Thursday, 24 October 2013

Record Review - Cherrywood

Originally published on Mess+Noise, October 21 2013

Book Of Matches
Love & Theft

There is something uniquely beautiful about unkempt male vocal harmonies. The ragged joining together of masculine voices, perhaps fuelled by too much whisky, certainly informed by a love of the music at hand, an unlikely choir to inspire acoustic accompanied sing-alongs around fires on winter’s nights.

Melbourne quartet Cherrywood, treading the Victorian capital’s doom country path, well worn by the likes of Wagons, The Wildes, Graveyard Train and Twin Beasts, are the embodiment of such goings on. These two years past have seen them worm their way into this tightknit scene, their live shows thumping paeans to the country music of old (dirty, gritty, real) while raising check-shirted arms, fists clenched, in salute to the punk and the rock ‘n’ roll that comes from the same place.

After two years then, Cherrywood have committed to disc what you’d have seen on stages around Melbourne’s inner north. Book Of Matches is the debut cut, and where it does indeed stand up, is how eerily close it sounds to those late night stage-burning shows, something any band will tell you is harder to achieve than almost anything else.

Driving acoustic guitar defines a lot of where Book Of Matches is coming from, that laconic country strum which, at the drop of a hat, is able to kick up a gear, driving forward, pinning you to the back of your seat. Lashings of mandolin, the steady thump of the double bass, the shuffle of a snare drum accompany, playing an outrigger role for the most part, but all jumping off that disc as if these four unruly types are in your house – perhaps an added bonus of playing acoustic instruments.

The music is dark and surprisingly heavy though, for such an acoustic band. Their cover of traditional gospel number ‘In My Time Of Dying’ is a violent, churning, living beast of a track, vocals almost shouted, throaty, a constant beat which has no end, the mandolin high in the mix to create a country bluegrass behemoth.

By contrast, following track ‘Could Wash No Devil From My Bones’ is joyous and upbeat. No less foot-to-the-floor, but with a jaunty vocal and a melody which immediately brings a smile your lips, to the lips of even the most staunch country music aficionado. It’s this ability to switch between aural violence and pleasure that also defines a lot of where Book Of Matches is coming from: ‘Skeleton Key’ seeps melancholy, very sparse; ‘Midway Point’, after a false start, kicks into a Celtic-tinged mile-a-minute foot stomper; ‘Autumn Blues’ fuses the country with the blues, a riff which if electrified, would be Rock ‘n’ Roll 101; and album centrepiece ‘Pentridge’ stretches out, long and slow, lamenting, soul crushing, with haunting backing vocals from Erica Dunn, her higher register combining artfully with the gruff male leads.

Which brings us back to the vocal harmonising that fuses this record together. There is nothing sweet about it. It’s not something with which to sooth one’s savage breast, by any means. But it’s powerful and real, it’s rough and tumble, it’s vibrant and it vibrates and it’s beautiful to behold, Cherrywood having it down pat, the foundation to their music, their sound, their musical way of life. It’s what makes Book Of Matches so startlingly strong, I certainly hope there’s a lot more of it to come.

Samuel J. Fell

For Mess+Noise version, click here.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Record Review - Lime Cordiale

Published in the Shortlist section of the Sydney Morning Herald, Friday Oct 4.

Lime Cordiale
Falling Up The Stairs
Chugg Music

There’s a fair bit of buzz about on Sydney quintet Lime Cordiale, and after seeing their set at the recent BigSound conference, you can see why. They’re as their name suggests; sweet, summery, easy to get into. Their pop-laced, brass-tinged rock ‘n’ roll the perfect accompaniment to long, sunny days spent sipping brews with friends.

This is captured to a tee on their second EP, five tracks that espouse a carefree, upbeat vibe, as catchy a set of tunes as you’re likely to hear. Where they stand out though, amongst a sea of carefree, upbeat pop bands, is in their ability to write some of the most memorable and melodic hooks this side of Abbey Road.

Lead single ‘Bullshit Aside’, with its faintly reggae-ish vocal inflection, is all lush sing-a-long. The title track slinks along, the bass very much in the front. But it’s ‘Sleeping At Your Door’ which steals the show, a song which is almost literally summertime in song form – Beach Boys, eat your heart out.

Samuel J. Fell

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Comment - What Came Out Of BigSound

Fortitude Valley, Brisbane
September 10-13, 2013

Sitting on the bus into Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley for the final night of BigSound – Australia’s reasonably modest answer to the behemoth that is Austin, Texas, music industry shindig South By South West – I find myself savouring the calm.

