Noah Taylor’s up there with my fav Australian actors. I find his thin pallid face and occasional lisp alluring, and who can deny his outburst of sharehouse fury in ...Felafel isn’t one of the funniest moments in Australian cinema. When I saw his name on the Homebake line-up in the guise of Noah Taylor & The Sloppy Boys I did, however, cringe a little; why’s he doing the actor-turned-singer thing? Turns out he’s actually been in various bands over the past few decades. This incarnation is the winner.
So the story goes Noah was on hols in Sydney (he’s lived in England for the past ten years) when a friend’s recording studio (BJB no less) suddenly became available. He penned six tracks in a week and recorded them with musical mates Ed Clayton-Jones (The Wreckery) and Cec Condon (The Mess Hall) in 24 hours. The result? Well, in the words of Nick Cave, it’s “a flat-out, freaked out masterpiece.”
The first time I spun Live Free Or Die!!! was on the Wednesday of our final working week of the year. By Friday it had bumped an unlucky contender and made it into my Top Ten. It’s become one of my favourite records of the year in the space of three days; such is the power of its ferocity and tenderness, salacious sentiments and crude humour, and unadulterated execution.
Second track Fuck You, with its smashing cymbals and simple chords is the raunchiest, most honest confession of insatiability (“I wanna fuck you all night long / And all the next day too”) since QOTSA’s Make It Wit Chu. Holiday Sidewinder (what a name) from Bridezilla, who is Taylor’s goddaughter, lends her honeyed tones to Scary which really highlights Taylor’s lyrical genius: “I’m shittin’ my britches / And life is a bitch cos / I’m scared of falling in love”, while Dark and Lovely is as beautiful as it is menacing.
Live Free Or Die!!! is raw rock 'n' roll. It’s also bratty, occasionally incomprehensible punk (said Cave of the opener and title track “it surpasses all understanding… it’s thrills and chills all the way”). And in its quieter moments it’s whispered post-coital poetry.
It’s not often that a record can grab you by the hair and have its wicked way with you and become a true fav in a matter of days, but Live Free Or Die!!! has done exactly that.
In the interviews promoting this career-spanning release, Vince Giarrusso (who along with Glenn Bennie co-founded this Melbourne-based band) says Underground Lovers never really went for a sound, per se. Instead, they just used whatever worked for the song – loops, antiseptic drum beats, walls of distortion and slashing feedback.
Riding the Manchester ‘baggy’ wave in the early ‘90s Underground Lovers wore their influences proudly: My Bloody Valentine, Cocteau Twins, Ride and most noticeably to this listener in hindsight, New Order.
They also garnered massive acclaim – winning over critics, winning awards and for a short time were signed to an offshoot label on 4AD. No higher cache could be found at the time. They were perpetually on the cusp of great things. But it never happened and after the obligatory flirtation with the majors came the even more obligatory dissolution.
Wonderful Things (aim for the limited edition 2 CD set) collects material from all points of their relatively short but stellar career. As you’d expect there are some egregious omissions; the blissful Weak Will and the frenzied Get Off On It are two such examples. But that’s just deliberate carping because what really emerges is a restive band that could swing persuasively between dense layered mini epics (Promenade, Eastside Stories, Your Eyes) to whimsical pop (Losin’ It) and convincing slow burn bluster (Las Vegas). An essential time capsule and fully realised snapshot of an oft-overlooked band.
Husky’s striking song, History’s Door, seemed to grab the attention of many this year. And with good reason: the single is a beautiful and emotive piano driven piece energised by rolling drums. The album itself feels a bit slower (for the most part) but this is not to its detriment. This year saw a few folky releases (Fleet Foxes being, oddly, one such disappointing example), but none as patiently developed and varied.
After recording in a bungalow, Husky flew to Los Angeles to produce their debut with Noah Georgeson (Devandra Banhart, Joanna Newsom and The Strokes). The result is a collection of relaxed songs, broken up in mood and instrumentation. Leading man, Husky Gawenda ties the album's songs together with his consistently seductive and echoey voice, reminiscent of Paul Simon and soothing to the ear.
Tidal Wave starts the album off in typical fashion, starting slow and building, the drums keeping the pace from waning (a risk to many a folk performer). This is perhaps why the album continues from strength to strength; it has a certain kind of vibrancy and energy that suggests Husky has not succumbed to that boring beach bum Jack Johnson mediocrity. Subsequently, the tension is broken up. While the album tugs at the heart-strings with Hunter and Don’t Tell Your Mother, songs like Hundred Dollar Suit pick up the pace, pushing potential platitudes out of the way. The closing song, Farewell (In Three Parts), exemplifies Husky’s willingness to switch between tensions not just on the album as a whole but even during a song.
