Sunday, December 30, 2012


If there is a unifying theme among the music, words and films of 2012, it is one of style over substance. It seems, with a few notable exceptions, that we expect things to reference what has gone before, and we love it when they do. Even at the expense of surprise or (in the case of most popular movies this year) logic, the most important thing is to hit the right reference at the right time and in the right context. 

Perhaps its a combination of the most popular music and films being marketed in more imaginative ways, but we seem to forgive more easily, and expect our artists to be part of an industry rather than existing in their own place and time. The concept of 'selling out' seems almost antiquated now as more and more art jostles for our attention.

Everyone seemed to love Looper and most people enjoyed The Dark Knight Rises and Skyfall despite none of these films making sense. They were fun, the heroes were in interesting situations, solving engaging problems, the cinematography, pacing and supporting cast were excellent. Tame Impala ruled all that came before them, trailing souped-up psych rock riffs and John Lennon's voice circa November 1966 with every song, but none of this stopped anyone from loving the pants off their album. It seems likely that the next few years of Triple J programming will feature high-schoolers playing poorly-produced rip offs of Lonerism, and why not? Still, there is an interesting question to ask around what makes us admit and overlook shortcomings like these examples, while lambasting others.

This penchant throws the work of 2012's truly imaginative artists into even greater relief. To enjoy Swans' The Seer or Scott Walker's Bish Bosch, or even the staggeringly bizarre French film Holy Motors you have to be willing to surrender a traditional sense of logic and relationships and feel overwhelmed for a while at least. And these are dark, and strange and glorious worlds. It's a rare individual who can get their head around Scott Walker's work. To really understand Bish Bosch requires an unfeasibly broad range of knowledge of European cultural history, zoology, Polish and astronomy, and that's just for one song. Of course you can really get a huge amount out of his work without knowing anything, but the simple fact that an artist puts that much knowledge into a song and expects you to bring something to the table when listening is exciting, and refreshing. In this year of shameless recycling and referencing, it's interesting that the most challenging and original stuff comes from elderly men who long ago gave up caring what anyone else thought of them. 

Given that these creations are exciting in their blending of imagination and sound, they're still not places I want to spend a lot of time, whereas the dulcet tones of 'Allo Darlin, the haunting beauty and ingenuity of James Blackshaw's composing, Ryan Sterlings fluid guitar work and the evocative space of Burial's beats evoke a freedom and seem less instructive. They allow you to breathe and respond. 2012's most celebrated musician Frank Ocean lets you do this too, leaving a lot of space and intrigue with low-fi interludes, warm, sweet voice and vast range of sounds and instruments. Maybe not everyone, but a surprising number of people, responded to it, as they did to another unpredictable flight of imagination with a solid grounding in an outsiders view of social and personal challenges, the film Beasts of the Southern Wild. Which made for a welcome change.

2013 is the year of the Customer, according to The Guardian. I'm hoping that the opposite is true, that 'My' this and 'I' that can be replaced by just a smidgen of social conscience and caring for others, since it seems to be there in a lot of the music and film we loved in 2012.

1. Europe ‘ALLO DARLIN
2. Bish Bosch SCOTT WALKER
3. Love Is The Plan, The Plan Is Death JAMES BLACKSHAW
4. Lonerism TAME IMPALA
5. Channel Orange FRANK OCEAN
6. I Know What Love Isn’t JENS LEKMAN
7. Sweet Heart, Sweet Light SPIRITUALIZED
8. Double Natural BOOMGATES
9. ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend Ascend! GODSPEED YOU! BLACK EMPEROR
10. Palace Laundry RYAN STERLING

1. Pasted Youth CLAG
3. Trilogy THE WEEKND
5. Bastards (Biophilia Remix Album) BJORK

1. Kindred BURIAL
3. The Kids Were Wrong MEMORYHOUSE
4. Europe ‘ALLO DARLIN
6.  I’m The Worst CATSUIT
7. Stay Useless CLOUD NOTHINGS
8. He’s In Stock TWERPS
9. Locked FOUR TET 
11. The End of The World Is Bigger Than Love JENS LEKMAN
12. Fineshrine PURITY RING
13. Inspector Norse TODD TERJE
14. Feels Like We Only Go Backwards TAME IMPALA
15. Whispering & Singing BOOMGATES
16. Widower ELLEN KIBBLE
17. I Belong In Your Arms CHAIRLIFT
18. Kill For Love CHROMATICS
20. Andrew in Drag THE MAGNETIC FIELDS