It’s early evening on a Thursday, traditionally a day to let loose, to get a jump on the upcoming weekend, but it’s been a long few days and so I’m enjoying the relative quiet; the hum of the engine, the gentle forward motion, the space, the solitude.

It’s short-lived though. “Last stop before the city,” yells the driver, a pork barrel of a man in navy blue shorts, neck like a ham, and so I’m ejected onto the sidewalk at the corner of Ann and Brunswick and the calm is all but a distant memory.

For this is the Valley, where the city’s drunken elite meld all too easily with the barrel bottom, a place that used to house the bohemian element, before rapid, and rampant, development had them fleeing across the river to the relative safety of hippie haven, West End.

The music still resides in back alleys though, upstairs in odd warehouse spaces, boutique venues still thriving and so it’s the ideal place for BigSound, this year running for the 12th time, a three day conference that brings all involved in music in this country, and beyond, together to nut out problems faced by an ever-shrinking industry, to collaborate in order to overcome barriers to growth, to find the ‘next big thing’, to talk.

Idle talk, big talk, small talk, chit chat, back chat, talk back. It’s all about the talk – to paraphrase from ‘79 sci-fi flick Alien, at BigSound, no one can hear you scream. Because they’re all too busy talking. It’s a tsunami and it washes over you leaving you battered, bruised ear drums, craving silence. I long for the bus.

“It’s about connecting people,” says Executive Programmer Graham Ashton, this year being his last BigSound at the helm. Given it’s late on the Thursday, he’s sufficiently relaxed. “People come from all over the world… [BigSound] is about making connections.”

Networking, they call it. It’s happening all around us, standing as we are in the dingy smokers area out the back of what was once Mustang Bar, people with sky-blue lanyards talking shop. Or perhaps, given the hour, shit.

During the day, over the past three days, BigSound is a mild-mannered conference, comprising panel discussions like The Future Of Australian Music, Indie Labels 2013 Style, Touring Tips & The Live Music Environment, along with a plethora of In Conversations.

By night however, it’s like this; there are over 120 bands playing over two nights this year, and so music flows, as does the hooch, and an environment like this is fostered, where people spill outside in between songs to network. To connect.

“There are no rules to this,” Ashton says after a bit of thought. “That’s why music is so exciting. Every band is different, every idea is different, there are no rules. One thing though, [BigSound] isn’t education, it’s inspiration.”

The inspiration for most comes in the form of the music itself – scungy rock ‘n’ roll bands, thundering country, lilting folk and pogo pop, for this is why we’re all here. Whether it’s Billy Bragg or Robert Forster playing Bakery Lane to a full house, or some young quintet out of Melbourne playing an early slot to an almost empty room, the entire place throbs with not only literal sound, but with an inspired energy. People are excited, they want to share, and so connections are made, as they should be.

It’s not all beer and skittles however. One of the reasons events like this exist is to talk about what’s not going right, about how to change same, how to better the industry and to help all those who work within.

In typical fashion, during the The Future Of Australian Music discussion, outspoken promoter and label head Michael Chugg lashes out at commercial radio’s local music quotas, saying, “The quota’s far too low and they take advantage of late night… running tracks from midnight to dawn. They’ll deny it, but it’s true… It’s bullshit, and it’s holding the industry back.”

At the Byron Bay Bluesfest showcase at lunchtime on Wednesday, festival director Peter Noble attacks on a different front, saying in front of a large crowd, “I don’t want to criticise [politicians], but they’ve got to emulate,” referencing the lack of support the Australian government offers its musicians compared to their Canadian counterparts.

Perhaps he should have had a word in Wayne Swan’s ear, although the ex-Treasurer seemed far more preoccupied with UK punk poet Billy Bragg, seen at both his show and his keynote speech, tweeting later about the latter, “A really engaging discussion by Billy Bragg… about the power of music and the purpose of politics…”

It’s a shame Bragg wasn’t around a few months ago to give the same talk to the crumbling Labor party, but I digress.

So it remains to be seen what comes out of BigSound this year, at least in terms of solid, lasting, effective change. If you were to just buy a ticket to the music side of things, you could easily be forgiven for thinking that music in Australia is alive and well, and it is, without a doubt.

A new government though, not one renowned for generous arts funding, will have an impact, but as the dust still settles, people nursing final night hangovers, it seems inspirations and connection, the initial aims of BigSound, have been achieved. There is, however, still a lot to talk about.

Samuel J. Fell

*A different version of this story ran on Crikey, Friday September 13, 2013 - click here for that version.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Feature - The Basics

Published in the Shortlist section of the Sydney Morning Herald, Friday September 27.

