March 2010

Essays

Robert Forster

Distant sounds

‘Community: A Compilation of Hobart Music’

When is Tasmania going to produce some great bands? It must be soon, if only through the converging of cultural forces, time and the fact that both Brisbane and Perth have had a fruitful past decade of breakthrough artists and bands and the frontier needs a new place to shift to. Writers such as Robert Dessaix, Nicholas Shakespeare and Richard Flanagan are already there, the $75 million privately owned Museum of Old and New Art is set to open on the shores of the Derwent, the Falls Festival hosts a great line-up of artists at Marion Bay each year, and even rock royalty is on the trail, with ex-Violent Femmes bassist Brian Ritchie relocating from New York to take up, among other things, the curatorship of a local music and art festival.

So what’s there, and what does it sound like? Answers lie with Julian Teakle, Hobart’s resident guru and member of electronic duo The Native Cats. He has compiled a 19-track collection that acts as a guide to the city’s indie music scene, an ever-changing and interlocking world of which Teakle hopes he can “capture a few still moments in this constant state of flux”. On first hearing, what defines the compilation is not what is included but what is not: a slew of bands playing catchy, fast, hook-laden pop hoping to win favours at Triple J. Perhaps there are bands such as these in Hobart or neighbouring towns, making Vampire Weekend/Franz Ferdinand/Fleet Foxes-influenced variants on what constitutes young modern pop, but Community’s 73 minutes is broad and inclusive, and the music for better or worse takes its time and wanders in a state of blissful endeavour, creating a body of work far different from similar compilations in any of the mainland major cities.

Two strains of music, or two approaches to music-making, predominate: the band, and the lone singer–songwriter working at home. The bands tend to be big-sounding, brutal even, with post-rock leanings. The songs are all group compositions, and the lack of songwriter voice or vision tends to make much of the music run too predictably along the lines of whatever genre the band is focused upon. So The Love-In’s ‘Hitting C’ and The Que’s ‘Fern Tree Recording Excerpt’, though tense and ‘grooved’, are five-minute-plus one-note ‘jams’, roughly in the Sonic Youth style. Moe Grizzly’s ‘Stereo/Lowlife’ is too close to Joy Division’s ‘Transmission’, and Hey Mook, who are easily the most traditional rock band on the record, just get their heads above their Neil Young/Church influences on ‘Southerly Bluster’. It should also be noted that, as ever, the bands with the strangest names often make the least convincing music: such is the case here with Drunk Elk and Paint Your Golden Face.

Two groups stand out. Ivy St’s ‘Bright Eyes’ is very 1981, with bludgeoning bass and hysterical vocals, but it is powerful and confident and melodically well grounded. All Fires the Fire push the year of influence to 1984, with the addition of synthesisers and Adam Ouston’s moody vocals, and make much of an era not noted for likeable music. Both these groups have a hint of bleak northern England about them, the doom-y, 4AD Records aura of dislocation and imposing landscape that perhaps has found a resonance in the winds and winters and outlook of Hobart.

Isolation and distance and the options and opportunities available at that distance must play a part in a compilation like this. With the spotlight off and a small sprawling port city to negotiate, bands and artists rely on a sense of co-operation and tolerance to survive and flourish. Artistically, though, that is a double-edged sword: isolation and its gift of an added sense of self can benefit the creative process and sharpen an artist’s work, while the lack of a wide and critical audience eats at the feedback the artist or band needs to develop and bounce. Things can drift – strange, wonderful talents may grow in the dark – while distance and its imposing lack of urgency may cause others to lag behind. All of this is magnified in the hands of solo artists, and Community showcases a wild posse of songwriters recording at home or in small studios and sending their music out to friends and a wider internet world in search of bite, feedback, or even fame. This is where the compilation gets more interesting, tracking a set of songwriters with nothing to lose.

There is no knockout genius here – no Bon Iver or PJ Harvey figure lurking in the wilds somewhere. The strangest and most beguiling songwriter on the record is perhaps also the straightest. Liam Constable’s arpeggios on the Spanish guitar may set up a familiar introduction, but his first verse sung in a strine-ish Australian brogue is an eye-popping confession: “Unable to quench our pathetic desires / Loneliness plagued us with a great sense of urgency / We caught each other with our pants down / We saw each other’s ugliness and we failed to look away.” With this shock in the air, the song then glides into a beautiful chorus that delivers the song’s title, ‘I Truly Care for You’, with total sincerity. It’s mesmerising and, along with the icy synth walls of All Fires the Fire, the best moment on the album. Constable works so well because of his avoidance, intentional or not, of many of the gestures that infest indie rock, and there are plenty of them on this album – though some are done quite well. Our Sails’s ‘Notes from a Fighter’ is fine wonder-pop from the Grandaddy/Mercury Rev school. Billy Whims and The Vivids both do high-voiced, cute indie pop; the latter’s ‘Tighten Up Your Skates’ recorded and mixed “in a cubby”. And Teakle’s own band The Native Cats proffers not only a strong song, ‘Little Me Belongs to Little You’, but with its whiplash minimalism a lesson in inventive low-fi recording. The band’s vocalist, Peter Escott, who seems to be the town’s provocateur, has a solo career and ‘Every Inch of You Is Gold’ is him alone on reverbed piano; it is demanding and unusual and better than anything on his Slow Coach album.

Teakle does this trick often, of pulling a performance or a song from an artist’s catalogue that shows them at their best. Community is no quick grub. It is well sequenced and exposure to the artists’ own albums reveals the discernment and care in his choices. Ivy St’s recently recorded ‘Bright Lights’ is stronger than anything on their debut Picture Machine album. All Fires the Fire’s ‘Headlights’ is the pick of their six-track demo from October last year. ‘So It Goes’ from Billy Whims is the lead track of her What We Made album and a fine introduction to her work. It is also easy to spot Teakle’s desire to expose the tangle of band members and recording set-ups: this is a scene, and the fact that Anthony Rochester recorded seven of the bands and plays drums in The Love-In, and members of one band record another, and that the long thank-you lists on the albums are always thanking the same people is seen as a strength and charming feature of what is happening around Hobart.

And if there are no gold records to be had, or thousand-strong audiences at gigs for local bands, or Sydney A&R scouts crawling around practice rooms, there’s at least attitude and pride. A jocular defiance is encoded in much of the music and spelt out in the press notes from Teakle that read less as straight record-company information and more as wry-eyed manifesto: “We scoff at your concern about our cold weather and supposed isolation, and revel in the rumour that Victorian premier John Brumby spent a weekend down here not long ago, caught a few shows at the Brisbane Hotel and the Alley Cat Bar, and is at this very moment drawing up plans to drop Melbourne somewhere in the middle of the Baltic Sea for a couple of years to try and achieve the same effect. It’ll never work. You can’t manufacture this kind of talent.”

He’s right, you can’t – it’s all too wilful and eccentric, the crush of artists and their distant world making the appealing Community not dissimilar to compilations by early ’80s English indie labels such as Cherry Red or Rough Trade (Community is on the homage-sounding Rough Skies Records). These were labels that pulled disparate artists together, some acts experimental, some acts closer to mainstream pop, all glued to a particular label and somehow evoking identity. Both of the British labels were run by music-loving men with a vision, and so out of Community comes not only a portrait of a city through its recording artists, but also a clear sense of the hand of Julian Teakle, which may in time be as influential as the music he is collecting and making.

Robert Forster

Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.

Cover: March 2010

March 2010

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