Monday, November 28, 2011


St Michael's Church

A queue snakes down the broad stairs and along Collins Street in the balmy heat. It’s not the usual mix of punters given the Melbourne Music Week setting, but soon we’re all brought together in pews facing a broad podium, littered with instruments, a lighting system desperately drawing attention to itself, fold-back wedges and religious paraphernalia that sits beneath a giant pipe organ and stained glass windows. It's a beautiful room, a sold out gig, and a very appreciative crowd is assembling. 

James Wallace aka Wintercoats opens the evening’s proceedings, his gaunt blue-lit frame poised over a violin. Soon, layers of bowed notes build and percussive taps, flicks and jabs follow. As with most proponents of loop pedals, songs build gradually but unlike most, his technical mastery and pedal manipulations don't detract from the rich atmosphere. Wallace’s fantastically emotive voice is often subsumed beneath his ephemeral cascading violins, especially beautiful on the closing Working on a Dream; its unassuming majesty perfectly suited to the reverential surroundings.

Looking like kids still at school an hour after the last bell (a combination of nerds in the library and bad boys in detention), Montero is one of the finest bands 2011 has offered up. Though they hark back to whatever the least-referenced years of the 1970s and 80s are, they don't recall any act or era specifically. Swung beats and a Moog will always attract the terms ‘psychedelia’ or ‘prog’, but Montero have no time for labels; the charisma of Ben Montero, drumming of Cameron Potts and talent in their all-star lineup is too compelling. Songs like Clear Sailing and Rainman are highlights of a stellar show and hint at forthcoming releases bound to attract praise more gushing than this.

The gentle malevolence that lingers through the surprisingly celebratory songs of The Orbweavers is markedly offset by the sweet banter of birdlike singer Marita Dyson. Songs about Merri Creek, the Melbourne sewerage system and flash flooding are interspersed with illuminating factoids of local history, accidental insults directed at her pets and obsessive punctuality. The deft guitar of Stuart Flanagan and trumpet of Daniel Aulsebrook lets their dark country balladry soar and linger beautifully In their succession of quiet achievements, tonight is another win.

Ambling from the nearby bar, the restless crowd give a mixed response to the almighty riffage and power of Beaches as they ease into gear. With less vocals and more chug, the excellence of the sound system and bright acoustics of the room mean songs that roar like jet engines on record become sheets of fuzz with a buzzing lightness. Ebbs and surges are handled deftly and the occasional vocals from singer Ali McCann come as a respite from the blinding walls of white.

After a lengthy wait, the room darkens and the icebreaking sounds of HTRK detonate among us. Watching the duo is a difficult experience with bright pulsing lights trained on the crowd and the band bathed in dark blue. Listening is far easier, with their sounds so brilliantly sculpted and powerful and the room so ideal that what those sounds do is almost secondary. Almost. Unfortunately here lies the weakness of HTRK; songs seem exercises in shifting blocks of noise, each one sharing an asexual grind and annoyingly vague and indistinct lyrics, the repetition of which amplifies their annoying vagueness. This may, along with the alienating light show, be their intent, given their love of subversive music and cinema. But, unlike their touchstones, there are no surprises or innovations here. Nigel Yang’s guitar is almost as an aesthetic afterthought, so buried is it beneath the synths and icily cyclical beats and so processed is its sounds. There is masterfulness in their execution but emptiness inside.

Saturday, November 26, 2011


The Palace Theatre

Looking, and sounding like five guys who met in the Wolfmother audition queue (but actually being three quarters of Tame Impala), Pond seem at home spread across the lengthy Palace stage; no mean feat for a band used to playing Perth warehouse parties. In front of a wall of amps, their vintage guitars, crusading riffs, copious bouncing hair and indistinct impassioned wailing is, as with many recently celebrated Australian bands, totally derivative and incredibly well executed. Playing like they're headlining, songs like You Broke My Cool allow singer Nick Allbrook to wander the stage, occasionally flinging his arms out as if to say 'this is it! How good' A version of Tears of a Clown that's more Caligula than Smoky Robinson allows for some deft twin guitar action, and the audience (and The Flaming Lips) are suitably impressed.

Minutes later Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne crosses the stage to cheers as he helps roadies and techs assemble equipment, all wrapped in white tape, heavily stickered and customized. Checking the instruments, inflatable space bubble, dry ice, massive screens and tiny video cameras and effects would, ordinarily, be akin to a magician giving away tricks, but the Lips' sleeve is full of so many more that it only adds to the excitement.