After a lengthy hiatus and Gotye's mammoth success, The Basics are back on the road.

To put an end to the speculation, Melbourne trio The Basics never actually split up. There were never any internal dilemmas, there were never any creative differences, there was no animosity. When you’re justly tagged as one of the hardest working bands in the country, it’s a lot more simple than that.

“We were tired,” laughs co-founder Kris Schroeder, “we’d been working very hard.” In early 2010, after eight years of almost constant touring, along with releasing a slew of quality records, The Basics – bassist Schroeder, drummer Wally De Backer and guitarist Tim Heath – called a halt to proceedings, more of a time out rather than a hiatus or split.

“When a band like Radiohead takes three years off to do whatever else, they don’t call it a hiatus,” Schroeder points out. “I guess we’re just getting a bit older and spacing things out a bit more. We’ve just got other things on our plate… we just felt that was all we could do for now.”

Formed in 2002 by Schroeder and De Backer (initially with Michael Hubbard on guitar, before Heath replaced him in 2004), The Basics, united by their love of pop-laced rock ‘n’ roll, began to garner themselves a solid fanbase. Via audacious moves like tri-state monthly residencies (“We actually stole that idea from Josh Pyke,” De Backer laughs), retro rock records like 2007’s Stand Out / Fit In and 2009’s Keep Your Friends Close, and live shows that bumped and ground along with an almost religious fervor, they began to make their mark.

And yet, by the time they decided to rest, they’d never hit the lofty commercial heights they perhaps should have. A solid fanbase, yes, but with youth network Triple J not really getting behind the band, they found it hard to get their music to the wider audience needed to achieve that next level.

“Well, I guess that for every band that is lucky enough to get played on Triple J and connect with an audience, there are countless others that don’t enjoy that,” muses De Backer on this band bugbear, that Triple J allegedly ‘didn’t like them’. “I mean, obviously it would have been great…  but we’ve done plenty of other things.”

“I’d say the industry is more at fault there,” chimes in Schroeder. “There are a lot of lazy promoters, managers, journalists that really won’t take any interest in you unless you’re played on Triple J. [But] I think the reason we haven’t been more successful isn’t just because of that, there’s so many reasons.”

Perhaps, now that the band is back – with a national tour booked from late September, along with a number of festival dates already confirmed – that will change somewhat, particularly because of what De Backer has been up to over the past 24 months.

During the three years the band took off, Schroeder headed to Kenya to work with the Red Cross, contracting malaria, twice, along the way. Heath worked with other bands and also on the film, The Rise And Rise Of Richard Latte. De Backer, on the other hand, went back to his side-project, an act most will know, Gotye.

His third record, Making Mirrors, particularly the song ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’, scorched the earth, garnering him a plethora of awards, sending him around the world. And of course, Gotye was played, ad nauseum, on Triple J, and has been for years. So what does this mean now the three of them are back as The Basics?

“Well I wonder if it will be any different for our upcoming shows,” says De Backer. “We’ve [played a couple of shows already], and a thought popped into my head that maybe people would be coming along who were only aware of my material and who haven’t even checked out Basics records… but it didn’t seem like that.”

“I think [the Gotye factor] will only be evident at the festival shows,” adds Schroeder. “And maybe, from a distance, they’ll be judging us one way or the other, but our club shows, I don’t think it’ll make a great deal of difference.”

It remains to be seen if De Backer’s solo success rubs off on The Basics, whether that translates to Triple J play or more people at shows (not something they ever had to worry about), but regardless, for the band, it’s about the now, it’s about The Basics.

“Well, it’s early days,” smiles Schroeder on how the feeling is in the band at the moment, having cited “Wally and I listening back through some stuff and maybe communicating a bit more on a creative level,” as the reason the band is back in the fold. It’s easy to tell though, listening to the easy banter the pair have together, that they’re happy to be back in a place they know well, that they know works.

“I think we continue to surprise each other,” Schroeder goes on. “I have a lot of respect for Tim and Wally’s ability, but it’s the little things that Tim might play or say, or Wally might play that we can lock into, those hidden little moments… that’s what does it for me.”

“It’s the clothes [for me],” De Backer deadpans. “Kris and Tim keep impressing me with their pants.”

The Basics have always been known for their flashes of sartorial splendour, but it has of course been their music which has driven them, which has attracted so many. And those many will be happy to know that there are plans to record again, but as Schroeder says, “If we’re going to do another record, we need a good reason to make one.”

Samuel J. Fell