JOHN KENNEDY AND THE NEW ORIGINALS
John Kennedy And The New Originals (Foghorn/MGM)
Watty Thompson (Cheatin Hearts/Spunk)
Admittedly, this says as much about me as it does about the music, but when Watty Thompson was described in the promotional material as a “bush balladeer”, his self-titled album (which isn’t out until April 14) sank to the bottom of the pile. I had visions of some hokum Australiana, of a yarn-spinning “we breed ‘em tough on the land/our mothers are saints/I can strum three chords/my boots are dirty/so I must be real” pileup of the kind you would see on Peel Street every Tamworth January. Nightmare stuff really.
And sure enough, on the cover, Thompson is sat on rustic kitchen chair in a paddock, a guitar in his hand, trusty old mug on the stump beside him, and a battered hat on his head, the sun just peeking its head above the horizon in the background.
Hey true blue, stone the crows, love the Nats, fair dinkum day’s work, where’s me ute, etc etc.
In theory then, Thompson would be the polar opposite of John Kennedy, a man who while not from here originally (and soon to be leaving for an extended stay in Europe after launching the album tonight at Petersham Bowlo) is something of an inner-Sydney chronicler, the Bard of King Street even, and someone who has released several albums in recent times featuring his interpretations of Australian indie/underground pop and rock from the 1980s and ‘90s.
His new self-titled album with the band he is calling The New Originals – Peter Timmerman on drums, Murray Cook on guitar and Phil Hall on bass, with additional guitar from Matt Galvin – features on its cover a shuttered auto electrician’s garage, its curlicues and whitewall suggesting origins around the 1940s, surrounded by power poles and terrace houses, with the moon beaming high above. (Its, or his, longevity is reinforced inside the album where there are photos of Kennedy in front of the same building at different stages of his and its life from 1984 to now.)
Jingle jangle and urban country, get me some gozleme, of course I vote Greens, second hand Blunnies, where’s me ute etc etc,
Well, slap me silly and have Paul Keating call me a ning-nong, because these two records have a whole lot more in common than my preconceptions.
The most obvious I guess would be the fact that the songs are so often site-specific and people-detailed, packed with little nuggets that place you in the centre of each story and inside the heads of the protagonists. It’s a folk/country tradition, like their conversational singing styles, they’ve both imbibed, as generationally and locationally different as they might be.
This ostensibly establishes veracity but really does its best work proving as always that understanding the yearning to get away, to explain and understand yourself, to sympathise with the decisions being made by others, unwise as they might be, doesn’t depend on where but who.
More broadly though you’d really call both of these records country-adjacent, notwithstanding the pedal steel dotted across Thompson’s album and practically implied in Kennedy’s, “yes, Jim Reeves is my father”, Music Is Everything, or how Thompson’s A Revolving Lament and Kennedy’s A Man After My Own Heart both nod to some Hank Williams’ heel-and-step.
Thompson’s City To Run, with its pumping rhythm section energy trailed by winking guitars and bouncing backing vocals, or Jenny, where the guitar drifts in from echo to low agitation, might have appeared on a twangy John Kennedy’s Love Gone Wrong album in the ‘90s (or a Mick Thomas And The Sure Thing album of the early 2000s), while On Your Shoulder, with its sage, preternaturally-aged advice to persist and pursue sits comfortably alongside Kennedy’s ruminations in songs like Reasonable Working Order and Well, I’m Sixty-Four on ageing and whether wisdom is a by-product or an elusive bonus of it.
As reassuringly familiar as songs like Kennedy’s traditional guitar pop It’s Good To Be Here and Till The End Of Tuesday, or Thompson’s shadowy Paul Kelly in The Beauty That Surrounds Ya are, there are unexpected turns.
Kennedy’s Glass Half Full (We’re All Going To Die) starts and finishes like Dr Feelgood – Murray Cook’s guitar chopping and gurning in a very Wilko Johnson manner – and OK Boomer rides in on a motorik rhythm, squelchy synth insertions and downtown brass. Who saw either of those coming? They’re fun too.
Across the aisle, Thompson’s Four Chooks deviates from parched red dirt country to something like a spooky, ragged Irish drinking song and it looks at first like a detour. But on subsequent visits that begins to looks like a flag in the ground, not a side road. The searching, hopeful, Through And Through, and the huskily soothing Mountain Sage, along with Four Chooks, serve as stepping stones at different points of the album for the closing track, the intense and compelling nine minute-long Coming Home.
Here, guitar and strings scratch against each other, momentum seems hard-won and there is a roughhewn grandeur in the bitter truths that makes undeniable what had been nagging away at me from the start: a tonal as well as spiritual connection to Gareth Liddiard (of The Drones, Tropical Fuck Storm, Springtime), a man who straddles city and country, rock and folk, compassionate insight and sharpened tines, in a way Thompson is working towards.
Common ground? Shared road? Whatever it is is, thankfully we won’t see Kennedy, Thompson or Liddiard on Peel Street. Ever.