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The Bats
At The National Grid
Magic Marker Records

It's a tough life being a music reviewer - all the free CDs you can consume, on the guest list for all the biggest gigs in your town, snorting drugs from the thighs of naked nubiles ... well, at least that's what Greil Marcus told me. Every so often though, even the most jaded among us are smitten by a record that's so good we actually have to shell out our own money to buy it, and that's what happened to me with this wonderful, welcome return from The Bats.

A quick primer for those who've missed out so far: The Bats are led by Robert Scott, one of New Zealand's foremost musicians and an amazingly prolific songwriter. Not content to have led a band that will forever be near the top of most jangle-pop fan's list of favourites, he's also a founder member of The Clean, not to mention offshoots The Magick Heads and Electric Blood. Truly the man who put the "o" in "overachiever" ...

The Bats are by no means one man's vehicle, though, but a true band whose whole is so much more than the sum of the parts. Bassist Paul Kean, drummer Malcolm Grant, and especially Kaye Woodward's lead guitar and beautiful backing (and occasionally fronting) vocals give wings to Scott's songs, which are generally shiny pop gems offset with a beautifully pastoral undercurrent, and (especially on later albums) frequent fuzzed out guitar drones. The group members obviously know they're onto a good thing, having had the same lineup for more than 20 years and reforming for this album after a ten-year break.

At the National Grid starts off low key with a snippet of studio chatter in the thickest Antipodean accents this side of a Foster's ad, then into the lovely acoustic ballad "Western Isles", with Scott and Woodward harmonizing over a lilting melody. After that the band picks up pretty much where they left off on "Couchmaster" with the chugging, Velvet-y guitars of "Horizon" and the noisy instrumental "Hubert".

The rest of the songs make up one of the Bats' most diverse collections, and quite possibly their best album since the heady days of Daddy's Highway and The Law of Things. There are plenty of lighter moments like "Bells" and the bounding "Flowers & Trees" to offset the louder tracks, with Woodward's sole composition "Mir" striking a deft balance between the two with its droning instrumentation and sweet, just-this-side-of-offkey vocals reminiscent of Naomi Yang's performances in Galaxie 500 (now there's another band that's due for a reunion ...)

To have a group as unique and influential as the Bats back after such a long layoff, and with one of their strongest sets of new songs to offer to boot, should be an object lesson to all those other groups that seem to be popping out of retirement and peddling their old songs to the faithful. Let's hope it's much less than another ten years until the next one.

-Gareth Bowles

Track Listing:
1. Western Isles
2. Horizon
3. Hubert
4. Bells
5. Single File
6. Pre War Blues
7. The Rays
8. Things
9. Mir
10. Up to the Sky
11. We Do Not Kick
12. Flowers & Trees

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