drum cadence, but the honky-tonk swagger is undermined by the ghost of Nick Drake sighing in the quietest moments of McGlashan's singing. "Hands Full" is an odd, refracted tableau, but "Ray", the last song, slides into its plaintive choruses with the same timeless composure as "Private Universe" or Darden Smith's "Little Victories". Perhaps in the end this album is closer to Finn than any of the four Crowded House records themselves, but if that's what the Finns themselves extrapolated from Crowded House, I don't think it invalidates my equation to have the Mutton Birds follow a parallel course.
And there are a few moments, scattered through this album, when I do entertain the heretical idea that the Mutton Birds might one day supplant Crowded House in my affections. Although I love their music dearly, whenever I try to coax the same kind of deep emotional resonance out of Crowded House's lyrics, or go looking for something especially evocative to quote, I rarely get very far. McGlashan's conception of poetry is much closer to mine. "AsCloseAsThis"'s relationship tension is framed in geothermal repression, denied addiction, and a neighborhood geography that seems to be half a childhood suburb and half Hell. The content-with-what-I-have anthem "Winning Numbers" leaves several images behind in my head, but none as specific and vivid as the opening verse: "On a Belgian Airways plane / Here comes an ad for credit cards. / Just what language are those happy children singing? / I'm supposed to feel like joining in." There's not much as alienating as fake community. "You're free again / Now you've thrown in / Your job at the circus", observes the devoted "Green Lantern". "The Falls" is a succinct essay about the hollowness of the temptations that take us away from our homes, one of the few thesis-antithesis-synthesis constructions you'll find in a pop song. "There's a thin strand of winter inside / This long summer hillside / No matter how hot it gets", begins "Last Year's Shoes", and when the chorus repeats "Is this how it feels to find love?" I don't know whether he means that the thin strand of winter is love, and will be part of every other feeling thereafter, or that love, in this metaphor, is the heat, and the cold is the part of ourselves we refuse to commit. "Jackie's Song" is a disturbing soldier's lament, and the ambiguous gender of the title character makes it hard to be exactly sure what's going on, but my two theories are a) that Jackie is the singer's younger brother, killed in a war the narrator dragged him into thinking it would be an adventure, and b) that Jackie is the singer's love, back at home, and it's the narrator bleeding on ground he went to claim for her, imagining Jackie with him because, from his perspective, him dying and her dying are the same. "Goodbye Drug" is about giving up an addiction to failure and farewells, a response to the long-standing sad-pop conundrum most recently described in the Trembling Blue Stars' "Half in Love With Leaving". "Hands Full" is about the simultaneous appeal and difficulty of translating emotions into language. "When he asked if she'd mind saying / What they were doing, she said no at first, / But in a while she found herself warming / To the task of putting it into words. // Before long she had her hands full." We all do, but I'm glad we keep trying.
Rain, Steam & Speed review - www.music365.com (February 1999)
- Nigel Williamson
Melodic pop-rock from London-based New Zealanders, and probably the first pop album named after a Turner painting. The Mutton Birds apparently hate the comparisons with their compatriots Crowded House, but they would surely kill for a fraction of the commercial success enjoyed by Neil Finn's old band. They moved to London three years ago on the strength of a contract with Virgin but without a hit single or a definable image, they found themselves peremptorily dropped when their last album, Envy Of Angels sold poorly despite a slate of good reviews.
Happily they have answered the doubters in the best possible fashion with their most accomplished album to date, released independently on their own label. Glorious guitar tunes, intelligent lyrics and inventive harmonies put them in a tradition that traces its lineage through not only Crowded House but all the way back to the Beatles and the Byrds. The influence of R.E.M. is also strong and Don McGlashan's voice at times sounds uncannily like Michael Stipe, particularly on Small Mercies. From the Byrds-like guitars of Pulled Along By Love to the tender acoustics of Jackie's Song, McGlashan proves his versatility as a songwriter. Best of all is the atmospheric Ray, that sounds like all your favourite bits of Crowded House and R.E.M. rolled up into six minute epic.
