One nice thing about being in your late 40s—there actually are a few—is that you’ve been alive long enough to fall in love with an album, drift in your tastes and sell your copy of it, forget that the band who made it ever existed, and then get surprised 25 years later by a reissue.
When I bought a CD of Straitjacket Fits‘ Melt in 1991, shortly after its stateside release, I doubt I even knew the band were from New Zealand. It’s not like I could look them up on the Internet. I probably just thought the cover art looked cool (it turns out to be by the band’s drummer, John Collie). I played the hell out of that CD for a couple years, but I don’t think it even made the move to Chicago with me in 1996.
Almost everything I know about Straitjacket Fits I’ve learned in the past 24 hours. It started Sunday with a tweet by music writer Dave Segal about their 1988 debut full-length, Hail, that lit up a long-abandoned pathway in my brain. I set to researching the band, and the first thing I discovered was that vastly influential New Zealand indie label Flying Nun had reissued Melt for the first time last September.
Guitarists and songwriters Shayne Carter and Andrew Brough were Straitjacket Fits’ Lennon and McCartney, each contributing his own distinctive material and singing voice—Brough’s airy and angelic, Carter’s nasal and almost sneering. Brough tended to write the gentle, pretty songs, and Melt was his last album with Straitjacket Fits. For the band’s last two releases (they split in 1994), they cranked up the multicolored guitars.
My music collection no longer includes much that’d sound remotely appropriate on a mixtape for a crush, but Brough’s “Down in Splendour” feels engineered for the purpose. It’s also the only song on Melt that I recognized instantly, after not hearing it since Bill Clinton’s presidency. The whole record has a gorgeous sweet-and-sour vibe—lush and abrasive, peppy and mournful, thrilling and sinister.
Flying Nun’s resuscitation of the Straitjacket Fits catalog (it reissued Hail in July) doesn’t seem likely to result in a reunion, unfortunately—bassist David Wood died in 2010, and Brough followed this past February. But it should secure the group’s place on the bafflingly long list of great New Zealand guitar bands that have never blown up in the States.
Flying Nun has released music by an impressive share of those bands over the decades, for which it was rewarded with a string of new owners and years of exile in major-label hell. Festival Records, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited, purchased a 50 percent stake in Flying Nun in 1990, then merged with Mushroom Records in 1998; the combined company was absorbed by Warner Music Group in 2006. But in 2009 a partnership that included Flying Nun founder Roger Shepherd bought the label back from WMG, and it’s been its old independent self ever since. Thankfully, you can buy Straitjacket Fits reissues without giving a penny to a disgusting multinational conglomerate or a serial purveyor of brain worms. v
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