A new Bats album is like Christmas. Which is to say it’s infrequent, and like the conversations with family members you catch up with for the first time in 12 months, it plays out in a certain familiar, ritualized way, though not without genuine affection. Like family, The Bats are reliable, emerging from the Batcave every few years with a workmanlike long-player for fans of New Zealand’s late-1980s rock scene and Pavement obsessives who heard Stephen Malkmus was pretty hot on the band. This year marks their 30th year as a band with nary a lineup change. And as they settle comfortably into their role as elder statesmen of Kiwi indie and godfathers of the Dunedin Sound (along with The Clean, in which Bats frontman Robert Scott plays bass), the music itself hasn’t changed much either.
“Fingers of Dawn” is late-80s alternative gold. The brief, searing solos that leap out of the choruses during “Free all the Monsters” follow the melody in that almost-lazy-but-perfect sort of way that The Beatles mastered with a bit more skill. But, unlike Daddy’s Highway and a couple of their other early albums, Free All the Monsters is 12 tracks long, a much more reasonable length and way better suited to their Byrdsian songs.
“Long Halls” recalls the hazy, adventurous Couchmaster, with a touch of Mojave 3 (that’s probably bad provenance, but trust me, that’s what it sounds like). The drony-jangly atmosphere of earlier Bats albums is still there, but the band is bolstered by some single-reeds and what sounds like a fiddle. The vocal melody is restricted and the song is as charmingly simple as we’ve come to expect, but the higher fidelities and thicker instrumentation are the main features that make Free All the Monsters a varied, dynamic listen overall.
I’ve often thought the best critique antipodean rock offers has something to do with its guilelessness. Like the chorus from “Free All the Monsters,” or lines like “Apples and oranges/ I can’t taste them like before” in “Simpletons,” there’s a tendency to wear their formal and historical constraints on their sleeves. The Triffids, Able Tasmans, and some other Flying Nun bands have it, too. Or even Nick Cave or AC/DC. But as with other Bats albums, Free All the Monsters’ charming modesty is a hair’s breadth away from monotonous. I didn’t really appreciate the extent of the band’s consistency (read: sameyness) until I went back and read reviews of their older albums and realized that almost all the descriptions more or less held true for this one too. Like the folksy, straight-ahead beat, the “wispy tune buoying flat drone,” as Christgau put it in a review of Completely Bats. Of their debut album, allmusic drolls they’re “not the most willfully experimental of musicians.” And so it goes. Like the car you learned to drive in, the Batmobile won’t turn heads, but it sure brings back a lot of memories — and as your mother said, reliability is important too.