Dear Life (jerisilvermanmusic.com)
Over a matter of a few days this week I read both a fascinating, and encouraging, story from Jules Lefevre on junkee.com about the current surge in both quality and success of Australian pop music (READ IT HERE), and a review from the UK of ‘90s pop group, Swing Out Sister.
The stories are not exactly related but it made me think of that territory which we might call no-woman’s land: not quite straightforward pop, not quite indie edge, not quite 20something’s fare, and doomed to be never quite “right for the format”.
In practical terms of course, no-woman’s land is a misnomer. In fact the territory is full of, if not dominated by female artists who make music that’s definably pop (there’s no widely accepted definition but for now let’s go with it’s melodic, it doesn’t rely on rhythm or power, it is attractive to listen to but doesn’t fit into teen/dance/electro subsets, it uses production to enhance not obscure or subjugate, it doesn’t use traditional tropes of country or folk) but who are too old and too smart for youth-focused stations, too new and too smart for classic hits, and too gentle/mild/swinging dick-free and too smart for bloke stations.
Cape Town’s Jeri Silverman, and Sydney’s Emma Davis, don’t sound much alike: Silverman has a straighter line in tunes, more kick in her sound and maybe, in an ideal world, the fabulous Jenny Lewis as an ultimate destination; Davis tends to the closely held and the blurred edges, maybe with someone like the equally fabulous Holly Throsby as the peak moment.
But their takes on pop music are close enough to trend to potentially cross over from the edges, and yet be smarter than any simplistic stab at catching the wind. And both feel like something you can listen to without recourse to either hiding your age from the judgmental crowd or hiding your anything-but-moribund taste from your boring friends.
Silverman’s bright surfaces and conflicted interiors on her debut album hit an early peak in Fighting For, which feels like an LA afternoon in the company of the aforementioned Lewis, but reach their apotheosis on Lipstick Coffee.
Here, big-bodied guitars and hard-snapping drums punctuate the kind of song which moves forward relentlessly as if pushed by a tailwind. Whiskey in coffee cups are mentioned, her voice works more optimism than the lyrics suggest, and there’s a moment about two and a half minutes in when you can all but feel the band’s frontline in unison swinging their guitars left to right.
The precursor to this might be a track such as Bend To The Cold, where the guitars are acoustic and secondary to the mood at first, until a late life conversion where the percussion leans to thumping bottom end and Silverman’s voice arches higher.
The flipside might be Waiting Game, which isn’t as quiet as the Texas-like Let You Go but holds itself back as echoey drums and low intrusion bass create a thicker atmosphere over which Silverman’s voice dances.
Davis is more inclined to deploying layers of her voice, and layers around her voice, than Silverman, which in spritely songs such as So It Is and the effortlessly charming Best Of Times, puts her nearer Sally Seltmann than Seltmann’s occasional musical partner, Throsby.
And it wouldn’t be the worst idea for someone to shop around the album’s opening track, the twinkling and modestly brassy Getting Better to someone making ads for, hmm, I know, some high end tech company wanting to suggest it’s got heart and not just algorithms.
But then in Try To Love Me, which is like an ‘80s electro ballad caught halfway between a Brat Pack movie and This Mortal Coil, Davis makes the extra voices more echo than companion so that the isolation is not just implied but resonates. And in the closing track, Danger In Me, the kindness in her voice (a quality too often missing if you ask me), makes the ooh-aahing backing voices stand out more for their buoyancy.
The indie heart of Davis’ work may be found most exposed in Demons and Hardest Thing, the former a song which is more inclined to lay back and look at the clouds than to chase them. It is also the track which reflects most the work of producer Greg Walker, not because his imprint is strong but because as with his many super production jobs (and his own Machine Translations records), he’s found a way to let the spirit show through so that it is the singer who imprints on you.
And that is probably the most pop thing you can do.