The Answer Is Always Yes (Liberation)
Too Much Sky (Sand Brothers)
Hoo Ha! (Farmer & The Owl/BMG)
FOR A GENRE THAT’S DEAD, or at least near death, pop/rock made with guitars is a bit like Scott Morrison: refusing to go when everyone says it’s over. Unlike The Former Guy though, with guitar pop this is a good thing.
In one sense, Alex Lahey, The Sand Brothers and Bad//Dreems have little in common beyond their instrumentation. She’s leaning more to pop that resonates with anyone who sang along to guitar-and-brio slingers in the alternative ‘90s, the Brothers is a bridge across the Nullarbor from Triffids/Chad’s Tree to Paul Kelly’s Messengers, and B//D offer a classic Melbourne/Sydney and late ‘70s/2010s hybrid of almost insufferable confidence and patched-up assertiveness.
But what they do share is a refusal to abandon trustee weaponry just because others have run out of ideas with them. Oh yeah, and pleasure.
The punch-the-clock zest of parts of The Answer Is Always Yes – a spinning top You’ll Never Get Your Money Back, the head thrown back drive of Shit Talkin’, the energised half-pogo/half Banshees needling of They Wouldn’t Let Me In, the power pop, On The Way Down – are the parts which went out first or will catch you first.
It’s easy to see why. Front-loaded with guitars, Lahey’s voice pitched far forward, the rhythm section often deployed as a hunting bloc rather than individuals, they come at you, sweeping you up with their energy. So much so that you might not realise for a while the bitter aftertaste within them.
Funnily enough, I think there may be more bitterness in these “up” numbers than in the more obviously bruised songs such as Congratulations, which works a modified soft/loud/soft form while Lahey watches an ex marry up (“Congratulations, so happy for your perfect life,” she sings unconvincingly. “I’m doing just fine without you”), Permanent, which builds up its layers rather than its tempo, coming across as a kind of Sugababes meets Pixies blend, and The Sky Is Melting, which carries its ennui as exhaustion, and its drugs as dampeners.
Yes, in case it wasn’t clear, this is a breakup album. And no, I don’t mean a post-breakup up album: she may be in a new relationship now but when the songs were written the hurt was too raw, the emotions far too present to be memories. Which is part of the fuel of this record. But so too is the effort to move on, to recover, a progression less easily managed in song than the short, sharp, bitter bite.
That recovery may be best represented in the shine, the sparkle even, that sits comfortably on top of the “I just get the bad shit” moments and the “maybe I can have something good” moments.
Bad//Dreems eschew sparkle, but the settings for Ben Marwe’s insolent delivery of his frankly smart lyrics, are as capable of a kind of polished leather darkness – tough and enclosing, slightly reflective and yet absorbing – as they are the jagged razors. More often than not, it is implication rather than imposition that defines the songs here, whether it is the New Wave keyboard vamp playing against some snap and snarl of New Breeze, or the decidedly-not-Hillsong gutbucket church fare of Waterfalls.
In Southern Heat, what might in other hands be menace approaches an almost cowpunky swagger instead, not so much softening the approach as broadening it, while Jack focuses its disgust at white indifference to Indigenous cultural dignity to sharp musical needles, saying it close rather than spraying it wide. Meanwhile, Godless tips its hat to a kind of open sky country, finely balancing strength and frailty in the same way it balances pedal steel and unexpected synthesiser, while in Mansfield 6.0, the echoes of the Saints and Peep Tempel, of fellow travellers like Amyl And The Sniffers and PiL for that matter, make for a coiled potential to harm.
None of this is to suggest anything even vaguely “mellow”, not when Mallee barely hides the dagger up its sleeve, See You Tomorrow is a snort of cheap speed and drily witty provocation (and here’s a shout out to another son of Adelaide, Kochie!), and Desert Television is a whirling dervish of spit and little polish. This is 45 minutes of being pushed: not pushed around, not battered, but prodded to pay attention and keep up.
If anything, if the carnivalesque closer that is the 58 second-long title track feels like a winding down merry-go-round, it isn’t the machine/album running out of steam, but instead a release.
You will find a lot more keyboards, from organ and electric piano to synths, on The Sand Brothers’ Too Much Sky, – indeed, Spirit Animal might be the most enjoyable amalgamation of synth pop and barroom mechanics/blokey front, with a more nuanced background, that we’ve seen since Countdown went dark.
But those remain a colour instrument, offering shadings to the guitars, much in the way that clear fondness for a pop melody is coloured and tempered by an earthiness that the more romantic like to ascribe to something uniquely Australian. That said, notwithstanding the connections to New Zealand South Island’s sound in the nonchalant vocals and occasionally sparkling guitars, the Brothers are decidedly Australian.
Most obviously you get that in lyrics – and no, not just the song, Adelaide – which speak to an awareness of the way nature, good and bad, has shaped its central character, who we follow from a still unformed Australia to the visceral and historical enmities of the Spanish Civil War.
But I think you also get it in the overlays of a kind of insecurity of mind which can define us, that mix of certainty that comes from isolation and disconnection from what we are told are our “roots”, and how an attitude of (perceived, even if not always actually lived) freedom propels a way of thinking.
There is in Too Much Sky a sonic ambition to match the lyrical one: space and grandeur suggested in Stolen Poetry; the long horizon counterintuitively evoked in Dead End Road; a febrile tension in Tied To You; a glistening haze in Adelaide. It is in a very real sense the result of experience, of knowing where to go. That, more than anything, begins to define this record.