The Bats

At the National Grid

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The Bats' first album in ten years starts off perfectly with the low-key "Western Isles," with Robert Scott and Kaye Woodward singing delicate harmonies while the guitars gently hum behind them. It is a lovely welcome back, and not only do they pick up where they left off, At the National Grid may be their best album since Daddy's Highway. If you know your New Zealand pop or college rock history, that's really saying something. That record was a masterpiece of understated emotion that sounded completely unique and true. This record is lighter in tone, more cleanly recorded, and almost as powerful. The songs are perhaps the most diverse-sounding batch they have released yet, ranging from the slow-burning "Pre War Blues" and the noisy instrumental "Hubert" to the sweet-as-pie "Bells," the clattering indie rocker "Things," and the bouncy "Flowers & Trees." Of course, they all sound like the Bats, with Scott's fragile but forceful vocals, the jangling, intertwining guitars from Scott and Woodward, Paul Kean's melodic and up-front bass, Malcolm Grant's simple but rock-solid drumming, and -- above all -- poignant and lively songwriting. In fact, Robert Scott is at the top of his considerable talents here, crafting tunes that linger long after the record is over. Maybe that is one of the benefits of taking ten years off. Woodward's one song, the surging drone rocker "Mir," is a gem, too, and her vocal harmonies are as sparkling as ever. In fact, the whole band is as sparkling as ever, and having the group back at such a high level is as refreshing as a plunge into an ice-cold mountain stream. Indeed, after 23 years with the same lineup and after having taken ten years off, you would expect a band to come back and rest on its laurels by playing the old hits to the faithful. Thankfully, not the Bats.

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