A FERTILE underground pop scene has quietly flourished in New Zealand for more than a decade, its simple, bouncy music reasonably well served by the island's low-fi production values. Two bands -- the Verlaines and the Chills -- have clearly grown beyond those limitations, however. The latter's previous album, "Brave Words," illustrated the tension between garage-rock production and the increasing sophistication of Martin Phillipps's songs.
Still, even those who've followed the antipodean quartet's career were likely unprepared for "Submarine Bells," the full-blown, sonically sumptuous album that marks the Chills' move into the major-label big time. From the rhapsodic "Heavenly Pop Hit," which opens the album, to the title song, a luxuriantly downbeat production number that closes it, "Bells" is lush and lovely -- and at no cost to Phillipps's sharp (and frequently dark) lyrics.
Evoking such great late-'60s song cycles as the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds" and the Byrds' "The Notorious Byrd Brothers," the Chills (and producer Gary Smith) have set Phillipps's meditations on love and loss in rich but lively and lustrous arrangements. Water imagery is an essential part of the Chills' vision, and "Submarine Bells" sparkles like sunlight on surf.