Rain, Steam & Speed review - NZ Musician magazine (June 1999)
- Jennifer Scott
I am fast becoming to consider this album a work or art, and like a lot of art it has deceptive depths that may not be noticeable at first glance. Indeed, the 11 songs on this, The Mutton Birds' fourth album, tend to grow on you until you are left seeped in their beauty and filled with admiration of the songwriting talent behind them. Recorded at London's Blackwing Studios and produced by the band, 'Rain, Steam & Speed' proves, at times, to be some of the band's best work yet. Opener As Close As This and current single Pulled Along By Love are the more upbeat tracks, blending beautifully with the folkish Jackie's Song, haunting the falls and slide-guitar showpiece Goodbye Drug. Production is seemingly low key meaning your attention never strays from the stripped down bare beauty of the songs, but is also extremely professional. As always Don McGlashan's lyrics are the trump card, weaving vivid and touching stories, enhancing the music and making the songs truly special. A perfect winter album that will leave you glowing with respect for one Kiwi tall poppy that should be put in a vase and placed in the centre of the room to be admired.
Rain, Steam & Speed review - Mojo (March 1999)
- Johnny Black
Tuneful New Zealand guitar combo return to indie roots for fourth album.
Having invested much time and promotional effort into breaking The Mutton Birds in the UK, Virgin did the sensible thing and let them go last year. Happily, the band's renewed indie status suits them well on an album that plays to their strengths, keeping experimental excesses in check and concentrating on slightly skewed harmonic guitar rock. Despite echoes of R.E.M and Crowded House, this is one case where too much of a good thing adds up to a glorious feast, including backwards guitar duets, poignant discords, sonorous tubas and a name-check for DC Comics' most underrated superhero, Green Lantern, last mentioned in a song by Donovan. With Don McGlashan's songwriting growing ever more accomplished, it should only be a matter of time before Mutton Birds find the wider audience they deserve.
Envy of Angels review - Buzz magazine (July 1997)
Although scandalously overlooked in this country, New Zealand's Mutton Birds continue to mine a rich seam of intelligent songwriting with inequitable guile and attention to detail. Frontman Don McGlashan is back to his infectious best on a series of extravagantly melodramatic vignettes complete with elusive playing cooked up by producer Hugh Jones (Dodgy, the Bluetones).
Envy of Angels review - Real Groove (July 1997)
It has been four years since The Mutton Birds gave us their superb self-titled 1992 debut album... and two years since the less satisfying Salty (1994). Nowadays, The Mutton Birds are based in the United Kingdom. Envy Of Angels - their third album - was recorded in Wales during July and August 1996. Perhaps due to the change in landscape, their combined talents - especially the brilliance of Don McGlashan's songwriting and singing - shine more brightly than ever. More likely, the years of experience, hard work and practice have moved them all closer to perfection in their chosen craft. This album works like a text-book of how and why the modem pop song - in the hands of expert artisans - can sometimes stake a genuine claim to enduring art. Pick any example... say, "Straight To Your Head". At face value, this is a simple love song. But it is no slapdash three-chord throwaway. Its easy gracefulness and elegant structure disguise a far from simple harmonic design. The deceptively clean arrangement is spiced with weird sounds in the subliminal mix. And let's not forget the slightly sad poignancy of McGlashan's voice quality... a voice just made to sing his songs, or vice versa. The result is as near perfect as mortals generally get. And we are only on track one. And track one is not - repeat not - the best track. (Actually, "While You Sleep" is.) Yes, there are one or two weaker spots - "Crooked Mile" is an OK instrumental which seems intended mainly as a backdrop to the real songs (as such it is not out of place). "Come Around" is competent and also not musically out of place - but it is just a little too predictable to qualify for excellent. However, this is carping and others will disagree. There are 13 tracks on this album. By any count, nearly all of them - let's say 11 - are impeccable. Taken together they represent a classic album.
