Great South Road (Electric Entertainment)
Small beer. That’s what Dog Trumpet mean in the cold accounting facts of the local industry. Independent, idiosyncratic, they sell modestly to an audience which is not getting any younger. Move along, nothing to see here, bring me that kid from Australia’s Got Talent.
However, small beer sums up another way to look at Peter O’Doherty and Reg Mombassa’s band: not too big, not too taxing, just-right touch of familiars who explain in their own self-effacing way, what we mean to each other. Now, more than ever.
“We are somehow connected/Connected by our differences,” O’Doherty sings as the album starts, sounding creaky, dusty, amiable. “We have in common all this distance between us.”
Which is sweet, and might warm the cockles of your heart, especially if you’ve been sitting at home for a couple of months wondering when, or if, you’d be allowed out to see actual people.
But, just as the early shuffle becomes a kind of aquatic sway right before one of those surfside guitar lines of Mombassa, there’s a bit more to it than first impressions. The trickiness of being human with other humans, the fact that “for too long now this distance between us/Too little is more than enough” isn’t a joke isn’t being hidden here. In fact it is the subject line of most of these songs.
“Sailing on a beam of dust without a destination/Sit down you make me feel nervous,” O’Doherty sings. “I’m on my feet I just can’t sit still/I lost my rhythm to the windscreen wipers/They wouldn’t stop though it wouldn’t rain.” This isn’t domestic bliss. And yet you’re swaying.
People aren’t so good, not all the time, but we’re not running away. We might even find some comfort, or at least balance. Just like when in Mombassa’s country rock groove Gravity, he lays out the truth that gravity “keeps us in a state of fear of falling” and admits that “whoa gravity you’ve been dragging me down … When you fall you don’t float/Like a feather on the breeze/All you do is fall into a big black hole”.
And yet in the loaded metaphor, among the strong hint of black dog descending, he drops in a little Mombassa touch, a feather’s touch of its own, “I said to Newton I said to Einstein/All the things that weigh us down/Are just as you described”.
Further evidence of the coat of melancholy which is draped lightly over the shoulders of these songs comes in Mombassa’s The Lonely Death Cleaning Company, a kind of meandering southern blues which is a bit like Sarah Krasnostein’s The Trauma Cleaner set to music.
Told from the perspective of a now-dead contract systems engineer who “wore a grey shirt, had short grey hair/Ordinary spectacles and comfortable shoes”, the brown stains on the couch and carpet, the hamburger bags and crumpled up cups next to ashtrays full of cigarette butts tell of the dribbling away of a life lived out of sight in plain view.
Yet even here, he offers the tragi-comic line that “Eleanor Rigby probably had a slightly better life than me”, followed by a shadow of the Beatles riff. It’s not sleight of hand, it’s not false comfort; it is just recognition that there is no complete blackness – though there is the dark.
From then on in Great South Road that can be no question that shadows cross pretty much every song, from Mombasa’s deceptively light-hearted Gangrene (“That’s not just a metaphor for a toxic love affair”) and O’Doherty’s melodically pure throw to ‘60s LA, Stay For Too Long (“Inside of our house and others I have known/We’d move around the furniture try to change a home/But nothing ever changes unless we move away”) to his album closing lullaby, How To Find My Way Home (“I walked on my shadow/I was just an outline/Drawn in a shaky hand”).
By now, from isolation and social deprivation, you might think a listener would have a bit of a pall descending. No big grief, but a steady accumulation of small sadnesses will do that. That’s not how Dog Trumpet works though. Their songs don’t act like gravity, dragging you down; they hold you up. Which is no small beer.
A version of this review was originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald.