November 2010

Arts & Letters

Too smart to run back

By Robert Forster
Elizabeth Morris plays her uke. © Niklas Vestberg
Allo Darlin’s debut album

The history of the ukulele in rock music is as short and quirky as the instrument itself. Before pop music there was cheeky Englishman George Formby Jnr strumming ‘When I’m Cleaning Windows’ – “for a nosey parker, it’s an interesting job” – and then into the flowered late-’60s charts strolled the talented Tiny Tim, with his make-up and curls, baggy suits and ukulele carried in a paper bag, singing ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips’ and other vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley hits. In the rock world the ‘uke’ was enjoyed mostly in private, George Harrison being one enthusiast, and when Paul McCartney wished to pay tribute to his friend on his latest tour, he did so by playing ‘Something’ solo on ukulele. The instrument has been a staple on the alternative cabaret and roots-music scenes, enjoying a further burst of popularity with the banjo, kazoo, toy piano, mandolin and other decidedly non-rock instruments in the indie folk world over the last years. With perhaps none of this in mind the Rockhampton-born Elizabeth Morris visited the Duke of Uke shop in London’s Brick Lane in 2005 to buy a ukulele and soon discovered that the limitations and feel of the ‘uke’ opened a door to songwriting that had been closed to her on the more traditional song-crafting instruments of piano or guitar.

The songs she has written since then are the foundation of Allo Darlin’s eponymous debut album. Joining her is Bill Botting on bass, who was in the Brisbane band Polyvinyl, and on drums and guitar two Englishmen from Kent, Michael Collins and Paul Rains – Allo Darlin’ are based in London. The music they make is indie pop, a simple label but one hard to pin down in an ever-expanding indie scene that gobbles up genres and spits out mutations at a furious, internet-geared rate. Allo Darlin’ are the way much indie music used to sound, a style born of the more melodic and guitar-oriented end of post–punk, which was sugar-coated in the late ’80s by labels such as Sarah Records, and then perfected into popular form in the mid ’90s by Belle & Sebastian with their first three albums. Over the last ten years the twee pop scene has had to fend for itself as the young hipsters ran off and raided other closets. The White Stripes, The Strokes, Arctic Monkeys and Animal Collective weren’t interested in writing about wistful glances exchanged between sensitive souls on the last bus home. Allo Darlin’ have picked up an old baton, and their record gives pleasure not only because they have revisited a recognisable sound with dash, but also because there are many good songs here, well written and imaginatively played.

The first impression the album gives is of lightness and sweetness, qualities not in vogue and not usually associated with either depth of feeling or musicians attentive to sonic detail. The obvious star is Paul Rains, who plays beautiful guitar. He underpins Morris’ melodies with tuneful jangle and fuzz, and helps to carry the first four songs along with a momentum that has you landing at song five, the album’s first ballad, ‘Heartbeat Chilli’, as if having undergone a speedboat ride and been delivered windblown to a distant shore. To welcome you are the slow chopped chords of Morris’ ukulele and the song’s opening lines: “I was in the kitchen on my own making chilli / You came in with an onion and got dicing.” As an opening side of an album it is nothing if not impressive.

And it is not only Rains who is committed and inventive. Michael Collins began drumming in Allo Darlin’, and though it is detectable in his playing, the effect is charming and never detrimental to the songs. A missed beat at the start of ‘Kiss Your Lips’ is startling to hear in an era of instant digital correction. Other bands would have shifted the accent, but Allo Darlin’ don’t, and that dropped beat and the speeding up at the end of some songs is a microcosm of the band: joyful, natural and far too smart to run back and correct mistakes.

The album was recorded in the summer of 2009 at Soup Studios, which in a neat twist of fate is located under the Duke of Uke shop. The songs chronicle the four years from instrument purchase to recording, and lyrically it’s a London album, lived by someone in their twenties. There is the everyday: the lack of money, long faces on the Tube, the heightened pleasures to be found in the night from a city that can grind you down by day, and beneath all this beat the myths you surround yourself with as you struggle and triumph in a foreign city. A lot of the songs centre on affairs of the heart, and Morris, perhaps by temperament and certainly in line with indie-pop dictates, is modest and romantic. The sound and approach of the album is aligned with its lyrics. There is a pre-Beatles, pre-1963 ring to much of the record: a naivety in the rhythm section, the tremolo in the guitar, and Joe Meek-inspired echoes in the production. Morris’ direct and relatively simple lyrics chime well with her melodies and the girlish tone of her voice, and offer a contrast to much of the agony and over-writing to be found in the first recorded works of many of her contemporaries.

Two songs near the end of the album stand out. The narcotic pull of lap steel guitar and throbbing bass helps lift ‘Let’s Go Swimming’ away from London to a lake near the Swedish coast. This is a song about the influence of landscape on inner feeling, and after seven songs around love it’s good to get out on the water. Morris doesn’t rummage too hard for meaning, letting the three verses arrive with whatever associations they may bring; some are straightforward – “the water here is so clear I can see to the bottom” – some funny – “it feels new to go swimming where nothing can eat you” – and some poetic, as the water throws her back to the waves of “a central coast of Queensland” childhood. It’s the only Australian reference on the album and it is powerful because it is unexpected and small. ‘My Heart Is a Drummer’ follows, and like ‘Let’s Go Swimming’ it takes away from the effervescence of the opening tracks. It is the only number on the album that gets inside a relationship, and the rebuke and the tension in the song give the album a deeper dimension as it reaches its close. There is also a misstep or two. ‘Woody Allen’ is too sweet, with “In the movie of our lives would Woody Allen write the screenplay?” as its opening line. And a slow chorus of Doris Day’s ‘Que Sera Sera’ in the record’s final song, ‘What Will Be Will Be’, is a quote too many on an album with its fair share of references.

Generously thanked in the album’s credits is Allo Darlin’s engineer and producer Simon Trought. He deserves it: this is a beautiful-sounding record. Low-fi to some ears, the album bypasses the dense harsh sprawl of much small- to mid-budget modern recording to go for a sound that’s in tune with the band’s instrumentation and that respects the need for audible lead vocals on lyric-intense music. He also integrates Morris’ ukulele to fit the band – and not the band to fit the ukulele – so that the thick strum of the instrument goes in and out of the album as exotic rhythm, reminding us where the songs have come from.

Many bands make big, broad debut albums and their second efforts are often retreats. Allo Darlin’ the band with Allo Darlin’ the album have shot lower and hit higher, and now have open doors before them. The fashion wheel could turn too, and the kind of spirited ‘old-school’ indie pop Allo Darlin’ make may be next year’s hot ticket – another reason, if one more were needed, to pay attention now.

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.

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