New Zealand singer/guitarist David Kilgour’s name is seldom mentioned without “(The Clean)” following, as more people around the world have heard of the immensely influential Kiwi trio than of Kilgour as a solo artist. Artists such as Pavement, Yo La Tengo and Jay Reatard have cited The Clean as a major influence, and the former two have invited the band to tour with them several times. When he tours solo internationally, Kilgour doesn’t tend to make money, but when The Clean reform to play, as they have done every few years since 1989, there is a little income to be had. It’s a paradoxical state of affairs, because Kilgour’s output of seven solo albums – eight if you count his collaboration with NZ poet Sam Hunt, 2009’s Falling Debris – has been of such a high consistency that it would have made a wealthy person out of any US-based musician prepared to tour regularly.
Those solo albums are well worth your attention, not least because the first of them, 1991’s Here Come The Cars, has just been released on vinyl for the first time by the exceptionally tasteful US label De Stijl.
Kilgour made Here Come The Cars with the intention of breaking with his past – a tactic he and brother Hamish (drummer in The Clean) employed when forming the cheekily-named and primarily acoustic-based outfit The Great Unwashed when The Clean split in 1982. In 1989 – spurred on by the fact that they had an international cult following they had been unaware of for most of that decade – the Kilgour brothers reunited with bassist Robert Scott (also of The Bats) to make The Clean’s first studio recordings since the band parted ways, and several songs on the resulting LP Vehicle were more hard-hitting than anything they’d previously recorded. Subsequent live performances saw them playing at greater volume and intensity than ever before, a glimpse of which was captured on the In-A-Live EP and some visceral filmed footage (fans really should search for ‘Point That Thing’ at Sammy’s in Dunedin, 1989, on youtube). However, when it came time to make his first record under his own name, Kilgour stripped back the distortion and slowed the tempo markedly, emerging with a deceptively tranquil mini-masterpiece in the process.
The title track opens with shimmering layers of laid-back acoustic guitars and sparse percussion, capturing the haze of a summer afternoon rather than lightning in a bottle. Ambient noise – radios and car horns and alarms – float almost imperceptibly under the music as Kilgour observes the world a step removed from the rat race (a recurring lyrical theme across his career). “Can’t get away from this chord”, he sings on ‘Fine’, but Kilgour knows how to do more with one chord than anyone since the late, great Harry Nilsson. As he does throughout the album, Kilgour overdubs many guitar parts, but the track never feels cluttered.’
‘You Forget’ and ‘Shivering’ pick up the tempo a little, but remain spacious and tranquil and imbued with Kilgour’s innate and idiosyncratic melodic sense. The former ends with an ethereal piano outro that – combined with the album’s 12th track ‘Because It Was You’ – makes you wish he would release an album of piano demos (an album of primarily guitar-based demos, First Steps and False Alarms, was released by Ajax in Canada in 1995). Not one to discard an idea if he’s fond of it, Kilgour sometimes recycles fragments of older songs into new pieces – the outro to ‘Splash Your Jewels’ was reprised as ‘Waiting Round on You’ on his second solo album, Sugar Mouth, three years later. Sometimes the gap can be longer – ‘Which One’ from 2002’s A Feather in The Engine was used as the intro to ‘Way Down Here’ on 2011’s Left by Soft. That’s not to imply a paucity of ideas, though – each later song takes on a life of its own.
Kilgour breaks Here Come The Cars’ mood of restraint for ‘Spasm’, a taut piece of pop perfection that gives a passing rhythmic nod to motorik Krautrock. As it becomes more chaotic and colourful he splashes several coats of melodic guitar squall and echoey vocals onto the canvas, with delightful results. For my money, it’s the equal of any song he has ever committed to tape (another recurring theme across his career – every album has at least one genuine classic on it).
‘Spins You Round’ is a wonderfully crafted vehicle for Kilgour’s impressionistic lyrics and melodic instinct, with the lush guitars making it easy to overlook the deep contradictions questioned in the words. Perhaps too much has been made of New Zealand’s geographic isolation as a factor in musical inspiration, but ‘Uplift’ really does sound like it was recorded half a world away. It’s one of his best vocal performances and another example of how Kilgour can take what would otherwise be a monotonous melody and build upon it until it becomes something else entirely.
Kilgour set the bar for his solo career pretty high when this came out 22 years ago. He has matched and even exceeded it several times since, but Here Come The Cars is the natural place to start if you’re curious.
At the time of writing, Here Come The Cars isn’t available on Spotify, but here’s a playlist made up from the four albums that are – A Feather in The Engine (2002), Frozen Orange (2004), The Far Now (2007) and Left By Soft (2011):
1. Living in Space
2. All the Rest
3. Way Down Here
4. BBC World
5. On Your Own
6. Too Long From me Now
7. Today is Gonna Be Mine
8. Everybody’s on a Ride
9. Steel Arrow
10. Diamond Mine