1. ‘Allo Darlin
2. Boomgates
3. The Spinning Rooms
4. Ellen Kibble
5. Kinch Kinski

2. Taylor Swift ROD LAVER ARENA
3. Los Campesinos! HARVEST FESTIVAL
5. Primal Scream PALACE THEATRE

1. Lost Animal GOLDEN PLAINS
2. Kinch Kinski THE OLD BAR
4. Lowtide GASOMETER

1. Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo’s Film Reviews BBC FIVE LIVE

3. In Our Time With Melvyn Bragg BBC RADIO 4
4. Lime Champions RRR

5. Go Deep With Bruce Rave MOHEAK RADIO

1. Sherlock BBC1
2. Game of Thrones HBO
3. Mad Men AMC
4. Media Watch ABC
5. The Amazing World of Gumball CARTOON NETWORK
6. The Newsroom HBO
8. A Touch of Cloth SKY1
9. Problems ABC
10. Bunheads ABC FAMILY

1. The Perks of Being A Wallflower
2. Beasts of the Southern Wild
3. Tinker Tailor Solider Spy
4. Shame
5. A Royal Affair
6. Holy Motors
7. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
8. Killing Them Softly
9. Skyfall
10. Damsels in Distress
11. The Artist
12. Seven Psychopaths
13. Monsieur Lazhar
14. Moonrise Kingdom
15. Looper
16. The Master
17. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
18. The Dark Knight Rises
19. Frankenweenie 
20. Argo

Monday, December 17, 2012


The Palace Theatre

True to form much of the crowd in the Palace is dressed in black, part of a couple and over 30. This is the audience willing to pay $90 a ticket to let their arms and mouths do the appreciating, and while at some shows it can mean a lack of energy, tonight it’s no bad thing.

Six-piece, psych combo The Sand Pebbles do chugging rock better than most and the slowly gathering crowd clearly like what they’ve got. Their three guitars are put to use cranking out sprawling metronomic propulsions replete with vocal harmonies, tight drumming and crunchy bass. Occasionally busting out furious psych rock on songs like Wild Season, that they don’t lose the textures and space that make slower tracks like The Weight of the World so great is testament to the careful thought they put into these songs, something lacking from a lot of musicians who dabble in psych rock.

Before a row of Marshall amps, a drum skin sporting the Screamadelica cover and a selection of large, blinding white lights comes Bobby. Sure, there is a fantastic backing band who resemble the last five people found at 9AM at Pony (and feature longtime members Andrew Innes, Martin Duffy and Mani-replacement Simone Butler on bass), but it’s the rake thin Bobby Gillespie we’re here to see. And for one man beating a black tambourine, wearing a cowboy shirt and what looks like XS-waist black jeans, he gives us a lot to look at. Smiling widely Gillespie leads us through 2012, past a deafeningly adoring crowd response to the intro of Swastika Eyes and into the euphoria of Movin’ On Up. It’s a perfectly chosen setlist. The muscle put into the older, more danceable songs pull them up to date and lets them sit comfortably beside the more intense material off Vanishing Point and Xterminator. The sly lope of Slip Inside This House eases into the (literally) blinding seizure-suggesting lightshow accompanying the intense Accelerator, a Rowland S. Howard-dedicated Damaged and first of two new songs Relativity. ‘This next one is much more accessible’ mumbles Gillespie in a rare moment of intelligible banter before introducing the most radio-friendly song he’s written in decades It’s Alright, It’s OK.

Seemingly immune from the aging process, or vagaries of fashion trends Gillespie never stops moving, both musically and literally. It’s hard to take your eyes off him. As at home fronting a psych-house group, that the group sometimes assume, their transformation into a white hot southern rock combo for the encore still leaves them unable to sound like anyone else. Set highlight Shoot Speed passes like an out-of-control freight train and jars beautifully when up against the gospel sing-along of Come Together and set-closer Country Girl.

