SOMETIMES YOU NEED TO STOP AND TAKE STOCK, so consider this something of a belated catch-up, a summary of a city’s continuing hold on good music, and a reminder that fresh doesn’t have to mean new.
Rounding up three albums that have been out for some weeks, or months, but for various reasons not given – by me, obviously, but maybe you too – the time/space/attention deserving, it’s also a chance to appear long-knowledgeable with some backdated opinions.
These three Brisbane acts pack guitars and bass, keyboards and drums (and occasionally other bits) and find their own ways around the familiar paths for any band wielding such weapons. It’s not their first rodeo, but they’re a long way from the musical knackery.
MICK MEDEW AND URSULA
Love Is Calling (I-94 Bar)
Although this is a duo of only a couple of years vintage, with histories going back some decades in their hometown (guitarist Mick Medew formed The Screaming Tribesmen in the early ‘80s when garage pop/Detroit rock/psych thrived, especially in Sydney, home of their early label, Citadel; keyboardist Ursula Collie around the same time was part of Ironing Music, which leant more to arty electronica/synth pop) and lifelong commitments to music that still sees them as cornerstones of the Brisvegas scene, this on-and-off-stage couple have a lot to draw from.
And that is so obvious on Love Is Calling, a home album made in the enforced restrictions of the Covid years but with imaginations pulling from all sorts of places and times. There’s synth-and-acoustic playing off an almost funky bassline in the slow steam of 36 Degrees and moody, minor-drama pop in the mould of The Church in Goth Night At The Synth-Country Ball; there’s Spiritualized-like narcotisised reverie in December Skies and a more conventional, northern England take on the same roots in Past The Borderline.
And if the title track backs its lower end thump with southern rock guitar that suggests a dark night of the existential soul, I Am At Home throws open windows onto an inner city honky tonk with a pseudo Wurlitzer making joyful carnival.
Elsewhere you will detect some traces of Lou Reed (and a flute!), fans of the Head brothers (of Shack, Pale Fountains and more) will make connections, and everywhere the reedy high tenor of Medew making much of this almost conversational. Or homely, if you prefer.
Mick Medew And Ursula play The Mayfield Bowlo, Newcastle, November 4; The Golden Barley Hotel, Enmore, November 6 (from 5pm for, 2 sets).
THE VALERY TRAILS
The Sky Is Blue (Independent)
This is pop. In many ways, very pop: tunes, tunes and tunes, they got ‘em. It’s just that the Bower brothers – guitar-playing singer, Andrew, and bass-playing Sean – with drummer Dan McNaulty, come at pop music with a sense of overdrive. That means they place melody within a solid body of sound that can tip its hat to noise without actually going there, that can muscle up without coming on like heavies, and can let the vocals sit back a bit in the mix without wholly obscuring attractiveness.
What’s more, there’s even brass this time around, and a woman’s voice in the backing vocals, with Skye Staniford joining Screamfeeder’s Tim Steward.
In These Times, the Jesus And Mary Chain-style slowly unfolding melody over fuzz guitar and drawling drums, pulls you along like a neat little trailer attached to a powerful semi so that you always feel like the song could kick up a gear at any point but no one is in any hurry. In See Me Fall there is more power on display but something even prettier in counterpoint, Staniford rising higher rather than being tethered by Bower’s solidity. It is in effect the dreampop side of the band tipping out the shoegazer, as shown to best effect on the joyous closer, After The Show.
The knack for a relaxed melody comes to the fore in There But For The Grace even as Bower lies low vocally, McNaulty the insistent but not too obvious driver so that the guitar can enjoy the ride-along. That’s even more obvious in Sometimes, where though bass-playing Bower takes the lead and guitar-playing Bower flings himself about, it is McNaulty who clears the path.
But there’s a trace of Minneapolis roots on show too, opening track, Jaisalmer, imagining what might happen if Bob Mould had pulled in The Replacements as his backing band: a jangling, a punch and falsetto backing vocals somehow co-existing, all the while being chased by brass that leans into the late ‘80s version of Chris Bailey’s The Saints.
They’re a busy band and this is a busy record.
On The Ghostline, With Hands Of Lightning (Plus One/ABC)
If Halfway play at three quarters the force of Valery Trails and half the off-piste excursions of Mick Medew & Ursula, they certainly operate at almost twice (or more) the bulk, being that rare beast, a seven-piece band. Not that heft or volume is part of their armoury, deployed these days around the songwriting of John Busby and Ben Johnson, with former co-writer Chris Dale no longer in the band.
You can play On The Ghostline, With Hands Of Lightning in the background or foreground without interfering with anybody else.
They’re also the most celebrated of the Brisbane congregation, their previous seven albums clocking up ARIA nominations (best world music album), APRA nominations (best blues & roots work of the year), AIR awards (best independent country album), well connected producers (Mark Nevers, Robert Forster, Wayne Connolly and Malcolm Burn) and the approval (and funds) of The Grant McClennan Fellowship.
Does the variety of categories in those nominations – world, country and blues/roots – especially when their strongest and most consistent suit now, as reflected in this album, is indie guitar pop, suggest confusion in awards’ organisers? South-east Queensland’s all-encompassing view (after all, the line-up includes banjo, mandolin and pedal steel)? Or the band’s musical flexibility?
Maybe all three. In any case, On The Ghostline … is Halfway (which includes Noel and Liam Fitzpatrick, Luke Peacock, Elwin Hawtin and John Willsteed) in low horizon territory. Tempos and tone tend to the interior and contemplative, Busby has his hand on your shoulder as he sings, and there is a strain of late-night lonely bar playing that might suggest melancholy in other hands.
Rather than melancholy however, this is more a case of memories floating in and out of certainty, the past not another country but the room you may re-enter at any point. Or maybe, to pick up the metaphor in the album title, which refers to discarded nets loose on the ocean, these stories are the kind of things that haphazardly ensnare themselves on a passing life or a drifting mind and your best move is to take them as they come rather than judge them or regret them.
That is reflected too in the sound of the record which has a simplicity to it that de-emphasises the singular for the collective, a bit like Wilco at their most musically socialist. Well, if Wilco had a grasp of Australian vernacular and under fondness for subtropical heat. Oh yes, and had grown up with Antipodean influences of the non-mainstream kind so that it was natural to have guitars and keyboards weave through, voices play down from drama, and ‘70s country/pop filtered through a haze of distance and slight misunderstanding.
You know, Brisbane.