Aug 24, 2002
PACIFIER, Pacifier (WEA)
They were still called Shihad when they started work on this, their fifth album, in Los Angeles last September with producer Josh Abraham (who made his name with nu-metal acts like Korn and Staind). By the time they had finished, their name had changed, along with the psyche of the America in which the album was recorded.
And yet from the opening bars this is recognisably the same quartet who first thundered onto the New Zealand stage thirteen years ago, hot out of high school, converting hormones into decibels at a challenging rate of beats per minute.
It’s a sound that, in a sense, was always too big for its roots. While it acknowledged a debt to local noise experimentalists like the Skeptics and Bailter Space, there was an essential populism about Shihad’s music that those other bands could never be bothered with. It was as though Shihad really wanted everyone to get it; not just the student radio elite but the suburban bogans too.
Later, with their self-titled third album, came the big melodies, and this time one heard hints of Don McGlashan or Dave Dobbyn, but again it was on a scale more suited to stadiums. When Shihad ultimately took themselves off to Australia and North America it came as no surprise; if any band was built to conquer continents it was this one.
Pacifier finds them feeding that familiar sound through the type of production that has dominated recent American rock. The sound is overwhelming without being threatening; as hard as metal but filled with pop hooks. Riffs that could have been at home on an early Black Sabbath album explode into choruses you might hear a cabbie humming along to. When Jon Toogood sneers in “Nothing” at unnamed corporate rockers with their “music for the masses/sliced up real thin for the radio”, you wonder if he protests too much.
Yet in spite of sounding not unlike one of the sport-rock acts they sneer at, in the end they convince you that they are the one band who really does care; that they have only utilised all the tricks and trappings the studios of Los Angeles offer in order to bring you a direct feed from their hearts.
Which is where New Zealand comes back into the picture. Stranded in LA in the days immediately following September 11, Jon Toogood had cause to reflect seriously on his life, loves and priorities, resulting in some of the most open and emotional songs he’s ever written. If there’s an underlying message to great tracks like “Comfort Me” and “Coming Down” it’s that nothing matters more than the ones you love. And in the generous melodies it’s not hard to hear a wistful longing for home. That’s even more apparent in “Walls”, the finest and most up-front vocal of Toogood’s career, where his voice bears a striking resemblance to Neil Finn’s, and on “Bulletproof” – a flat-out rocker that dissolves into a bridge of rich Crowded House-like harmonies.
The whole thing is clearly aimed, first and foremost, at American rock radio, and it makes full use of the sonic weapons in the American production armory. But anyone Down Under should be able to detect a soft South Pacific heart beating beneath the shiny metal surface.
Lastly, about the name change. Though after nine months I still think of them as Shihad, Pacifier makes me smile. It was the title of the best single off the group’s fourth album, The General Electric, not a bad reference point. For another thing, it makes a sly joke of the fact that their previous name – a misspelling of ‘jihad’ – was dropped for its warlike connotations. I also like the way it doubles as the American euphemism for a baby’s dummy. I can’t help wondering if the whole thing – name change, album and all - is simply designed to shut some Americans up.