Returning to the stage for I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have/Loaded it’s like they can’t lose. Guitarist Barrie Cadogan (he of Little Barrie fame) seems like a smaller version of Gillespie, and the two frequently engage in some shoulder bumping and back-slapping in a way that is reminiscent of The Faces or Mick and Keef’s dynamic. Finishing with their most rock-ready hits, Jailbird and Rocks, the crowd shout themselves hoarse as the music ends and the stage is overtaken by a howling wall of feedback, looped percussion and those blinding lights. Bobby standing mid-stage batting the air, entranced by the sound, ending one of the gigs of the year in a state of sonic overload.


Northcote Social Club

It’s a thoroughly packed Northcote Social Club tonight, full of curious camera-phone wielding John C Reilly fans (Disney forbids the use of the ‘C’ for promotional purposes, so Reilly says by way of introduction), and genuine bluegrass aficionados. Keeping an audience silent throughout his arresting set is Steve Smyth, a performer with confidence and conviction matched only by the size of his voluminous beard. Often singing off-mic (most notably for the chain-gang stomp of Sylvie), and occasionally strumming a cheap acoustic guitar, Smyth lurches from quiet croon to Waitesian bellow as the mood takes him, and it takes him all over the NSC stage and into physical contortions that would be rendered ridiculous were it not for his power. If a concept of musical ‘integrity’ can be found by stripping a song away to its barest form, then Smyth is about as naked as a performer can be. Though the final song Cocaine Mountain features the lyrics ‘I’ve touched the face of witches / Held the hand of the devil’s apprentice’, which rings hollow for a 20-something guy from Sydney with the voice of an aging African American, he is a striking performer and wins many new fans.

Before the applause dies, and with Smyth only off the stage for seconds, John Reilly and his ‘Friends’ singer Becky Stark and guitarist and singer Tom Brousseau stride onstage, and burst into Good Morning Captain. ‘Feel like yodeling?’ Reilly asks with a wry smile. We don’t it seems, because this is the inner north of Melbourne and most of us are here to see a famous actor in the flesh, but that doesn’t stop him from letting loose. Dressed in a white shirt, waistcoat, fedora and sporting a temperamental old Gibson guitar named Charlie, Reilly is so incredibly at ease that it’s impossible to dislike him, and thereby the music he’s here to play, which is simple, beautiful and powerful. Interspersing stories, jokes and politely dismissing requests to songs from his films (Boats N Hoes etc.) Reilly focuses on the songs he’s here to get through, though a surprising amount of hilarity comes from Stark and Brousseau, all of who have fantastic floating voices. The songs themselves begin as bluegrass classics and move into a more country style (Stanley Brothers’ Start Over New, The Carter Family’s A Winding Stream and Claude Ely’s Ain't No Grave), the trio’s keening harmonies silencing the room.

After a hilarious story about filming The Thin Red Line in Queensland (complete with a wayward Aussie accent) Reilly quips 'we'll give you a laugh now then play a song that's absolutely devastating,' before heading into Johnny Cash’s harrowing Dark As a Dungeon and a jauntier Maybe Tomorrow by The Everley Brothers. ‘Hey, I’m not Slash up here’ he deadpans when going for a guitar solo. With a rumour of a cameo from Sarah Silverman, also in town to promote Wreck It Ralph, we instead get special guest Lanie Lane. Her and Reilly tackle Lee Hazelwood’s Jackson that Lane promptly forgets the words to, though Reilly’s charismatic plea that ‘you can get a polished act any day of the week' softens the mess it becomes. An encore of a very Elvis-y Blue Christmas, then a lullaby in the pitch-darkness, is a treat. Finally a sing-along of Goodnight Irene seals the whole show as one in which the performers are there for the love of the music and its performance alone, without having anything to prove or sell.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012


The Empress

Despite Melbourne Music Week being in full swing across the city and dozens of free gigs sucking punters from lounge rooms and pubs, tonight’s show is packed, attentive, and clearly there for the music. The relatively unknown pianist and singer Laura Smock launches the evening and cuts a commanding figure. Standing attentive over a synth, eyes closed and singing breathily with a voice that sounds at once natural and yet trained, Smock silences he room with the slightest effort, particularly during her song Remain. Though seeming sometimes nervous, given the delicate nature of her music silences are loaded, a bold cover of Massive Attack’s Teardrop shows that she is a fearless interpreter and, should a platform arrive, massiveness awaits.

