EMILY BARKER & LUKAS DRINKWATER
Room 822 (Everyone Sang)
IF A STRESS-FREE COVER – a cute cover, done well, and a pleasure to listen to, but still, a very faithful to the original take that added nothing to the song beyond giving 20/30something voters a mix of childhood nostalgia and an early chance to do the old man thing of “the best music of all time was [insert relevant teenage years]” – can top the Hottest 100 poll, it’s probably the best of times to be putting out an album of covers.
Make it a collection of mostly extremely well-known Australian songs, many of which were staples of your teens/20s, and release it in the most Australian of all months, the summer torpor of January? Well, you’re quids in aren’t you for a country whose governments have been trying for years to soothe into comfortable numbness of nostalgia for a time that may not have existed but sure has been advertised as having happened.
(Issues with our leaders? Yeah, I’ve got a few.)
Here's a twist though: it was recorded in one room (yeah, so what?) of a hotel (hmm, ok, but still), whose windows didn’t open and whose door was only opened to collect food (getting a bit weird), by two visitors to Australia – one’s a local, the other her British partner – who were doing their mandatory quarantine for entry to Australia (ah, I get ya) ahead of a national tour which, being Covid and that hotel being in Perth, ended up not happening (shiiiit. Okay, that stinks).
Well, that’s not nostalgia; that’s right now. And both universal and still very personal.
Which is where we find Emily Barker and her partner Lukas Drinkwater, and a project they set up to keep sane and sort of natural in the most unnatural of settings. On hand: a few guitars and a fold-up double bass, a donated keyboard, some portable recording equipment, a noisy fridge, a neighbour above with a noisier rowing machine, and a view out the window.
The ambient noise notwithstanding (it’s unlikely anyone but Barker and Drinkwater can hear the hum or rattles, even with the best headphones), the songs come in intimate two-handers, played with understatement and natural atmospheres. It is simply attractive, Barker’s voice the lead and Drinkwater’s complementary, and from the pulse bass of Push The Sky Away and the airiness around guitar and voice in London Still, to the chord beds and harmonising voices in Black The Sun, anything that’s here feels justified and no more than is necessary.
Does it add something though? This is trickier, and answered in two parts.
Barker and Drinkwater generally work in a folk setting, criss-crossing with pop and a bit country at times, and when she was last in these pages, about 18 months ago Barker was taking folk’s “dissident legacy” into a close examination of the deterioration in the natural world near her in south-west England, and in and around her childhood home in Western Australia.
Room 822 is by nature as much as design message-free much of the time. Silverchair’s Tomorrow, The Waifs’ London Still, The Church’s Under The Milky Way, You Am I’s Mr Milk, Deborah Conway’s Will You Miss Me When You’re Sober, Kasey Chambers’ The Captain, and Alex Lloyd’s Black The Sun are mostly unsurprising canonical choices (even Steve Kilbey, like Leonard Cohen with Hallelujah, must sometimes think Milky Way could do with a rest for a while) that place you in Barker’s formative years, and at least in the case of Tomorrow, Drinkwater’s teen years.
However, in the two most recent of the songs, there are pointed commentaries on some of this country’s long-standing pressure points: Stella Donnelly’s riff on rape culture and the treatment of victims, Boys Will Be Boys, and Paul Kelly’s pointed questioning of a country sliding into man-made natural disaster, Sleep, Australia Sleep. In both cases, the quiet urgency of each lyric appears as unvarnished, and unhurried, and more potent for that in these bare settings.
Still, like expecting triple j to be adventurous when its audience is musically conservative (and vice versa), asking Barker and Drinkwater to be politically/socially conscious in retrospect when the music they grew up with wasn’t that way inclined, isn’t really useful long term.
More helpful is asking does the record give these songs something fresh. And by finding ways to bring these songs into the room and to centimetres from each listener – even the rolling rhythm and escalating backing vocal enthusiasm in Mr Milk feels close – Barker and Drinkwater reshape them into something at least personal to them, and to this experience.
Not much good has come from hotel quarantine but this is a small gesture of worth.