Tame Impala – Currents
According to Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, the origins of Current are encapsulated in a scene that’s as retro as his band’s first two albums. In celebration of the end of the Lonerism tour, he and some friends were driving around L.A. in the twilight, done up on cocaine and mushrooms; the stereo was playing loud, and when the Bee Gees came on Parker came to the sudden realization that the disco-pop legends – Australians like him – were actually really, really good. Following this revelation, Parker holed up in his home studio in Melbourne, chasing a sound that was an amalgamation between his previous work and a sound that could fill dance floors and get played for everyone, not just indie-psychedelic nerds.
If this is a rather off-putting idea, it’s only because long decades of artists seeking crossover appeal has left a bad taste in people’s mouths. The number of groups that have tried to win legions of fans by crafting their music with an eye to the dancefloor are many; the number who have succeeded from an artistic standpoint are far fewer. For every David Bowie circa Let’s Dance there are a hundred groups like KISS circa “I Was Made For Loving You”. When Mumford & Sons ditched the banjos in favour of big radio pop sounds people scoffed; when Daft Punk went neo-disco it caused a schism in their fanbase that was never repaired. It’s a risky venture, especially when you are known for a particular style that has a rich and lengthy history, and that style comes with a fanbase known for being particularly pedantic when it comes to sound and result. Psychedelic fans are picky, to be blunt, and Tame Impala makes a number of the more hardcore fans suspicious. “Baby’s first psych” is thrown around a lot. So when the words “Tame Impala influenced by disco sounds” floats across my eyeballs, I get a little worried about things like direction, and legacy, and flame wars.
As it turns out, what Parker really means with regards to the whole “disco” thing is that he decided to focus less on guitar work and more on synthesizers, smooth production, and a certain songwriting aesthetic that sits perfectly between the poppier moments of 1970s-era prog rock and modern synth-rock crossovers like Passion Pit. Parker brings the big synth bass and gossamer synths of a band like Passion Pit, but ditches the dross and slick three-minute pop confections in favour of relentless studio perfectionism, deeply intricate instrumental sections, and an attention to atmosphere rather than building everything around a riff-heavy groove. This is not the lysergic Lennon channeling of Innerspeaker, or the lurching sun-worship of Lonerism. Think ELO with a better studio, and a better-developed sense of their own decade. This is psychedelic disco-prog, and if that sounds bizarre to you, it should; on paper, it might not work, but Parker is not the average songwriter, and in his hands it comes into its own glorious vitality like an orchid blooming in the night.
That’s not to say that there aren’t riffs here: “Let It Happen” and “The Less I Know The Better” ride gnarled guitar lines and layer buttery-smooth vocals and built-up synths on top of them. It’s just that those aren’t the only thing going anymore, and the band works much better for it. “Past Life” is especially fascinating: beginning with a synth arpeggio straight out of an early 1980s soundtrack, it welds a deep hip-hop influenced beat underneath and mixes spoken word effects with Parker’s vocals, like M83 without the Hughesian urge behind it. “‘Cause I’m A Man”, perhaps the strongest of the singles that preceded the album, remains a centerpiece on the totality of Currents; of all of the songs presented here, it’s the one that betrays Parker’s update from the 1960s to the 1970s the most. It’s AM pop gold, slathered in synth work and filtered guitar work until it becomes both perfectly retro and utterly modern.
Tame Impala get ambitious on Currents, and they aim for a lot of sounds. What it really sounds like, though, is sitting in the passenger seat of a car, loaded up on psychedelics, not a care in the world, and realizing that the Bee Gees might have been the best band ever.
Hiatus Kaiyote – Choose Your Weapon
The neo-psychedelic haven of Melbourne, Australia is also home to the Grammy-nominated “Future Soul” group Hiatus Kaiyote, whose second album, Choose Your Weapon, is making people go “like, wow”. There’s some good reason for the hype: Hiatus Kaiyote crafts some next-level soul music out of the cutting-edge sounds of contemporary hip hop and R&B and then adds the funk-mining groove that the group is best known for. When gets into a serious thing, it’s some of the best head-nodder music you’ll find.
The problem, though, is that beyond an unearthly ability to find their way into the pocket there isn’t much to recommend on Choose Your Weapon. Tracks like “Shaolin Monk Motherfunk” and “Atari” are stone killers, but there’s sixty-nine minutes of tracks just like them, and after a while it wears thin. By the time “Building A Ladder” comes along it’s exhausting, and you’re left feeling tired and aimless. Choose Your Weapon is at its heart a groove in search of a message, or an anthem, or something to bring it up to the next level and turn them from a pretty great jam into a band worth encapsulating on an album. Choose Your Weapon feels like a demo reel of its maker’s talents, which is unfortunate when you consider those talents.
Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit
“Elevator Operator”, the first track on Melbourne slacker-rock almost-icon Courtney Barnett’s new album, tells the story of a guy who decides to shirk off work and the woman who thinks that he’s planning on killing himself. It’s a quirky little tale studded with the most shockingly mundane details: references to a specific tram line, an exact account of our protagonist Oliver Paul’s breakfast, specific buildings, pyramids of Coke cans, and a painting of the woman in the elevator so complete that you can smell the cloying, expensive perfume coming off of her. The second verse on “An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York)” features the lines “I lay awake at three, staring at the ceiling / It’s a kind of off-white, maybe it’s a cream / There’s oily residue dripping from the kitchen / It’s art-deco necromantic chic, all the dinner plates are kitsch with / Irish wolf hounds, French baguettes wrapped loose around their necks”. “Kim’s Caravan” finds her “walking down Sunset Strip, Phillip Island, not Los Angeles / Got me some hot chips and a cold drink / Took a sandy seat on the shore / There’s a paper on the ground, makes my headache quite profound”.
I went to see post-modern political philosopher Jacques Ranciere speak in Toronto a couple of years ago, for a lecture entitled “The Politics of Fiction”. He described the process of writing as (and I’m paraphrasing here) taking the endless mundanity of regular life and forcing it into the tyranny of the plot. To bring it back to his political works (Disagreement et al.), there exists a vast, unnamed field we can think of as the anonymous textures of everyday life. The writer’s job is to take those anonymous textures and separate them into an arbitrary pen, which is to say that the writer must create a narrative out of these anonymous textures such that they become a story lifted out of the endless day-to-day. It’s important because one of the things that well-meaning but clueless writers try to teach new, nervous writers is that adjectives are dubious at best, and descriptions should be avoided in favour of serving the almighty plot.
Courtney Barnett never listened to the latter group; hers is a much more “political” fiction, as it were. She is an absolute master of the mundane, of the anonymous textures of everyday life. Her lyrics are clear-eyed, her delivery deadpan. This is a woman who can find the sadness and frustration in litter, in trying to impress someone and almost drowning, in trying to figure out whether or not to mow the lawn. She approaches Dylan in her point-of-fact delivery, but her poetry is less surrealist than his ever was. Musically it’s college indie rock with a touch of drink-numbed country, wavering between the red-herring crunch of “Pedestrian At Best” and the lonesome sigh of “Depreston” and “Boxing Day Blues”. There’s nothing particularly original about the arrangements on Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit, but then again there was nothing particularly original about the arrangements on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan – it’s all in the delivery, and the delivery is where Courtney Barnett excels. She can take an utterly banal sentence like “If you’ve got a spare half a million, you can knock it down and start rebuilding” and have it stand in for all of the bald-faced depression of trying to find a place to live in a troubled, crime-riddled suburb. It’s what got her first couple of EPs recognized, and it informs her debut with a wisdom completely beyond her years. The devil is in the details, as they say, but for Courtney Barnett it’s something much more transcendent.
Pond – Man, It Feels Like Space Again
Originally a side project of a few of the members of Tame Impala, Pond was designed to be an ever-changing collaborative project amongst the Perth neo-psychedelic scene. Their fourth album, the sublime Beard, Wives, Denim, became a success after Tame Impala’s Innerspeaker provided the rising tide. Man, It Feels Like Space Again was supposed to be the follow up to that breakthrough, but the band decided to record and release Hobo Rocket instead. With the band finally back on its original course, they’re now in the long shadow cast by their parent band’s monolithic Lonerism album. Man, It Feels Like Space Again doesn’t do a lot to break them out of that shadow, either. Too much of the album focuses on meandering trippy passages where fuzzed-out guitar leads intertwine with organ padding without bothering to do anything new with the trope. “Holding Out For You” does this the best, turning what might have originally been a rote piano ballad into blissed-out psych. “Zond” and “Outside Is The Right Side” strike out with some whalloping drums (the key ingredient that made me sit up and take notice on “Elegant Design” half a decade ago) and the closing title track is a shifting work of on-point psych-rock, but everything else fails to really capture my attention to any great effect. “Elvis’ Flaming Star” has a nice bass line but the vocals feel too drowned in studio trickery to connect at all. “Sitting Up On Our Crane” comes up with a great melody line but squanders its promise over six minutes. It’s a decent enough album, but it doesn’t match anything Tame Impala has been up to, and it doesn’t do much to stand on its own merit, either.
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“Who’s falling down the stairs tonight?”
Australia’s Blank Realm used to be a lot noisier four years ago, and even two years ago they drowned songcraft in dissonant Sonic Youth-esque noise. *Grassed Inn* finds them in a much more accessible mood, although it’s not completely certain if that’s really for the best. The band combines the expansive mood-building of the Stone Roses and Spiritualized with the single-minded drone work of the Velvet Underground (there’s a touch of Lou Reed to Daniel Spencer’s vocals as well) and the amphetamine beat of 1970s Krautrock. They reach out to make new-world indie anthems but the songs often stick around for a bit too long to make them completely memorable. Even the key track here, “Falling Down The Stairs”, is guilty of this particular crime; by the time the song ends, I’ve lost interest in who is actually going to be falling down the stairs tonight. Six of the eight tracks here exeed the five minute mark and I’m not convinced that any of them need to; “Bulldozer Love” manages to make the strongest case but even it peters out at nearly nine minutes. Blank Realm could use an editor; there’s potential for a great pop band in here, but their kitchen-sink tendencies overshadow that throughout the entire album.