September 2015

Arts & Letters

Highway or driveway

By Anwen Crawford
Jess Ribeiro’s ‘Kill It Yourself’ and Sui Zhen’s ‘Secretly Susan’

Jess Ribeiro’s new album, Kill It Yourself, is like an American road trip with a detour via Melbourne, where she is based, or maybe via Perth. The pace is languid, and the mood is dusky. The Triffids once travelled this musical route, as did The Bad Seeds, sensing the affinity between America’s vast terrain and our own. Out on those lonesome highways that cut across continents, strange things can happen. “In the dirty rear view mirror / Desert ghosts,” sings Ribeiro over a brooding organ on ‘Born To Ride’. Kill It Yourself was produced by Mick Harvey, a former Bad Seed, though it would be a mistake to give him the sole credit for the album’s gothic atmosphere. Ribeiro sounds assured of her direction.

Originally from Armidale, New South Wales, Ribeiro was living in Darwin when she formed Jess Ribeiro and the Bone Collectors with her friend Rob Law. The group’s first EP, Pilgrimage (2008), picked up some airplay on ABC Radio National. The subsequent debut album, My Little River (2012), was shortlisted for the Australian Music Prize, named ABC Radio National Album of the Year and won Best Country Album at the 2012 AIR (Australian Independent Record Labels Association) Awards. My Little River is an album built on plucked acoustic guitar, with a hint of banjo, and occasional strings. Many of the songs are character-based: ‘Mama Look Out’, about a woman whose tempestuous partner is “13 hours away, he’s coming home” (shades of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s classic ‘Twenty-Four Hours From Tulsa’), or the album’s title track, on which the heartsick narrator defiantly declares, “There ain’t no boy as pretty / As my little river”.

Kill It Yourself, by contrast, feels both more impressionistic and more personal. There’s no overarching chronicle, but each song explores facets of a character, who may be Ribeiro herself, glancing back at the hazy, disappearing past as she moves towards the future. This is a place that slips between memory, dream, and life as it is happening, and the album’s instrumentation – the aforementioned organ, the electric guitar, soft drums and more strings – creates this blurriness, as much as the lyrics do. “Hold, hold her down / Quiet and firm / When she bleeds,” Ribeiro sings on the title track, around the organ and some touches of piano. On a literal level, the song is about the task of slaughtering an animal. (In notes on the album’s songs, Ribeiro, a former vegetarian, writes that she dreamt about slaughtering a chicken, but found that in waking life she couldn’t bring herself to do it.) Less literally, as an address to the narrator herself – or perhaps to a lover – ‘Kill It Yourself’ is a song about finding the mettle to end something messy and painful.

Ribeiro sings in an easy drawl – I’m not the first to observe that she sounds somewhat like Hope Sandoval, vocalist with the wonderful Californian band Mazzy Star. It’s a voice that suits both the narrative intimacy of country music and the looser, wilder edges of rock ’n’ roll. Mazzy Star, too, always kept a mystery in their songs; though the scenarios might have been shadowy, the drama was undeniable. This isn’t to say that Ribeiro’s album is cryptic: several of the strongest songs, like the title track, start from some recognisable setting. ‘Slip the Leash’, which Ribeiro says was inspired by her transgender aunt, explores that classic rock trope, the ode to individual rebellion, where the fearless “create the night” on their own terms. The song is brightened by a horn section, which glimmers like a row of lit windows in an inky streetscape.

‘Good Day’, towards the album’s end, draws on Ribeiro’s experiences in Top End indigenous communities, particularly around Muckaty Station, north of Tennant Creek, where traditional owners fought a seven-year legal battle against their land being used as a nuclear waste dump. The song is partly a celebration of their victory, though the mood is reflective, rather than triumphant. Aboriginal musicians, too, have long drawn upon the traditions of country music to tell their stories. Ribeiro, then, sits at a musical crossroads, part white and part black, part Australian and part American. Kill It Yourself is all the richer for it.

Melbourne-based, Sydney-born musician Sui Zhen (pronounced “Su-ee Chen”) travels quite a different landscape on her debut album, Secretly Susan, which arrives after two EPs. Sui Zhen is the stage name of one Becky Freeman, and the Susan of the album is her alter ego: slippage upon slippage. The cover shows Susan with a blonde bob and tear-streaked make-up, sniffing a marigold, a sad Pierrot of the suburbs. The music, too, conveys a suburban pathos. “Set out on the road just like any other day,” Zhen sings on ‘Infinity Street’. “Fill up my fuel and I’m going away.” Secretly Susan swaps the adventure of the highway for the comfort of the driveway, though it’s no less charming for that.

Like many of her contemporaries, Sui Zhen creates music that sounds like the pop of the 1980s gone slightly wrong: warped in the middle, crinkled at the edges, a memory of a memory of a radio station where Spandau Ballet is always on the playlist. (The famous riff from Spandau Ballet’s mega-hit ‘True’ seems to ghost Zhen’s song ‘Going Away’.) I don’t have an answer for why the ’80s continue to exert such a hold over the imagination of today’s pop musicians, though I have a few theories. Partly, I think, it has to do with the unalloyed enthusiasm that those earlier musicians showed for new technology, like synthesisers, samplers and drum machines. From our vantage point, where computers are so enmeshed with our lives that our reliance on them can feel imprisoning, the enthusiasm is both poignant and startling. Those past hits, familiar as they are, can still feel new, like a future that has yet to quite arrive.

Secretly Susan sounds recognisable, yes, but Sui Zhen stamps that soundscape with her own … well, one could say “personality”, but, given the alter ego, perhaps one should say “persona”? She has a sweet, high singing voice, and its slightly brittle quality suits the miniature tragicomedies of the songs. “Every day I walk the house alone,” she sings on ‘Teenage Years’, the opening track, while synthesisers patter around her like falling tears. On ‘Safari’ her character ventures further than the house, and her voice is multiplied in echoing patterns. The song has a faux reggae feel: one of Zhen’s stated influences is Japanese lovers’ rock, which draws upon the silkier, more romantic side of reggae tradition. Secretly Susan ends with ‘Alter Ego’, in which the lyrics are barely discernible amid a web of reverberant sound, as if Susan and Sui Zhen and Becky Freeman were each dissolving on the breeze.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

Sui Zhen © Phebe Schmidt


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