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Progressive Ears CD Review

Through The One Last Door

I'm not generally one for buying compilations, let alone bothering to review them, but this is special. Not Drowning Waving, throughout the second half of the '80's and the early '90's produced a series of superb albums which blended melancholy pop with ambient pieces which could stretch from brooding to ecstatic within minutes and what was becoming at the time known as "world music". Those albums had a brief CD release some years back and are long deleted. The CDs now fetch into the hundreds of dollars among collectors. Hopefully this two CD compilation - a disc of instrumentals and a disc of songs - is a sign that they will be returning to general circulation.

The instrumental disc features many of their best tracks. “Sing-Sing”, which features infectious percussion, John Phillips’ guitar distortion, bamboo flutes and the singing of Papua New Guinean highlanders, builds and builds to a remarkable climax. “Sweat” follows a similar trajectory with a more modern slant and “Maroon Rust” has a delicacy which wouldn’t have been out of place on Eno’s Music For Films. “Call Across the Highlands” is an evocative mix of flutes and David Bridie’s keys and “Norman Young” is a romp based around sampled observations by one of those old blokes who can be great fun in small doses but who – if they live next door to me, anyway – need to make a choice between continuing to regale any passer-by with their opinions and continuing to have legs that work.

Listening to the vocal disc is a strange experience. I had forgotten just how remarkably textured the songs are: Phillips’ guitar is all over the place while hardly ever drawing attention to itself, while the ‘cello – played on later albums by Helen Mountfort – provides a strong ground to the melancholy of the piano. “Cold and the Crackle” is my favourite: it’s characters lost in the frosted Australian highlands and slowly dying to eachother. “Terra Nullius” features a dark mix of muted keys, didjeridoo, “sand footsteps” and a stubborn rhythm, beautifully evoking survival through two hundred years of “legal” clap-trap. “The Kiap Song”, possibly the best straight pop tune the band ever wrote, features lyrics of surpassing bitterness, while “Teteko” and “Walk Me Home” combine stories of poverty and hope with heartbreaking piano and some of John Phillips’ best work. Daryl Hall once said that when Robert Fripp played guitar it was possible to hear the universe crying. You can hear it in these too.

No compilation is perfect: I miss “Wobble”’s humour and I don’t know why they chose the dull “Crazy Birds” over “Spark”, but these are small matters. The real loss, I think, is “Albert Namatjira”. But maybe that’s not a surprise. These songs and pieces emerged from a time when we thought there was some hope that Australia could make peace with it’s oppressed First People. “Their strength is coming back.” After years of a conservative government, things don’t look so hopeful. Then again, the 1980’s were also the years when the French sent terrorists into New Zealand to blow up the Rainbow Warrior (do a Google search)... No time is perfect.

The last time I saw NDW live was at an inner-city RSL Club. John Phillips played a brief, distortion soaked solo and David Bridie smiled at the audience apologetically. "It's his birthday", he said. There's a homely, intimate humour in this music as well. I think you should buy a copy...

Progressive Ears
Member: Oreb (Profile) (All Album Reviews by Oreb)
Date: March 12, 2005
Format: CD (Album)