The Chills – Kaleidoscope World

The Chills’ reputation as one of the landmark indie pop bands of the past 30 years is mostly well deserved. Nonetheless, it’s remarkable the extent to which that rep rests on the merits of the New Zealand band’s initial eight-song EP. Few artists have attained such stature without making a single top-shelf album. Many fans point to 1990’s shimmering Submarine Bells as the closest thing. My vote goes to 1992’s forgotten Soft Bomb, which achieved stretches of greatness even while collapsing under its own weight at other points.

But that eight-song EP, the original edition of Kaleidoscope World, is so special that a lot of the Chills’ later shortcomings can be overlooked. Martin Phillipps and his ever-changing cast of sidemen (and the revolving door had already started to spin by 1986) absolutely pinned that sublime psych-pop balance of trippy atmosphere and bittersweet melody better than anyone since Syd Barrett himself.

“Rolling Moon” and the baroque “Doledrums” tilt toward the pop end of that spectrum, “Frantic Drift” and “Satin Doll” toward the ethereal one – and it’s hard to argue with either. And we’ve yet to account for “Pink Frost,” a doom-pop classic with both prog and goth leanings that sounds like virtually nothing else of its era.

Not to overplay the power of this one EP, which itself wasn’t even a single work – it tacked new material onto tracks from an earlier shared release with a couple of other excellent bands from the then-emerging Dunedin, NZ scene, the Verlaines and Sneaky Feelings (and we haven’t even mentioned the Clean yet!) Both sides of a spectacular early Chills single further up the ante here – the churning “I Love My Leather Jacket” is the band’s toughest sounding track, even as Phillipps pines for a deceased former bandmate, drummer Martyn Bull. One could argue that Bull’s passing informed the themes of departure that permeate the band’s work; however, given Phillipps’ history of severe depression it’s likely those motifs would have emerged regardless. OK – one other gritty outlier, the solid “Bite,” plays like a 1977 UK punk shouter. But typically the Chills’ touch is lighter.

This may sound greedy, but at this point we’ve pretty much exhausted the highlights. Most past US versions of Kaleidoscope World include 18 tracks, and the remainder are essentially superfluous. If you already own one of those discs it’s hard to advocate another purchase, even though this new “deluxe edition” adds six more tracks. Four of those (two live, two studio) are fine but inessential.

The other two – early versions of songs that appear on later albums – are worth hunting down, though. The stripped-down “Dan Destiny and the Silver Dawn” is more poignant than the Brave Words version, the frenetic “Oncoming Day” less fussy than the Submarine Bells one.

More importantly, if some version of Kaleidoscope World isn’t already in your collection, this one is a no-brainer. The Chills released a new album, the middling Silver Bullets, last year. But as with all good stories, you’ll want to start at the beginning.

The Chills
Kaleidoscope World
[Flying Nun]