Coyne's pre-show disclaimer includes an apology for their short set at Harvest due to: ’festival timing and a dilemma with trains and buses. Tonight, we have no limits, we will play longer and better and louder.’ True to form, the first five minutes include the birth-through-psychedelic-supernova-vagina entrance, Coyne striding over the crowd in his space bubble, massive balloons, exploding confetti cannons, swathes of jet-powered dry ice, two teams of leggy dancers, air raid megaphone sirens and the firing of numerous streamer launchers. All the distractions are dispatched with in an awe-inspiring burst of props and massive bass riffs, which begs the question ‘how are they going to top this?’ The answer; songs. Straight up we get She Don’t Use Jelly before being exhorted, as we are between every song, to get noisy, and Coyne needs all the help he can get, with his voice parched and frail from overuse, so we provide an admirable choir for Jelly and throughout the ensuing, brilliant The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song. Coyne's backless acoustic guitar exists just as much to burst massive balloons of confetti as to make music. TV On the Radio stand to the side of the audience with Pond with smiles as broad as ours as Stephen Drozd plays the iPhone for Is David Bowie Dying, which sounds huge, before we’re lead through a long, drawn-out version of Yoshimi, even more poignant for being played among the burst balloons and scattered detritus of happier songs. See the Leaves sees Coyne don giant hands that shoot lasers at disco balls, which is a perfect introduction to Drug Chart. We call The Lips back for a blinding encore of Race For the Prize and a magnificent hymnal Do You Realize, a pair of modern classics that conclude one of the most remarkable gigs of the year.

Friday, November 11, 2011


On the eve of her first Australian tour and the launch of her debut EP, ANDY HAZEL finds out about the long musical history and striking fresh sounds of multiple Age EG Music Award nominee SOPHIA BROUS.

When a debut single is musically proficient, lyrically unusual, artfully produced and stunningly delivered, it’s going to attract attention. Streamers, the lead single from the eponymous debut EP from Melbourne band Brous has been thrust to high rotation on JJJ as well as garnering community radio play and an Age EG Music Award nomination for Best Single. Despite a short musical career of surprising twists and turns, recent developments are something that vocalist, composer and chief architect Sophia Brous is still grappling with. “I’m really pleased!” she says happily. “It’s funny, when you view other people you think things are going well and achievements like this are all there is to their life at the moment. It is fantastic, but it’s not like the world has turned purple, life goes on.”

Life, for Brous, constitutes of a range of creative projects, which sees her week divided between writing music and playing gigs. It’s a work ethic befitting someone who can lay claim to an impressive array of achievements, including debuting onstage with Gil Askey, becoming, at 22, the youngest ever director of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival (a role she recently stepped down from), and winning a scholarship to the New England Conservatory and Berklee College of Music. These experiences feed in to the truly unusual and powerful sound that is being introduced to the world through Streamers. “When I went to the States, it was the first time in my formal music training that I had been introduced to music like exotica and tropicalia, and film noir soundtracks and was able to focus on them in an concentrated manner,” she says emphatically, highlighting influences that permeate the EP. “Many people who’ve gone through that system go through a process of unlearning, and it was like that for me. As soon as I got back, I went straight into jazz clubs and performing, but then there was a period of feeling like I wanted to explore other things, so I stepped back and started writing. It’s interesting,” she says, pausing, “as soon as I stepped away from jazz, I got the festival job; I jumped into it and gave it my all and it was a great experience, but now that Brous is out there, it’s time to be focusing on that.”

Unsurprisingly, when Brous focuses on something, impressive results follow, and so it is with the EP. Amazingly enough, with Brous’s powerful voice and poetic turns of phrase, the band’s music arrests almost as much attention. “The band were long time friends of mine and people I knew well before they joined,” she says keenly. “It began with James Rushford. We had an interest in pop melody, Europop, art music and avant garde and after playing with him I got further into melodies with a sense of darkness or depth. Shags [Chamberlain] was the last person to join the group, but he is a really important part of it,” she says with a rare pause for contemplation. “As oppose to having musical training, he has great taste in gear and an encyclopaedic knowledge of music and sounds which makes him great in the studio, this guy has 10000 records in his bedroom, so how could he not? I had a clear idea of what I wanted before I went in, but it’s difficult to communicate outside of music terms, and that was a great thing about having Shags there. I don’t have knowledge of synths, but when I write I have a very clear idea of the sounds I want, and sound is the core of my music – every song begins with the foundations of melody. To communicate the sound in my head means I’m singing stupid sounds to people, or playing recordings to focus on the exact tone I want, and Shags really gets that. Scott [Horscroft], Shags and me coproduced the whole thing. I bring the chords to the band and ultimately it’s what you do next that is the most interesting thing. Everything has to come back to the fundamentals; that’s the whole process on the writing - the melody, then lyrics. Then it’s a matter of extrapolating out and building around it, like architecture.” Other band members, or architects, include Alexander Garsden, Jeanette Little and Joe Talia, shining examples of the fertility of the Melbourne music community, which Brous seems intent on feeding back into.

