Thursday, 14 July 2016

Profile Review - Sweet Jean

Published in the July / August issue of Rhythms magazine

Sweet Jean
Monday To Friday
ABC Music / Universal

Sweet Jean’s 2013 debut, Dear Departure, painstakingly put together by Sime Nugent and Alice Keath, garnered the Melbourne-based pair widespread acclaim and rightly so. The album, as I noted in my review for Rhythms upon its release, “…[while] rooted in the gothic folk music the pair know so well, transcends same, mining a rich vein of old-school pop, making it an album which combines the two to great effect.”
I certainly wasn’t the only one singing its praises – Paul Kelly said of the record it was, “Dreamy, epic, wry, tender.” High praise indeed, for an extremely good piece of work.

And so, just shy of three years later, Nugent and Keath follow up with Monday To Friday, and to say they’ve bested anticipation would be an understatement. For this record again transcends – it transcends expectation and the notion of the tricky second album, but more importantly, it transcends the plane these two were initially inhabiting. Monday To Friday is an album which soars, a glorious pop gem that gets warmer, darker, more lush the more you listen, an extension to what they were able to achieve with their debut.

“Most of the songs were written in our home studio, which informed the songwriting and production,” says Keath on this evolution. “We had a carefully considered approach to the production on Dear Departure, drawing on specific references from trad folk to contemporary albums. Our approach for Monday To Friday was a lot more intuitive, with the songs and the sounds developing side by side.”

“We would build a landscape and push the song and its protagonists across that landscape, rather than write in a more linear way,” adds Nugent.

With the addition of John Castle who co-produces, as well as adding myriad instrumentation (drums, bass, guitars, clarinet, keys and synth), Nugent and Keath have found a sonic soulmate able to read their many musical moods and add to them in a way which does nothing other than enhance. The songs are full and real (made all the more so given, lyrically, Monday To Friday is about, “…some of the significant and insignificant things that are rolling around us,” as opposed to the “…other people in other times and places,” they’d written about previously), they’re their own beings, all of them brought to wondrous life at the hands of these three artists.

“There was a lot of fiction on our first album,” Nugent confirms, “other people’s stories from other time and other places. We wanted to keep Monday To Friday in the here and now – whether that’s pointing to the stars or trying to hail a taxi. We think it’s a bit of both most days.”

For mine, the standout track on the record is ‘Main Street’. A slow strum to open before Keath’s voice drifts in, the initial verse slow before Castle builds the beat and the song blooms with Keath’s refrain, “I’m ready for a fight / I’m ready for a rumble tonight.” It’s truly one of the most melodic and quietly powerful tracks you’ll hear.

The rest of Monday To Friday is just as strong – ‘Slow’ begins with a solitary guitar twang, soon enveloped by dreamy soundscape; ‘I See Stars’, all vocal harmonies, perhaps the closest track to the American roots music both have shown an affinity with in the past; ‘All I Know’, to close, melding electric and acoustic guitars, Nugent’s voice simple and downturned, the song coming together effortlessly.

The melding of guitars is prominent throughout the record, but none of the instrumentation steps on the vocals, instruments in themselves. “We’ve intentionally used quite straightforward language for this album, and that suits having the vocals front and centre in the songs,” says Keath. “Experimenting with different ways to place the two vocals in the music was a big part of putting together this album.”

And so the instrumentation, from which the voices grow, is there to create, to borrow from Kelly, a dreamy, epic, wry and tender soundscape – sometimes jagged, sometimes smooth-edged, always in the right mind, the right place, the right time. Monday To Friday is a stellar release, the finest in alterative rock / pop you’re likely to find anywhere. Samuel J. Fell

For more information, head to Sweet Jean's website here

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