We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
In 1992, when I shuffled up to the counter of my local record store to buy tickets for one of the Chills’ last-ever U.S. live dates, the indie-rock-hipster clerk who took my money gave me a piece of his mind. “The Chills used to be good,” he said, “but their newer stuff is overproduced.” I countered with something about how band leader Martin Phillipps’ shimmering, multilayered songs seemed to me to benefit from lavish production. I cited the group’s major-label debut, 1990’s Submarine Bells. But he wouldn’t hear it: “Nah, his rawer stuff is better.” Phillipps’ new solo release, Sketch Book: Volume One, culls 17 songs from the 200 or so the Dunedin, New Zealand-based musician recorded on his four-track Portastudio between 1988 and 1995. According to Phillipps’ liner notes, the tracks were “quickly, often roughly, thrown down onto cheap tapes with poor-quality microphones.” Indeed, the recordings clatter with low-budget percussion, crackle with oversaturation, and sometimes nearly drown in tape hiss, but Sketch Book’s many great moments make you forget all about production values: “February” rushes by in a joyous blur of ’60s-damaged keyboards and jangling guitars, “Residential Green Cell” unfolds with slithery grace, and “Hawea” pays moving tribute to the lake where Phillipps’ four-track finally died. Not all of the album is so impressive, however. Some cuts should have stayed in the home-studio vault, and others really do require more fully realized treatments: “No More Tigers” hints frustratingly at muscularity, “Haunt Me” inscrutably shifts between death march and doo-wop, and “Carabela” needs a hefty dose of dramatic tension. If I ever see that record store guy again, I’ll have to tell him that, in a way, we were both right.—Leonard Roberge