“Initially we recorded nine tracks as a session - a few I wanted to hold for the album, some others as B sides - and this collection of songs felt cohesive. For the EP, it felt like this was enough of a first statement to come out with. We’ve written a lot of music since then and I can’t wait to get to work on that, but with Brous, there is a certain timbre. It’s dramatic and epic in scope, but I’m interested to see how this can be done in sparser ways with fewer instruments,” she says enthusiastically. “When we were recording and producing the EP Streamers was such a big song to create,” she continues breathlessly. “It took the most work, it was draining to record and it is a workout to perform; I call it my Jane Fonda song,” she laughs. “We had a lot of gear in the studio to play with, and time to develop countermelodies and give the song a certain robustness. Recording it was something that happened over time and in stages - because of my job we could only work in bursts - so the song was constructed in stages, which is funny because you can hear the song develop like that when you listen to it,” she says of its unusual structure. “I wanted a strange dislocation.”

Even with the quality and universally positive reviews, Streamers runs the danger of overshadowing the quieter and less exuberant songs on the EP, but that’s something Brous can justify. “Because Streamers came out first, and with the video getting lots of views online, people have had time to sit with it. I think every song on the EP has that scope of arrangement and heart and soul put into it; none of them are fading flowers,” she laughs. “A song like Little Ticket is a condensed version of the drama that people are talking about in Streamers. More is great, and giving something a sense of grandeur is great, but I don’t want to overwhelm the song,” she says carefully. With the company she keeps, you can be sure that’s unlikely and any density the songs have will only reward deeper listening.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


The Palais

When joining the throng in the foyer of the Palais, it’s fair to say few of us are expecting to be regaled by a 5-foot version of Michael Buble upon entering the theatre. However, 17-year old Australia’s Got Talent finalist Liam Burrows (who one signed-photo clutching patron later assures me later is ‘going to be really famous one day!’) is a graduate of the Sinatra school of entertainment and offers good clean fun versions of popular jazz standards. As much as the audience adores him, and as impressive as his voice and charisma is, it’s his assurance that ‘the Pointer Sisters are up next’ that gets the biggest cheer.

While some of us are holding out for The Pointer SistersPinball Count from Sesame Street, it seems that, on stage, five versions of Marcellus Wallace are occupying the bandstand. Before we have a chance to wonder how such well-built men and their muscley fingers are able to play their instruments so precisely, lights dim, applause breaks out and the voices of the Pointer Sisters tell us sweetly, amidst tinkling chimes, that they ‘love the way you give your heart so freely’. And with Happiness, we’re treated to the sight of Ruth, Issa and Sadako, three generations of Pointer. With the hem lines of their skin-tight black dresses ascending as their ages descend, the familial bond is evident long before Ruth explains that Issa is her daughter, and Sadako her granddaughter. The lack of Anita is soon forgotten as the power of their voices bind and blistering version after blistering version of some of the greatest pop songs from the 1980s erupts. Automatic is the first to get some excited audience members up the front and clapping, and it’s a safe bet that none of these people know of its recent popularity through Grand Theft Auto.

Ruth is the star of the show, clearly at ease on stage and with a voice as strong as ever, though Issa’s take on He’s So Shy makes it easy to forget she was only seven when the song was released. Going back even further, the band’s (Grammy award-winning) country and western roots come to the fore for their crowd-hushing takes on Slow Hand and Fire. While these songs didn’t have quite as much slap bass, ugly computer-fed guitar solos or as many boisterously emphasised endings the first time round, focus rarely leaves the girls and their voices. Closing the first set Dare Me, possibly the most underrated pop hit from that whole decade, sounds unbelievably fresh, keytar solo and all. During the break the band introduce themselves with hilariously funky instrumental solos, the sisters return in red, pink and orange dresses. Fashion was never their strong suit, but that they look a bit daft seems totally right, and who cares what they wear when I’m So Excited goes into Neutron Dance, and is followed by Jump? Even when Liam Burrows is brought back out to remind us that he’s short and 17 and only knows one word from the song Jump, it seems that the Pointers can do no wrong. With the band giving us a few more funk blasts, the ladies dancing in unison as they exit stage left, the show’s over and the merch desk gets very busy indeed. Here’s hoping they don’t leave a 28-year gap next time.