The 1960s conjured all the right stuff when it came to music. For instance, the creative arts would be somewhat lacking had it not been for The Velvet Underground blowing minds in 1966. The Velvets were from cultural centre of the universe New York, and for a while all roads stopped there. But music fans open to new experiences in America also looked south and turned their attention to Texas in particular, a southern US state which turned out some of the most incendiary garage rock of the 1960s attuned to psychedelic delights in a particularly potent way. We all know the blissful gifts from the gods dispensed by the likes of the 13th Floor Elevators. But then came along the consciousness expanding brilliance of The Red Crayola, who took the lysergic experience to greater heights on acid drenched avant-garage nuggets like Transparent Radiation, giving you the world and a universe of possibilities in short, highly charged bursts. The Parable of Arable Land originally appeared in 1967 on which parched Beatles melodies on churning tunes like Hurricane Fighter Plane
mixed with free-form freakouts from psychedelic travellers in tow named the Familiar Ugly. So, thank the gods for the Charly label which has repackaged this essential missive with attentive remixer Sonic Boom (he formerly of psych-rock obsessives Spacemen 3) who extends mind enlightenment to the nth degree. The inclusion of a wonderful mono mix and revealing bonus tracks is just gravy.
Unless you've had your head buried in a few feet of beautiful Canberra clay topsoil this year, you will have undoubtedly noticed the Lavers boys doing the rounds of Canberra's live music venues. Alongside their non-stop gigging, the locals spent much of 2011 writing, recording and mixing their debut EP The Street Is A Symphony. Originally recorded for a small fortune at a Gold Coast studio, the lads were unhappy with the result and re-recorded much of it over two days at a warehouse in Albion Park. The product is a polished, but not over-refined collection of infectious pop-rock tracks that is a true testament to the effort the group has put into its songwriting and performing in the past year.
Heavily Britpop influenced, with smatterings of folk and a small pinch of indie rock (kind of inevitable these days, really), The Street is A Symphony displays the diversity of the boys' repertoire, together with their ability to play a tight, well-rehearsed set while still giving their songs a good dose of character and without sounding artificially polished. Having been together for barely two years, the group still sounds to be exploring the particular styles that it feels most comfortable with. However, the trio's obvious talent – and Dom Lavers' entrancing dulcet tones in particular – suggest a bright future for the group, especially as they gain even greater confidence and certainty in their direction.
Prime’s new release in my fumbled opinion is the reason why Australian hip-hop is still on the map; lately the state of Aussie hip-hop has taken a turn into a pop-filled genre full of disco beats and auto-tune. Prime is a prime example of a real emcee.
His wordplay contrasts with his ability to string multi-syllabic rhymes together without ever losing context. His tracks address how he has dealt with and how he is going to deal with constant issues arising in an average person’s life, though he hasn’t placed himself on a pedestal as he reminds the listener that he, just like us, is only human, and this never escapes us. Good Morning was released as a free download, emphasising the fact he’s in hip-hop for love and respect: the way it should be.
Prime has a grounded take on social media: “…and Twitter proves you don’t have to lead to have followers.” The Aus hip-hop scene has been flooded with emcees on Facebook and Twitter caring more about what people think than what they really want to say. This album pays homage to the roots of hip-hop and at the same time branches in another direction; a fruitful, beautiful, proud direction. I am proud to be an Australian hip-hop head after hearing this work. Prime has restored my faith.
Ex-Moldy Peaches member Kimya Dawson is nothing if not prolific; this latest album Thunder Thighs represents her seventh solo album in total and arrives three years on the heels of her children’s album Alphabutt. While Dawson’s folk-pop tinged vocals and strummed guitar still anchor the 16 tracks collected here, compared to the fairly stripped back nature of her previous solo work, there’s a far more expansive and layered sound here with the addition of piano, choir vocals, string arrangements and even the occasional hip-hop beat. She’s also enlisted the services of some impressive collaborators into the equation, including Aesop Rock, The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle, Nikolai Fraiture of The Strokes and her five year old daughter Panda Bear. Above all though, Thunder Thighs comes across as Dawson’s most mature and self-reflective work to date, with tracks such as the first-person confessional Walk Like Thunder chronicling difficult events like her own overdose and the passing of a young friend with unflinching honesty. While there’s certainly a more revealing and melancholic feel present throughout, more extroverted moments such as The Library, which sees Dawson, Aesop Rock and a children’s choir crafting an electro-laced homage, stop things from getting too maudlin (and it’s pretty much worth it just to hear Aesop asking where he can find Judy Blume books). While it probably won’t convert non-fans, Thunder Thighs is still a compelling and ambitious snapshot of Dawson’s eventful life so far.
Local releases often present a quandary for the reviewer. Impartiality and justifiability lie at the core of music criticism, but it is much easier to be virtuous when the artist whose work you may potentially take a baseball bat to doesn’t live one suburb over. Fortunately, in Waterford’s case, I will still be able to wander the streets of Canberra in (relative) safety.
The term ‘surprising’ is frequently employed in the assessment of hometown music. Its usual application is to express shock that the local Friday night pub band can utilise GarageBand to record something mildly coherent and in tune. Waterford are far from this league, and thus surprising must be used in a different context – Say Ok has caught me completely unawares, quickly making it to the top of my summer listening pile.
With Say Ok, Waterford have produced something inherently Canberran – from the round-about evoking cover art to lyrical flirtations with all too familiar suburbs. Yet, this is not just music for the be-suited public servant or sharehouse townie. There is a certain Smiths-like universality and depth to these tracks which allow them to effortlessly transcend their physical setting.