It's hard to explain to people now just how radically wonderful the Flying Nun bands sounded in 1987 or so. I mean, here was indie music -- then called "alternative" -- that didn't fit into any clean definition of genre and which was being made with a certain degree of brainy wit. And yet these bands never became too arch or self-aware. And there were dozens of these bands, all operating at their respective peaks for a few years. A glorious time soundtracked by glorious music.
One listen now to "Little Hearts" from the reissue of the debut album from Able Tasmans should convince you of how special this scene was. The cut, the second track on A Cuppa Tea and a Lie Down (1987), sounds like early Talking Heads covering The Monkees and then it morphs into something with a decided chamber pop bent. The enormously catchy ditty segues into the piano miniature of "And Relax" which itself goes into the guitar-rock of "Rainbow", a longer, more expansive jam.
It's that battle between the out there moments on noisier tracks and the reflective moments on others that makes A Cuppa Tea and a Lie Down such an important record. As "And We Swam The Magic Bay" spools out via a lovely piano figure, with violins joining, in you may be surprised again if you haven't heard this record in some time just how special the Able Tasmans were. Poised somewhere between the intellectual/emotional pop of The Chills and the chamber rock that The Verlaines would eventually master, these tunes are sublime constructions full of subtle touches -- the flute in "Fa Fa Fa Fa Fa" -- that make this memorable music.
Speaking of The Chills, Graeme Humphreys of the Able Tasmans seems to have taken some inspiration from Martin Phillipps and his crew on "Sour Queen" as the organ becomes such an integral part of this band's sound on this cut at least. The tune, one of the highlights on A Cuppa Tie and a Lie Down (1987), is a soaring and simultaneously understated gem and the very sort of thing that only Flying Nun bands could do in that era.
If I draw too much attention to the diversity of styles here on this debut I may make it sound as if the band were not quite sure of what style to stick with but that's really not the case at all. Rather, what the Able Tasmans are doing here is refining the Dunedin Sound to suit themselves. Building on the work of the first wave of Flying Nun bands, Able Tasmans were creating something fresh and still familiar here.
And if this reissue wasn't special enough, we get the tracks from 1985's The Tired Sun EP to round things out. Lead cut "Patrick's Mother" nearly snarls in a blast of organ-driven angst. The brief "Rain in Tulsa" shows a certain bit of wit and inventiveness in just 2 minutes.
The swirling organ figures that open "Snow White Chook" give way to the piano bits that sound like classic Squeeze cuts. The tune, supremely catchy, is a sort of crash-course on the appeal of the Able Tasmans. There's more inventiveness here than in just about any other non-Flying Nun band from this era and it makes me regret that I didn't listen to even more of this stuff back in the late 1980s.
This reissue of A Cuppa Tie and a Lie Down is an essential purchase for anyone interested in this scene. I think that one could make a great case that the Able Tasmans never got the attention they deserved on these shores which is sad 'cause there is so much to love here. Fans of Brave Words and Bird Dog are going to find themselves instant fans of this band's stuff too. Released in the same year as those records by The Chills and The Verlaines, A Cuppa Tea and a Lie Down is, in many ways, their equal. Effortlessly blending wildly melodic pop with detours into more straightforward rock numbers, the Able Tasmans mastered what made the music on this label so magical and perfect.