New Zealand has many things going for it: The Lord of the Rings movies were filmed there, they have kiwi fruits and birds named after the fruits and Maoris. It's also the home of Tall Dwarfs, who have been writing songs in the vein of Jad Fair, XTC and Momus since 1981, recording solely using analog equipment. The Sky Above the Mud Below is the first time the Tall Dwarfs (Chris Knox and Alec Bathgate) have ventured into the vicinity of the digital age, but the record is proof that good songs in the hands of good musicians have only to be enhanced by things like Pro Tools.
The record starts off with "Meet the Beatle," a (surprise!) Beatles-inspired song about being inspired by a Beatle. This is a perfect example of a prototypical Tall Dwarfs song: Form equals function. If the song is about, say, a hillbilly named Michael, the song will employ "slide and backwards guitars" and "mouth percussion." Or, if the song is called "You Want Me Shimmy," rest assured the lyrics will be delivered with ungrammatical, nonsensical glee over stripped-down Van Halen-esque guitar lines. The lyrics, while not poetically innovative, are to the point and clever: "You chuck me in canola oil to see how fast I fry," sings Chris Knox in "How the West Was Won," adding, "I gotta say this seems quite extreme." Well, of course.
The Sky Above travels from the bottom up on the emotion scale, starting with "Melancholy" ("I think of you and wonder why / There's nothing there to meet the eye"), moving on to elitism ("We are the chosen few / We are wise/ We are the brightest of our time"), hopeless depression ("Some days you don't want to go out / you want to blow out / the big brain of the world"), lots and lots of complacency ("Really don't have much ambition / There is nothing I really need"), finally coming to a rest at newfound hope ("Somewhere in the world there will be another girl / to take you home").
And then there's an awkwardly long pause, and the rest of the record begins. The Sky Above the Mud Below was released in Z-land in 2001, but the 2003 U.S. version includes the International Tall Dwarfs EP, entitled "The Weidenhausen Impediment. "The International Tall Dwarfs are Knox and Bathgate plus others like Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel, Laura Carter of Elf Power, Graeme Downes of the Verlaines, David and Hamish Kilgour of Clean and Jad Fair. (The original idea was to record songs using sounds sent in on cassette from fans around the world.) The awkward silence serves as a cognitive wall between the album proper and the EP; the clever lyrics are still there, of course, and they pack a punch--"All these castles make me carsick / Full of arseholes I should arselick" begins "Carsick"--but with the addition of lots of strange noises, the product is terrifically bizarre.
Multilateralism may complicate the music of the Tall Dwarfs, but that complication only makes it all the more interesting: "Possum Born" is a simple tale of Americans experiencing new and strange things like possums. "We took our American friends camping," begins the song, "and we sat them in their tents at night and we got them a little bit drunk and then, all of a sudden, they couldn't believe their ears ... There's a possum in the tree!" Jeff Mangum and Laura Carter make creepy possum noises throughout the song, which gets scarier and scarier until finally it's over and "Over the Water" begins and, thankfully, it's peaceful and pretty. But then you realize "Over the Water" could be an allegory about cultural imperialism and colonialization and all is not so well. Such is the way of dwarfs that are tall, one supposes.