Envy of Angels review - www.xtra.co.nz (1997)
This is a record which takes a while to grow on you. On first listen it seems, well, slightly bland, very slick, and not really like the Mutton Birds of old - there's no 'Dominion Road' here. But after a couple of listens you'll find yourself inexplicably humming tunes from it. It gets in your head. Apparently most of the material for this CD was recorded at a remote studio in rural Wales; the same studio where Queen recorded Bohemian Rhapsody. The Mutton Birds have spent the good part of the last two years in the UK and Europe, playing various festivals and getting rave reviews. You would expect their sound to have changed because of this. It's amazing, then, that there is still a very "kiwi" feeling to most of these songs. I think this is partly because of Don McGlashan's poetic lyrics, and his ability to write songs about simple, everyday events; meeting a new flatmate; going swimming at night, driving on new tar-seal; it's all stuff we can instantly recall. The songs are very slickly produced; there's less jangly guitar and more lilting poppy tunes than on previous Mutton Birds releases. The first single from the album, 'She's Been Talking', is not the strongest song here, although it is very catchy. The first track; 'Straight to Your Head' should be a hit, 'While You Sleep' is a beautiful romantic ballad, and the title track, 'Envy of Angels', is quite lovely; a moody, goosebumpy song which is a perfect finish to a pretty interesting and ultimately, very satisfying listen. Give it some time to grow on you too.
Sound Republic, London, 13th January 1999 - www.music365.com (January 1999)
- Stephen Dowling
There can't be many bands in these uncertain times who have reason to thank the cost-cutting departments of their record company: The Mutton Birds, however, are one such. Three-and-a-half years ago they arrived from New Zealand with a one album deal with Virgin UK and nothing certain beyond the European festival season. There have been hard slogs across the country, a line-up change or two, a critically if not commercially successful studio album (1997's 'Envy Of Angels') and then the end of their record deal. Hard enough to take when you're British born-and-bred. All the more unsettling when you're 12,000 miles away from home. The Mutton Birds, however, have fought on. Singer/guitarist Don McGlashan's slightly melancholy muse hasn't lightened but the music has, losing some of the angular artiness that characterised their first two NZ-recorded albums. Now the band - McGlashan, drummer Ross Burge, guitarist Chris Sheehan and bassist Tony Fisher - steam through a string of songs short on drama but long on gently-jangling psychedelia.
The Sound Republic isn't the most natural environment for these warm, No Depression-tinged pop songs, looking as it does like something from a Miami Vice set designer's wet dream. But despite the juxtaposition - smoky, country rock in over-chromed cyber-cocktail lounge - this hour-long set does nothing to take away the Birds' hard-won live reputation. With their fourth - and this time self-released - album, 'Rain, Steam & Speed', on the horizon, there's little looking back. Their first ever single 'Dominion Road' rears its head as a reminder of the old days, the early '90s XTC- meets-The Chills hooks married to McGlashan's melancholic but always humane storytelling. 'Small Mercies' and 'Winning Numbers' are the pick of the newest offerings, two songs that lodge in the head even before the first verses are out of the way, redolent of the best moments of The Jayhawks. Both rise head and shoulders above the new single, 'Pulled Along By Love', which tonight never becomes the soaring pop song it so obviously tries to be.
Some would call it workmanlike. But then The Mutton Birds have never been about appealing to Face-reading taste-makers. Moments like the elegant 'Your Window', resurrected after a few long years off the setlist, are what they're all about - great songs . A few of the undoubted upcoming casualties in thinning label rosters might take heart ftom a night like this.
Bar Bodega, Wellington, NZ - source unknown (5th March 1998)
Under cover of darkness, The Mutton Birds crept into town for a "secret" gig at Bar Bodega. Shaun Chait just happened to be there.
So secret was this gig (March 5th 1998) that it appears the band forgot to check if the venue had been pre-booked, only to find out late in the piece that out of towners "Two Foot Flame" were scheduled to play. As it was, the secret was Wellington's worst kept during the lead up week, but many still missed out.
The Mutton Birds are undoubtedly one of the great acts in NZ music; testimony to this was the number of celebrities in the audience - Barry Saunders and Annie Crummer next to me for starters. I usually hate unpluggeds. The very concept denies a band of so many key ingredients. But having seen the Birds play plugged the Friday before in Auckland, I knew they would pull it off. The two hour show saw them firing on all cylinders, a friendly family-type atmosphere, intimacy, humour, on stage banter, a guest appearance (Wayne Mason joining the guys for the show closer 'Nature', which brought the house down), a strong setlist, and the element at the heart of The Mutton Birds: great songs.
The set had everything. Personal favourite, the haunting 'A Thing Well Made', with the more fun sounding 'Come Around' and 'April'. 'Trouble With You' is possibly the most underrated Birds' song ever, whilst 'Wellington' had the crowd beaming from ear to ear, Throw in a lovely version of 'Ten Feet Tall' and the monumental 'Along The Boundary', complete with extended David Long guitar solo, and you have the proof that this is a very special band.
