May 2013

Arts & Letters

Songs’ ‘Malabar’ review

By Robert Forster
Twin peaks

There aren’t many great albums that can lose their last 17 minutes of music. Do that to the Ramones’ first album and side two disappears. Up until ‘Just an Idea’ and ‘My Number’ on Songs’ eponymous album, the fuzzy,  raw rock, Velvet Underground influences are held in check, harnessed in fact, to be unwound on attempts at two final knockout punches – one-chord churners both of them. But by then the fight has been won. Tracks one to ten are a peerless stretch of songs that manage to create new melodies and structures from familiar sources in rock history. It’s quite a trick: dead fires reignited by a Sydney band on its 2009 debut album.

Songs is an unusual band on the Australian scene, lacking many of the markers of Oz-rock success. Perhaps this explains the record’s lack of impact: it would seem a natural contender for the Australian Music Prize, a $30,000 award honouring “music of excellence”, but Songs didn’t even get nominated. Perhaps the record was just too good. Four years pass, an eternity in any group’s life, and the band is faced with the task of following up a monumental first album that, had it originated in the US or Europe, would have established an audience ready to hear new work. Big bands like Pavement and Sonic Youth have built careers on albums as good as Songs.

Wisely, the band, having lost and then replaced two members, has not attempted to duplicate the debut; instead a new line-up has set out to make a different kind of album. Equally important is the absence of engineer and producer Casey Rice and prime recording location Big Jesus Burger studios. This combination produced one of the highlights of Songs: its sound, a giant wave of melodic noise, an ensemble effect with guitar hooks and caustic lyrics spitting out of the moving mass. No other record in Australia has sounded quite like it. To my ear, the first album was primarily an analogue recording, while Malabar, with its crisper, thinner tones, is digital, and accompanying this change (which may be budget-induced) is a delicate scaling back or realigning of ambition. Fewer songs, louder vocals and clearer mixes are features of Malabar, and with them come new pleasures.

The core of the group is Max Doyle and Ela Stiles. He is grey and grizzled, a photographer for Vogue. She is younger, with a ’60s beatnik vibe. (Interesting people often make for good bands.) On Songs, he took most of the lead vocals, with Stiles a wailing, harmonic presence. Now, through the cleansing and brightening of the band’s sound, Stiles has moved forward as a lead vocalist and bass player, and she is playing flute. Doyle is as he was: a singer in the manner of Dave Graney or Mark E Smith, meaning a provocative anti-vocalist happily embedded in a rock band. And while Doyle’s nasal croon connects to the pose of a man willing to put a match to the world, there are love songs too, or love-disconnect songs, that help make a “difficult” band more approachable.

Musically the group has a great feeling for space, dynamics and repetition. The music proceeds in horizontal patterns and grooves, not vertical climbs or drops; consequently the band moves beautifully between two chords. The antecedents of its style are a walk on the wild side of art-rock, beginning with the Velvets and moving through Krautrock, the thornier edges of glam, ’70s New York rock (including No Wave), flowing out through post-punk to the Flying Nun bands (Doyle is a New Zealander) and on to the Spaceman 3 and Spiritualized. This is not fresh ground – hundreds of bands have trodden it in the hunt for inspiration – which only makes Songs’ contribution to the genre all the more remarkable.

Malabar’s new influence is psychedelia – not flower power and paisley, but the moment before that, when garage bands started to loosen the bonds of R’n’B and the blues and got a little groovy. The band has added the new spice judiciously, even surreptitiously, creeping up on you as certain drugs associated with mind-expanding music are purported to do. So it’s not as if everything suddenly goes day-glo. First there is the bubblegum shoegaze of the opener, ‘Alone When I’m With You’ – sounding so ’90s Triple J – and the great cyclic pop of ‘Boy/Girl’. The new colours arrive with ‘Looking Without Seeing’, with a looping bass line not far from Country Joe and the Fish’s early psych masterpiece ‘Section 43’ (the EP version, for the connoisseurs), and a chanting vocal from Stiles channelling Fairport Convention-era Sandy Denny – with a flute wafting in for those still unsure of the era being evoked. A list of influences, yet the song never touches pastiche, nor does the band sound like a glued-together exercise in fandom. The reason is that Songs has good songs, and by transposing the melodies to another experimental era in music, the fit feels natural – an extension of the group’s art-rock aesthetic. The “eye” of the group is moving from black-and-white New York to the swirls and sunshine of San Francisco; good grooves and the use of melody-induced repetition provide the continuity.

The other ingredient bringing a touch of 1966 to proceedings is the use of organ, a driving, church-like sound that features on the album’s other epic, ‘Ever Since the Time’, and the title track. And there the psychedelia stops – Songs hasn’t turned into Tame Impala. Elsewhere, ‘Good Times’ is strong mid-’80s indie pop, and the gorgeous ‘Ringing Bells’ tempts the group to reprise its tune in the album’s closer. It doesn’t quite work, the group again fluffing the end of an album by going a song too far. This is one of the album’s two missteps; the other is ‘The Country’, a one-dimensional jibe: “What’s good about the country / The country’s got nothing for me”.

There’s nothing on Malabar as mysterious as ‘It’s Dry’, or as insanely poppy as ‘Pain’, or as conceptually brilliant and daring as ‘Clouds’ – all from Songs. But the band has successfully escaped the shadow of that album to refine and renew its vision. In the process it has produced two of the best rock albums to come out of Australia in the past five years. So now there are two entry points to Songs: the shallow and deep ends of the glimmering pool.

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.

© Josh Heath

Cover: May 2013

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