This is not an essay on Australian music. I’ve considered writing one a few times-maybe I started once actually-but it’s a giant slippery beast to tackle and I, in the end, am fucking lazy. I do make some efforts though. Instead of attempting to articulate the Australian sound and what Australian music is with words (as absurd a pursuit as it sounds), I choose to present my views on Antipodean music by posting the music here and letting you listen. I’ll leave the guns to do the writing. Sometimes I’ll dabble though.
When I talk about defining the sound of a country I don’t mean the most popular music or the most anthemic. It’s not the music that stirs patriotism or evokes the clichéd imagery associated with said land. I think it’s music that captures something intangibly unique about that country-I guess you’d call it character, though that seems inadequate. Simply put, the sound of a country emerges through honest musicians making art with grit and soul. Shiny pop music has it’s place and role but in the end it’s just new flavours of gum. And so it’s emerged that the most potent and representative Australian music is-like our best film, literature and visual art-dark, languid and often not highly digestible. It sticks on the way down. But that’s the stuff that lasts. Not everyone likes our “bleak” music, but it’s our best, our most interesting, and our most representative.
The other aspect that great Australian music incorporates is expansivess. The classic example here is “Wide Open Road” by The Triffiids. I was watching this clip with my housemate a couple of week back and yes, we were quite drunk and yes, it was four in the morning, however we both adamantly agreed that this was The Australian sound, even though it’s a cliche to say so. You just don’t hear this sort of music coming from any other country:
The desolation, the darkness, the shimmering beauty…what’s going on here also struck me in the music of Sooners. “Horses Run Out” is a stunning track. There’s that tense meeting of folk and rock, a roaming quality to the reverberating vocals and guitars that leads..almost to a crashing finale. But not quite. There is cold restraint here, something far more interesting than stadium rock pyrotechnics. It’s a song that builds expectation in the chest and then refuses to release it, to me it’s about being free and so being lost. I could say that about myself and many of my compatriots. From there Sooners unfold another two superb instrumental tracks though this release is best considered as one whole piece. Expansive is certainly the word-this is slowly developing celestial music of transfixing power, like the skies of my home town in the country which I visit barely enough. I really should more often, if only to walk at night while gazing at the Milky Way. It’s not the same in the city.
I mentioned the word languid. I think it’s the best word to describe the music of Summer Flake, the project of the very talented Steph Crase. The charm and lo-fi power of these songs exist in their simplicity-slow burning rock numbers that have that three-pints-in feel to me (a real good feeling). I love that these songs dont really follow convention- opener “Inside Out” could have easily wrapped up at the three minute mark but Crase lets the guitar have a conversation with itself for another minute and a half or so, occasionally jabbing the listener in the ribs for good measure. “The Wedding March (for Jess & Kynan)” is my highlight, a superb five minute+ song that builds to blissful noisy heights. I assume it was written for a freinds nuptials-there’s heart in this music. You can hear it.
There’s an early 90’s New York sound to these songs-an unmistakeable Sonic Youth and early Yo La Tengo influence-and here is another important aspect of the Australian sound, an aspect that translates to our identity. We have none. We are a mishmash, a mosaic, a multiculture pile up. The more we celebrate this the better. I’ll celebrate the heck out of this release from Summer Flake, to me it’s as good as anything I’ve heard this year and, yes, it’s distinctly Australian (hate that phrase but fuck it, it’s true). It’s there in that late afternoon suburban sunroom feel, in it’s innocence fringed with darkness, in the southern bite of those guitars. It has a sunny melancholy that I see and I feel while kicking around this joint and, most importantly, it’s got grit and honesty. I can’t get enough of it.
But this wasn’t going to be an essay right? I’m finished.
I know it’s cold. Winter comes ever year, you know. Some cope better than others-some get mad, some get s.o s.a.d. I think the real depths are hit by those that want to fight it, that think the atmospheric conditions are somehow unfair. Some seem to take the changing of the seasons personally. I know I talk about the weather a lot (don’t we all?) and I guess that’s because in running a music blog my moods dictate what I feel like listening to and therefore influences the type of stuff I post. There’s no point resisting how the atmospheric conditions make you feel, as R. Buckminster Fuller said “Don’t fight forces, use them”.
So with the onset of the big grey I’ve found myself snuggling up with the usual suspects and a few new acquaintances. Jason Molina is in my ears pretty much year round but come May his music takes on a deeper, somehow even sadder, dimension. A friend recently pointed me back towards the lovely ashen sounds of Michael Gira’s Angels of Light. And of course, ladies and gentlemen…Mr Leonard Cohen. This clearly isn’t a diet to be sustained regularly, but I can assert that it goes well with red wine, midnight drizzle and, yeah, seasonal orientated sadness affective disorder.
When I started listening to Gunman & The Holy Ghost it actually made me laugh. Such misery! This is melancholy with gristle! This album is barefaced in it’s misery-it doesn’t resist it, it uses it. Song titles like “I Don’t Believe In Love Anymore” and “Oh Lord, Let Me Die In Pain” are pretty good indication of what we’re in for here, though there’s great variation on this deliciously dark album. Opener “The Eight To Five Train To Nothing” snared me right in the lip and I was willfully dragged up through that ink black water and onto the good ship Gunman. A relatively upbeat tune, it has some sad, sad lyrics:
"I would want you here but you’re nowhere near so I just keep steaming on; Into the wilderness and unhappiness right back where I came from"
Lines like this are so damn dark, they bring a smile to my face. Like when I’m listening to Molina’s “Let Me Go , Le Me Go, Let Me Go” and it’s so, so fucking despondent that all you can do is smile. Enjoying something cutting to the bone may be seen as sadomasochistic, but that’s ok. Music should provide all manner of sensations.
There’s a great range of styles played with here, mainly in the realm of folk rock. Rollicking country tales of a cowboys solitude (“Outlaw’s Shout”) mid tempo jaunts of misery (“Oh Lord, Let Me Die In Pain”) and yearning R ‘n B tinged folk (“Lonely”). “Like A Soldier…” is the most Cohen-esque number, undoubtedly paying homage to the great poet in sound and lyrics. The military beat used is a stroke of simple genius and lends itself beautifully to the metaphor the song - that love is war. Closer “Dream Of A Highway” opens softly enough and builds superbly, before unfolding into it’s noisy, dramatic conclusion. It’s a song that reaches great heights and, like all good albums do, leaves us hungering for more.
I’ve seen depression and experienced it, I understand the paralysing affects it can have. I don’t think it’s something to be glorified. What I do admire is when an artist makes something out of their sadness. I’m sure it’s therapeutic for them and I wish I had the capacity to do so it but I don’t, so I listen instead and share the pain. Albums like this from Gunman & The Holy Ghost exist to share the dark and the cold with, to be enveloped by. To soundtrack the settling of the fog, to provide a pale sun on the bleakest of days.