October 2012

Arts & Letters

Slurring and Purring

By Robert Forster
The freewheelin' Alex Gow. Image supplied.
Oh Mercy’s 'Deep Heat'

If you’re going to use a Bob Dylan album title as a band name, Oh Mercy is about as good as it gets. Knocked Out Loaded? “Love and Theft”? Desire? One of the first things Oh Mercy got right was their name. Good groups have tripped at this hurdle, Radiohead being only one. And the Oh Mercy career has stayed on target since. This is a young Australian band whose tenth gig was playing the Big Day Out, and with Deep Heat the group releases their third album in just four years.

Formed in high school by the songwriters Alex Gow and Thom Savage, the band won the Victorian round of the 2007 Triple J Unearthed competition. Their debut album, Privileged Woes, appeared two years later, and for a band centred on a couple of guys having just turned 20, it’s a remarkably mature and consistent piece of work. The lead singer, Gow, wears his vocal influences on his sleeve: wry Lloyd Cole-isms, Conor Oberst’s plea, and the lazy drawl of The Strokes’ frontman Julian Casablancas all peek through. Yet the record doesn’t suffer from this, and Gow, again showing a maturity beyond his years, stakes a claim to being a quality lyricist, conversant in the classics of Kelly, Cave and McComb and able to transplant their inspiration into the realm of post-teenage angst and the misunderstandings that come with first love and sex. It’s a good record, easily surpassing the stock debut-album compliment of ‘promising’.

Two years later came a different band and album. The success of Privileged Woes brought a bigger recording budget, along with the decision by Savage, after 18 months of touring, to leave the group upon completion of their new album. Consequently the band, now more focused on Gow, recorded in Los Angeles with the US producer Mitchell Froom. Since recording the first three Crowded House albums he has been one of the go-to producers for Australian record executives searching for a hit. He does a good job on Great Barrier Grief, and it is testament to the band’s poise that they can move from home recording in Melbourne to an LA studio setting with such ease. Gow has by now worked his vocal mannerisms into a distinct style, slurring and purring his observations within a surprisingly sparse, yet hooky, mix. The album is more songwriter-like than the debut, and Gow, beginning with his opening lines, “Darling, don’t mark my words, I can’t know/ How long, how fast, how deep, this river flows”, stays on theme, chronicling the head-rush of living rock and roll dreams while trying to remember what love felt like. There are at least half a dozen strong songs on the record: all the up-tempo numbers are wonderful, and the crisp, punchy production galloped the band’s career along at a faster rate.

Accompanying each album, and in conjunction with the thoughtful Gow persona, is an emphasis on visual and sonic presentation. Oh Mercy package themselves and their music carefully. The indie rock of Privileged Woes was well recorded and produced by The Panics’ drummer Myles Wootton, co-mixed by the experienced Matt Voigt, black and white photography is by Gow, and there’s an art-school girl with a pen in her hand on the cover – perhaps contemplating the songs Gow and Savage have written. Having the next album’s sleeve painted by the Sydney commercial artist Ken Done – and giving it an equally cheeky punning title – fits the LA roots and commercial aspirations of the album. Another fresh set of ideas arrives with Deep Heat, and the first question the album poses is this: did the Rennie Ellis cover photo of a big-breasted street dancer in Rio accompanied by two men in gold space suits and tambourines help to inspire the music on the album, or was it chosen as the pictorial representation after the album was done? Either way, what sort of music does this image evoke?

The story of the record goes something like this: it begins with a songwriter’s simmering dissatisfaction with “the singer-songwriter schtick” and the wish to “throw a curveball”. Next comes a two-month tour of the US, with band solidarity high and the wallop and wash of America going by. Then Gow, having read Paul Kelly’s How to Make Gravy, decides to write in the third person, further forcing a break with confessional singer-songwriterdom. Add in an appreciation of dub, reggae and R&B and his linking of this to the engineering and production skills of Australian Burke Reid and you have the band arriving at Family Farm studios in Portland, Oregon, at tour’s end wanting to make a radical record. Two pioneering albums may have been at the back of Gow’s mind: Talking Heads’ Remain in Light and Architecture in Helsinki’s Moment Bends – the former a leap into ‘groove’ after three albums of songs, the latter an inspired turn from indie roots to ’80s pop. Both were bold and convincing reinventions.

The band presses its case most strongly on the first half of the ten-song album, with the title track, ‘Rebel Beats’, and ‘My Man’ all confidently setting out the sonic template of the record: bass and drums way up in the mix, and squiggly, treated sounds buzzing around the vocals. They also showcase the strengths of Gow’s songwriting, especially his ability to build good choruses out of low-key verses. ‘Fever’ is a dip, but then the cascading piano lick of ‘Pilgrim’s Blues’ rolls in the best song on the record. Gow’s on fire here, taking the beautiful steps of melody with ease, his forceful, anxious vocal totally convincing when bolstered by a great tune and a band arrangement as strong as this. Side two, though, is a rougher ride.

How much pre-production was done before recording and how clear was the brief on the instrumentation and sound of the album remains unknown. One other ingredient was added, another piece of inspired Gow musicology – the recruitment of veteran Los Lobos multi-instrumentalist Steve Berlin for the session. The twin concerns as the album proceeds are the lack of supporting or featured instrumentation around the vocal, and a run of songs – ‘Europa’, ‘Suffocated’ and ‘Labour of Love’ – that are less an intriguing mix of Gow favourites (Jorge Ben, Tapper Zukie and Roxy Music) and more a standard blend of rock/funk moves. This clutch of songs, including ‘Fever’, indicates that another six months of preparatory work would have been beneficial, and that ‘groove’ involves just as much songwriting craft as does pop or rock.

‘Still Making Me Pay’ pulls much of this into focus. It is the only song on the album not produced by Reid and Gow, but by Bill Skibbe, best known for his work with The Kills. Skibbe rearranges the pieces: the drums and bass are planted in a reggae-infused track; supporting instrumentation swims around the voice; and Gow, returning to his best lyrical pose, pained and sly, leans back and delivers his best vocal performance of the album. The return to the crunch of the next song, ‘Drums’, with its tempo and boom at little variance to the rest of the album, only accentuates the colour that ‘Still Making Me Pay’ brings to proceedings.

The album is full of ambition and it will not stall Oh Mercy’s progress. A curveball at album three with so much goodwill behind them is almost a clever career move. And for Gow it’s better to do this at 24, when all the attention is on you, than at 34 when it may go unappreciated. The record also has a zeitgeist zing to it which will only enhance its chances of success. Gow has thrown out many of his strengths – the guitar, the singer-songwriting and the bookish lyrics – and if there is a drawback to this disposal of riches, it is that it has pulled some emotion from the work, a place to grip for those of us not out on the dance floor.

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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