Radio Sketches (Silver Stamp Records)
When not writing and performing with Icecream Hands, the Zhivagos, the Amateur Historians or in his straight solo projects, Charles Jenkins teaches songwriting to some lucky, lucky bastards. Comfortably, if nowhere near famously enough, one of the best songwriters in the country, Jenkins can show and tell, create and explain.
I wonder though, if the next semester he could just cancel class and hand each of them a copy of this album. Not so much “you can do this”, as “watch what can be done”.
Radio Sketches is the result of an initiative/project along the lines of the songwriting clubs explored on this page a few times in the past year (with Shane Nicholson, Felicity Urquhart and Josh Cunningham, and Sam Hawksley), in which Melbourne radio host, Jon von Goes, suggested a topic – a line, a theme – and Jenkins and other guests would have five days to turn something around. Not just writing, but recording them.
If the premise, not to mention the title’s “sketches”, suggests ad hocery, rushed/make do-and-mend material, do not be fooled. These songs have legs, more than a suggestion of back story and fit together like they had been constructed over weeks, possibly while being filmed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg.
A wistful yet sturdy, Ray Davies-like, Waterfall feels like something your parents, or for you young folk maybe grandparents, sang around a pub piano late one night during their first trip to England. And even then it probably was an old song. Maypril, with its built for a Gibson Les Paul, cocky guitar riff (played by Davey Lane), was something they cranked up in that tiny bedsit the next morning, slapping on some big collars and flares before heading out into Ted Heath’s grey-with-glitter world.
The inviting electric piano and acoustic guitar in Reba (Knock Off Drink) is one attractive thing, the ooh-aah backing vocals another joy, but the song’s real payoff comes in the lyrics which positions an itinerant musician on his regular night at the local finding the evening crowned by the possibilities inherent in the last drink of the evening with the woman behind the bar. You can’t help but picture him, identify with him, and hope for him.
That this song is followed by Lover On The Losing Side, which uses the metaphor – or, given we’re talking Melbourne here, is it a metaphor or is it actual life? – of being a fan of a perpetually unsuccessful team for developing a fuller emotional life than winners, seems so right, so Melbourne, so, well, let it be.
(Maybe it’s Jenkins, a man who knows his way around a classic pop song; maybe it’s having spent nearly 8 hours watching Get Back so I hear Lennon/McCartney/Harrison everywhere, but the Beatles’ connections and references are overflowing at the moment. Still, there are worse things to be compared with, and they are not exactly inappropriate comparisons anyway.)
Unlike the stripped back, bedroom recordings of his recent solo outings, Radio Sketches has plenty of buoyant pop (and some lonesome but not lonely country in the heart-tugging duet with Suzannah Espie, My Darlin’ Gal) alongside the more contemplative tracks.
The one step from a secular Christmas hit, Float Away, has the boom-swish-boom rhythm of a wall of sound girl group and the supporting vocals of a Motown quartet, in a song that celebrates the fact we got through this year; Separation Street has a hint of hayride jangle, a burst of Wilsons+Love suburban surf, and a dash of ukulele in its multi-part, multi-character evocation of a corner of his city; and while Augustine Aubergine canters along like a little choogling foot tapper George Harrison might have brought to the table in ’69, the witty Ray Winstone is ‘70s power pop with a popped collar.
If there is a final mark of the quality of Jenkins as a song-singer (which he prefers to singer-songwriter) it is the fact that these songs of disparate origins, styles and intentions feel like they were meant to be heard together. And very much enjoyed.
I wonder if you can teach that.