March 2018

Arts & Letters

Primitive Motion’s ‘House in the Wave’ and Totally Mild’s ‘Her’

By Anwen Crawford

Primitive Motion. © Bryan Spencer

Two Australian groups use vocals to swoon-worthy effect

Primitive Motion, a duo from Brisbane, have a damp, dissolving sound. Their songs are evocative of paper left out in the rain, or the shells of abandoned buildings – things once intact now left to sprout holes. Sandra Selig and Leighton Craig favour informal recording set-ups; House in the Wave, their newest album, was recorded piecemeal over a period of almost two years, at Selig’s home studio. Bird call, along with tape hiss, leaks into several tracks, so that the songs also become impressions of the environment in which they were made. The music is mostly improvised, with some overdubs.

Songs by Primitive Motion bear titles such as “Small Orbit” and “Island Self”, clues as to the music’s attenuated spaces. But inside of those songs all pointers go blurry. Voices waver; instruments soften; lyrics, where they exist, are on the edge of decipherability. “Small Orbit”, for instance, the midpoint of House in the Wave, is an instrumental. A piano melody, high up on the keyboard, dances across a handful of notes, while a basic chord progression is sketched out in the bass octaves. Scraps of saxophone and clarinet drift by, and a drum kit patters lightly. All is enveloped by reverb. The song is gone in two minutes, but during that time it transmits a vivid sense of yearning. For what or for whom is harder to determine, and probably beside the point; the inexactness of the music, its lack of obvious message, is its virtue.

This is not to suggest that Primitive Motion is a project vaguely or carelessly conceived. The duo’s musical approach has been consistent, and is documented now across three studio albums and a few limited releases. House in the Wave leans on piano, while the preceding album, Pulsating Time Fibre (2015), made use of keyboard, guitar and drum machine: these various instruments are used to render a similarly entrancing atmosphere. Selig, who does most of the singing, has a glassy voice well suited to the music’s liquified and occasionally scintillant feel; the piano, especially, adds sparkle. “Small blue flower,” she and Craig sing on “S.B.F.”, from the new album, alongside a descending, four-note piano melody. The tempo of the singing is slow enough to smear the words into a kind of paint. One thinks of errant wildflowers by the roadside, or a fallen petal in the garden, or other fleeting, incidental encounters with a material world that we may apprehend but not fully comprehend. Such a world might best be depicted in impressionistic ways.

Primitive Motion come close at times to what could be properly called ambient music. In a recent essay for music website FACT, musician and critic Lawrence English reflected on the history of the genre, which was officially named 40 years ago with Brian Eno’s album Ambient 1: Music for Airports (1978). It was Eno’s stated intention to create “environmental music … as ignorable as it is interesting”. English, in his piece, writes of ambient’s “vaporous” quality. (It’s worth mentioning here that English, who is also based in Brisbane, has released solo work by Leighton Craig on his label Room 40. He also did the mastering for Pulsating Time Fibre and Worlds Floating By, Primitive Motion’s debut album.)

Vaporous, environmental music goes some way to describing the effect and purpose of Primitive Motion. But they also retain a connection to the pop song as a distinct form. Their music oscillates generatively between a thing that recedes into an undifferentiated background and things – songs – that claim one’s attention as discrete compositions. Selig, also a practising visual artist who makes site-specific installations, has described her interest in the “formlessness of form”. That seeming paradox, which points to the ways in which shapes change through our perception of them, serves as an excellent description for Primitive Motion, too.

There are precedents, and contemporary parallels, for this ambient pop. The music of English group Flying Saucer Attack, who began recording in the 1990s and still exist today, is of a comparable character to Primitive Motion’s: muzzy, tantalising, elusive. Interestingly, Flying Saucer Attack has also been (mostly) a duo – perhaps there is something in the creatively intimate nature of the formation that lends itself to this kind of semi-cryptic sound-making. (Other obscurely dreamy, and dreamily obscure, duos along these lines: A.R. Kane, Bowery Electric, Broadcast.) More recently, American musician Liz Harris, who records as Grouper, has also pursued a blurred, reticent song form. It’s hard to grow tired of such music, because it doesn’t entirely reveal itself, and it’s never quite done. To borrow another Primitive Motion song title, it’s a living system.

Centred on the singing and songwriting of Elizabeth Mitchell, Melbourne quartet Totally Mild make music that recalls the sunshiny, doo-wop vibe of early ’60s pop – The Beach Boys, Jackie DeShannon – but shot through with anxiety. Their first album, Down Time (2015), was a sly, succinct marvel, over and done in 25 minutes but with a lasting effect. The record’s centrepiece, “Nights”, was pulled along by a souring slide guitar line, over which Mitchell stretched her vocal into melismatic spirals. “All my nights end with all my friends dead,” she sang. “I wake in cold sweat and bad dreams in my bed.” It looks stark on the page, but Mitchell’s limpid voice, so tonally different from her lyrics, worked like a ruse – without listening closely, you might have decided that Totally Mild sounded merely pretty.

A parallel type of confusion arises with the group’s cover art. Her, Totally Mild’s new, second album, comes packaged in a sleeve – like Down Time did – that at first glance resembles a luxe fashion spread. Look closer, however, and questions present themselves. Why does the bathing covergirl look so pensive? Why is she holding a water glass to the bathroom mirror, as if straining to hear something on the other side? And why is her bathwater a poisonous green? “We’re told to keep it in / Don’t aim too high / You’ll fall,” Mitchell sings on “Sky”, the album’s opening track, as if giving voice to the pensive woman’s thoughts. The song is washed by a synthesiser as comfortless as fluorescent light. Disaffection sits close to the heart of Her – a disaffection with the limits of gender, in particular. The album’s title underscores the importance of femininity to the music, but it also brings femininity into question, making it a strange, studied notion again. Which it is, when you stop to think about it.

Following the recent departure of drummer Ashley Bundang, who played on Her, three quarters of Totally Mild – guitarist Zachary Schneider, bassist Lehmann Smith, and replacement drummer Dylan Young – are now men. The gender imbalance actually serves to enhance the group’s disruption of gender roles and expectations, especially when the male band members add stuttering, girl group–style backing harmonies to Mitchell’s lead vocal lines, reversing pop’s tradition of male soloists in the spotlight and women in the shadows. (Not to downplay Bundang’s contribution to the group: especially in live settings, she provided a resolute yet exuberant rhythmic foundation.)

Mitchell commands the chorus of “Working Like A Crow” (“I can’t do it on my own”), while her bandmates echo her (“I can’t, I can’t”). The words are the inverse of the vocal arrangement, and so the song dramatises the tension between desiring solitariness – especially as a woman, when such a desire is rarely celebrated – and longing for connection. That tension is not a new idea in pop music, but part of Totally Mild’s purpose is to bring pop’s received ideas into question, by coming at them a little skewed. “I know that what I’m feeling has all been felt before,” observes Mitchell in “More”, a love song that undermines itself.

Her sounds richer than Down Time – there’s even a grand piano (“Lucky Stars”), to go with the synthesisers and slide guitar – and is the less distinctive record for being more fully arranged. But it nevertheless creates an interesting push-pull between romanticism and irony; like Perfume Genius, with whom they tour nationally this month, Totally Mild come close to swooning, and then pull out of it. They covered Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” recently, at a live show in Sydney, and it was the perfect choice of cover song: they drew out the song’s doomy undertones (“The world was on fire / No one could save me but you”), and leaned into its denial, and refusal, of romantic comfort, which is nevertheless expressed through the most romantic of melodies. Don’t want to fall in love.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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