The group, in great spirits, were having a ball, with Don McGlashan especially in a buoyant mood. The punters loved every second of it, absorbed in the mood of the night, and chanting for an encore before the band had even left the stage. On certain nights, a performer can turn the Bodega into a magical place. Last Thursday will go down as one of those nights. You can have your Crowded House, Garageland, and The Exponents. I'll take the Mutton Birds any day, thanks.
Shepherds Bush Empire, London, 1st May 1997 - The Times (3rd May 1997)
- Paul Sexton
Tragically Hip / Mutton Birds
IT WAS fitting that a concert by rock bands from Canada and New Zealand should take place at the Empire, which on Thursday night hosted scenes of expatriate passion to match the political fervour raging outside.
Auckland's Mutton Birds, working themselves hoarse on a seemingly open-ended tour of Britain, were back as guests at a venue they headlined some weeks before, and put their account further into credit in the first half of an evening of articulate rock'n'roll.
Of the material from their upcoming album, Envy of Angels, the warmest hand went to the engaging recent single Come Around. By then, Don McGlashan's band had restated their ability to merge fine melodies, absorbing lyrics and well-read influences from the Beatles to the Byrds. Particularly effective was A Thing Well Made, with its storyline - about a man who sells sporting goods - and vague air of oddness, heightened by McGlashan's euphonium.
Six albums into a hugely successful domestic career and 11 years after forming in Kingston, Ontario, the Tragically Hip remain underachievers in these parts. But you would not have known that from the rabid, note-perfect enthusiasm of this crowd, as leader Gordon Downie announced they were here to 'celebrate your victories and cancel your defeats'.
The lack of wider media awareness of their potent guitar attack and literate touch means that audiences simply cannot hear what they are missing. But among friends who cheered their every move, they combined the unalloyed energy of an R.E.M. with a cerebral lyrical approach, four-fifths of the band focusing purely on their instruments while Downie presented a magnetic combination of the urbane and the unhinged. Giftshop and 700ft Ceiling, the latter 'a song about unlimited potential', were among the most effective of the new batch.
This indomitable performance confirmed the Tragically Hip's continuing readiness for the big league. A decade down the line that status may be denied to them, but it will not be for lack of idiosyncratic charm. Downie only has to announce an unlikely lovesong about a dentist in the British Navy stationed in the Falkland Islands and you simply have to listen.
The Borderline, London - The Times (23rd August 1995)
- Paul Sexton
Migrating Birds Fly In To Start From Scratch
WITH four years of dues already paid and two enormous hit albums to their name at home in New Zealand, the Mutton Birds probably feel that they have earned the right to a review that does not mention them in the same sentence as Crowded House. Not today, boys, but after a highly individual performance such as this, the occasion must be coming soon.
The singer and chief writer, Don McGlashan, realised that, for all the domestic success, they are back at square one in Britain. Mentioning the lists of previous visitors to the Borderline that adorn the club's entrance, and in particular several notable "secret" gigs, he mused that the Mutton Birds had considered making this a secret affair. Then he remembered that no one knows who they are anyway. That left-field approach is only part of their considerable charm, as you might expect from a group that names itself after a migratory sea bird. They share with their more famous part-compatriots a faith in strong melody, three-way harmony and lyrics that are interesting and usually slightly out of whack. As one of their set highlights puts it, "If the Queen's English is good enough for Jesus Christ, it's good enough for me."
McGlashan is a visual mix of Robert Redford and Roger Daltrey, but plays a better euphonium than either. He produced the instrument several songs into what had theretofore been the regular guitar-bass-drums configuration. Now we knew that this was no meat-and-two-veg outfit.
The frontman was feted last year with New Zealand's biggest songwriting award for Anchor Me, a charming, plaintive creation from the Birds' second chart-topping album. Here, audiences will be able to cream off the best of those two next month with the Virgin compilation Nature, from which the title song came over as a typically sophisticated singsong. On the single Dominion Road, and elsewhere, some of guitarist David Long's stylings recall some Byrds of an earlier migration. The next time this band flies back to these shores, I feel they will need a bigger nest.