Album Review: The Chills – “Silver Bullets”

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Even if they never released a full length LP, The Chills’ place in the history of independent music and would have been secured with the release of their first singles. Those early songs, released on the iconic Flying Nun label and collected on the 1986 compilation Kaleidoscope World, helped define New Zealand’s storied Dunedin Sound of jangly guitar pop. In particular, their giddy 1982 debut “Rolling Moon” and its brooding follow-up “Pink Frost,” issued two years later, predict much of what would come out of the United Kingdom’s brilliant and wrongfully derided “twee” movement just a few years later.

The band didn’t put out a full length until 1987’s Brave Words and by then they had effectively become the solo concern of singer and songwriter Martin Phillipps, who led a constantly shifting lineup through subsequent LPs. 1990’s Submarine Bells included “Heavenly Pop Hit,” a power pop single so brimming with hooks that it’s astounding that it only barely dented the charts in places other than their home country. After a few more records, the band and Phillipps fell largely silent as he dealt with with the effects of drug addiction and Hepatitis C.

The band’s return to relatively active status a few years ago was marked first by an EP in 2004 and then a new single, the superb power pop nugget “Molten Gold,” in 2013. That song is reprised at the end of Silver Bullets, the first Chills album since 1996 and another great record in a year brimming with superb reunion albums.

The record’s relative consistency proves that Phillipps has retained much of what made him such an engaging creative force in the 80s and 90s as he leads a band that has become the group’s longest running lineup.

This is reaffirmed by the album’s first song, the downtempo “Warm Waveform”, which follows an atmospheric introductory track. The song trades in the jangly, intricate guitar work that Phillipps and The Chills have made their name on, and the slow burning song is catchy even with its lack of a proper chorus.

The lower tempo of “Warm Waveform” is indicative of some other songs on Silver Bullets. The energetic but reserved “Underwater Wasteland” takes advantage of its slower pace to let its vocal melody sprawl out, as does the foggy “Tomboy.”

That’s not to say that the record is all downbeat stuff; The reliably catchy single “America Says Hello” bursts out of the speakers the way that a good Chills pop tune should, led by Phillipps’ biting lyrics about American imperialism and cyclical life of empires (sample lyric: “For it’s a small world after all,  a lonely little blue and white ball/And the universe yawns at our plans as another empire expands.”) And yet, even on a song trading in heady political satire, Phillipps’ expressive voice is at still sounds as bright and wide-eyed as it did when he was 19 on “Rolling Moon.”

The record’s best song, “Pyramid/When the Poor Can Reach the Moon” is a wonderful summation at what makes the band so great and essential. The two part, eight minute song is a collection of hooks that plays to the band’s strengths. The “Pyramid” section reflects some of the lower tempo tracks on the record and recalls a downtrodden, galloping version of “Heavenly Pop Hit.” The other segment, “When the Poor Can Reach the Moon” is the catchiest thing the band has put out in years. The segment is one hook after the other and is one of the year’s best power pop moments. It’s a bit cheeky to make it the second half of an eight minute track, but the songs work together and reflect each other well, showcasing Phillipps’ brilliance as an arranger.

The album’s familiarly and nature makes it seems like the band never went away in the first place. It should be a treat for longtime fans of indie pop that one of its landmark bands can take such a long break between studio albums and manage to sound no worse for wear.

The band members that Phillipps has surrounded himself that comprise the latest iteration of The Chills bring out the best in his music and lyrics and make the record a true band album, as opposed to a Martin Phillipps solo record. In particular drummer, Todd Knudson and keyboardist Erica Scally put forth excellent instrumental performances throughout the album.

Every song brims with the shimmering guitar hooks and vocal melodies that the band has made their stock and trade. In a way, Silver Bullets doesn’t feel like a record from a band that hasn’t put one out in nearly two decades, nor one that has never had a stable lineup. There’s a warm familiarity in the album’s songs that allows it to slide in perfectly with the other records in their discography no matter the time gap. Silver Bullets is a must-listen for fans of guitar pop and a welcome return for one of independent rock’s most storied acts.
Rating: 9.5/10

Ryan Gibbs is the music editor for The Young Folks. He is based in Newport, Rhode Island.