Quite how Tulalah have remained an unknown proposition is befuddling, and unlikely to remain the case for long. Ostensibly playing upbeat jazzy-folk these clearly very accomplished musicians are some of the most imaginative combos around. Sporting more instrument exchanges than a primary school let loose in Swop Shop, Oliver Bannister’s double bass and the evocative vocals of Bridie Cotter anchor songs as they spiral and shift, full of imaginative twists and darkly atmospheric turns. Blasts of brass come and go, guitar, ukulele and percussion pull songs this way and that, but never to the song’s detriment or pushing showmanship over atmospherics. Occasional whole-band harmonies are stunning when they appear and missed when they’re not. Any forthcoming folk festival not putting Tulalah on the bill is selling themselves short.

Speaking of top-notch musicianship that doesn’t overwhelm the song, Tully on Tully are loaded with it. Despite not being referred to twice in their band name, the combination of Greg Rietwyk’s deft and sparkling guitar, Pete Corrigan’s keys, Iain MacRae’s bass and Frank Lees drums allows Natalie Foster (aka Tully) the freedom she so obviously embraces.
Opening song Going on Like This immediately sets the scene as being one of trumping already lofty expectations. It is, in short, a stunning example of careering, gutsy rock. Boasting a harder edge than the quirky indie pop they've been pushing before, ToT seem willing to take risks and push themselves as musicians. Older song So Close has been reinvented in a powerful and arresting way, with a new emotional strength found in the moments of restraint, belying a rapid maturity. Foster’s voice is powerful, expressive and distinctive; everything you want from a singer. With a little of The Sundays’ piercing clarity (and fluid, chiming guitar work), Cyndi Lauper’s fearless originality and the muscular soul of Renee Geyer, Foster already sounds accomplished. Unlike many of her peers, she and the band defy easy categorization. Lyrics to their recently Triple J-playlisted single Naked and its forthcoming follow up Stay (featuring another rising star Hayden Calman on vocals), are exceptional for their boldness. This closing brace of songs cements this as being one of the most surprising and strong gigs of the year. With an album in the bag, it’s a safe bet to say 2013 is theirs.


The Palace

Firstly, I should point out that of the 1800-plus people encased in the Palace Theatre tonight, I’m probably the only one over 25, and the only one who hasn’t listened to Triple J in over a year, so this is a review from the outside of the phenomenon known as Ball Park Music. From this perspective, the show seems like an extension of nationwide schoolies celebrations and a massive testament to the power of Triple J playlisting. Anyone thinking that Spotify and music streaming sites are changing the way people listen to music gets a massive reality check coming here tonight.

The crowd, made up of hyperactive freshly laundered teenagers with neat haircuts (and a worrying number of unflattering moustaches), throngs with excitement. Opening festivities is Courtney Barnett, local legend and charisma machine, a woman as hilarious as she is talented, who boasts a deft backing band. Barnett sets about converting the curious and has little trouble winning them over, so at ease is she. Her songs perfectly straddle the line between radio friendly and chipper Empress open mic night fare. Closing with probable local Single of The Year™ History Eraser, it’s a safe bet she’s found plenty of new fans.

Next up are Loon Lake, a five piece specialising in clean but heavy power pop with so much emoting in the vocals that words are almost intelligible. This matters little though, when you pull out pop hook after pop hook and the audience love every song and shred of stage banter. Softer songs have a yacht rock feel about them, and each one features at least one guitar break, which is a nice throwback. Songs are simple and to the point with Into The Office and Cherry Lips generating the most excitement.

Ball Park Music, now in the home stretch of their Museum tour seem to barely need to try, so in love are the crowd. That they do and that they bring so much personality to the performance is testament to the professionalism they bring the music. Opening with Fence Sitter, for all their wild stage antics and madcap instrumental breaks, their songs have sharp edges and sudden ends and are actually very controlled. Though the crowd are singing every word, punching their air and occasionally dabbling with a little crowd surfing, there is something shallow about their music, a sense of empty gesture that isn’t there on lead singer Sam Cromack’s solo work.
While weightless, almost meaningless lyrics are de rigueur in pop music, this lack of substance extends to the music and undercuts the moments of greatness that the band occasionally reaches. All I Want Is You, Surrender, Literally Baby, and new single Coming Down all send the crowd into greater paroxysms of glee, a sight that warms the heart of anyone who fears the next generation want their shared experiences exclusively online. The music itself though is free of surprises and unexpected tangents, but when songs this poptastic are rendered so crisply and to such a rapid response, asking for something more sounds like pointless niggling.