Moral Outage (Broken Stone/Remote Control)
Restless Leg (Peabrain Recordings)
Ooh ah, just a little bit. A little bit darker now, a little bit darker now. Colette the missing Isley sister? Why not? But wait, let me explain.
Recently, a couple of jangly local pop bands had a run on these pages as we took a look at how decidedly indie sounds and approaches from a couple of decades ago were once again in vogue.
The format, essentially, was a touch of diffidence, reasonably pared down sounds with straight-line guitars to the fore, a bent but not broken strand of optimism, and a love of pop and melodies only partially hidden by the aforementioned diffidence and vocal imperfections. The roots were the 1980s Brisbane and Christchurch and Glasgow, and through them a small corner of 1970s New York and Boston.
Now, in a case of same territory but different shirts, with these two albums we stay local, pretty much stay 1980s indie, and retain an emphasis on feeling more than technique vocally – no one is going to confuse either Dream Buffet or Magnetic Heads with something you’ll hear on commercial radio right now, or suggest they’ve had a budget of Stockholm proportions.
But this time the brief has expanded: either sonically - here come synths, lowkey programmed beats, and a cooler palette to add to the guitars; or tonally: darker hues in storytelling, scepticism appearing, and an edge to the tunes, a bit more desperation/need at times.
If we start with Dream Buffet, the initial impression may be that we haven’t travelled that far from Quivers and The Goon Sax. Sydney’s Restless Leg come with the nervy jangle and shy-boys-moving-from-leg-to-leg-to-dance rhythm, from the opening track, The World’s A Room, where singer/songwriter Ben Chamie feels just on the outside of life trying to make sense. The choppy propulsion of Oblivion Banjo pushes the tempo and Chamie’s voice further out, indie boys chanting backing vocals completing the picture.
However, the New York antecedents, the echoes of Television and Patti Smith, and at its roots, Velvet Underground, begin to impose themselves more in Caught The Corners which (with bass player Fiona Whalley’s voice in cahoots) is both more sinuous and more uptight. And this side of them is reinforced by A Song About A Song, where the chugging rhythm almost feels like a drone.
From then on, Restless Leg – rounded out by drummer Jared Harrison and guitarist Adam Taylor – walk the line between semi-sunshine and shade until the pretty languor of A King’s Canopy closes things out like a transplanted-to-Sydney track from the Velvet’s Loaded, all fragile but determined and peeking out from under wide eyes.
They’ll happily swing between up and moving (The Wheel It Turns, country-soaked Of Timber And Tiling, the You Am I-ish Some Tricks) and more inward looking (In A Mirror Life, the scowling Breathe In Breathe Out and the more wistful Forever Follows You) and even throw in a semi surfside twanger in I Have No Choice I Am A Tree.
The effect, musically and lyrically, is of a band bit older than its compatriots, a little more curbed by life and some bitterness, but not yet fettered. It’s not revelatory or hiding brilliance but you can imagine them working on different angles of this template for another decade or two, consistently inviting and satisfying, with maybe a bit less faith in humanity each time.
If there is one thing to learn from the opening track of Moral Outage it is that Magnetic Heads – the Blue Mountains work of songwriter Des Miller and producer Liam Judson - are quite comfortable with you thinking that they’ve heard The The.
What You See Is What You Get, in particular its central riff, is as close to Uncertain Smile as you are going to get, short of a close and expensive conversation with Matt Johnson’s lawyers. Its emphasis on soaked rhythm parts and tinny drums - repeated but this time with guitars, in Prisoner’s Dilemma; expanded, but this time with rising keyboards, in Hard Times - places us smack in the first half of the ‘80s.
That’s a place where the vocals and bass lines in The Party Line and The Beach feel as if they were set up behind baffles, where the future is not so bright but not yet abandoned (“what are you waiting for?” Miller asks with a note of exasperation in The Party Line) and where dancing in an overcoat to a band hunched over newly acquired electronics (as you are contractually obligated to whenever listening to The Wall) is as valid as buttoning up your paisley shirt and developing a man crush on Grant McLennan.
The principles are pretty much the same as the guitar indie pop, with the melodies of The Street and The Beach in particular transportable between the styles in their slightly ajar attractiveness and delivery nearer deadpan than flourished. The diffidence is toned down a bit but the addition of a more jaundiced perspective doesn’t pull the songs completely away from the feeling that singer and listener are observers not wanting to be, or be seen to be, completely invested, trusting or completely abandoning the centre.
Indeed, while Rather Forget immerses itself in a fog of isolation and incipient chill, closing out the record with a receding connection - as if Miller and Judson are closing successive doors behind them as they leave - the evidence of the eight tracks preceding it is that the pair want you to follow.
And will you? From the play-on-words album title and the pitch perfect sounds, to that come closer/go away finale, Magnetic Heads consistently feel like they’ve got the methods and the means, if not always the complete clincher, something which Restless Leg get closer to.
But maybe that comes down to how you like your indie ‘80s.