Fans of the Chills have had to put up with almost 20 years of excuses. If only Martin Phillipps had been able to keep a band together instead of going through 14 configurations in the group’s first 12 years. If only the mix of 1988’s delicate Brave Words (Homestead) hadn’t sounded so odd. If only their major-label records had been better promoted. If only visa troubles hadn’t forced Phillipps to make the Chills’ 1996 attempted comeback album, Sunburnt (Flying Nun), with a pick-up band. If only two of his tape recorders hadn’t malfunctioned at the same time a few years later, plunging him into deep depression and an addiction to “opiates” (his word) that led to hepatitis C. If only, if only, if only.
The real problem is that Phillipps, a talented songwriter, has gradually come to believe that he’s an important songwriter. When this New Zealander formed the Chills, in 1980, his native Dunedin was in the middle of an unlikely music boom, and his sweet, chiming songs were among its brightest lights. Phillipps was a melodist and a romantic, un-macho and self-aware, sometimes almost prayerful: “I’d like to say how I love you/But it’s all been said in other songs/And if I try to say it new, then I’ll say it wrong,” he confessed in “Night of Chill Blue.” By 1992, though, he was writing the painful “Song for Randy Newman Etc,” in which he compares himself to “men like Wilson, Barrett, Walker, Drake.” That soggy, pretentious ballad couldn’t withstand the comparisons, and neither would anything he’d release after it.
Line-ups 15 through 18 of the renamed Martin Phillipps & the Chills (bad sign!) struggled along through the mid ’90s. There was idle talk of reconvening the early Chills to record some of the scores of unreleased songs from the old days. Then in 1999, Phillipps put together Sketch Book: Volume One (Flying Nun), a collection of his home demos. “Many of these tunes, and the hundreds more filed away, will definitely see official release as soon as my next home studio is fully operational,” he promised in the liner notes. He now insists that he has more than 800 ideas and riffs and such and that he’s just trying to organize them on his computer. He’s also noted that “Pink Frost,” one of his best and best-known songs, was written in a single evening. There’s a lesson there.
Phillipps self-released the band’s new three-disc anthology of unreleased and scarce recordings, Secret Box: The Chills’ Rarities, 1980-2000 (Definitive Music); it’s available from www.softbomb.com. On some level, it’s an admission of failure — he seems to have acknowledged at last that his grand plans for these compositions will never be realized. But he can’t quite let go: “This could have been beautiful if developed (and it still could be),” he notes of the 19-year-old instrumental “Jetty.” “Party in My Heart,” from 1987, is “to be re-attempted some day.” “Drug Magicians,” from ’91, “is on the short list of songs I really feel deserve a new recording . . . I think of this as a demo version.” And so on.
They’re fine as is. The BBC radio sessions, B-sides, and wanna-B-sides of Secret Box’s second and third discs, which document the band’s late-’80s peak and subsequent slow decline, are solid if unsurprising. But the first 100 minutes — 30 lost songs drawn from raw, roaring live tapes and sequenced for æsthetics rather than chronology — are fantastic. The earliest is a cover of Jody Reynolds’s “Endless Sleep” that was recorded the day before the Chills’ first gig; the latest are four from an October 1985 show.
Although the recordings are messy, they’re more lively than the sculptured fastidiousness of the Chills’ studio recordings. “Jellyhead” and “Smile from a Dead Dead Face” rock harder than the band ever have on a studio recording; on “Frozen Fountain,” Phillipps screams so violently, his voice gives out. The throwaways (like “Steinlager,” a rocking request for a cold one) are wonderful throwaways: the less Phillipps tries to do something significant, the more his natural inventiveness and passion come through. With their garbage-can beats and blazing organ, the live takes sound like a garage band, not a sensitive songwriter project. It’s too bad that assembling Secret Box hasn’t allowed Phillips to move on. But at least now the sad task of fantasizing about the Chills records that might’ve been has been passed on to his listeners.