Golden Doubt (Spunk)
THE GOON SAX
Mirror II (Matador/Chapter)
These two really enjoyable, but potentially niche-taste albums are a reminder that diffidence is tricky. Diffidence in pop especially. As The Sweet once nearly put it: you get too much you get too high (on your own supply), not enough and you’re gonna die (of your enthusiasms).
And early doors, one key hurdle to clear is making sure you are differentiating between diffidence and indifference. Again, this matters more in pop than in some other areas. Coming across like you don’t care, like it’s too much to bother with or you’re too above it to deign a response - or a melody - demands sullenness, probably flannelette, definitely aggravation in your guitars and drums. You know, rock.
Try that with pop and you’ve lost your audience. However, sounding like you are unsure or insecure, but wanting to try; not blustery or boofy, but maybe packing some residual resentment/heat; vulnerable and exposed, but thinking and listening; and always with tunes, even if not sung perfectly?
Well, hello jangly pop indie band!
Quivers and The Goon Sax have this nailed. The vocals are imperfect, and sometimes empirically ordinary, but feel natural and caring-just-enough. They mix male and female perspectives, playing and singing, and without needing to point it out for extra credits. Even when they amp it up they are talking, not shouting at you – vocally and instrumentally. They have vocal melodies aplenty and guitar melodies to boot. And lyrically they waver between knowing and admitting they don’t know, wearing their intelligence as a coat.
These two Australian bands – Quivers, a four-piece from Melbourne; Goon Sax, a trio from Brisbane – are so firmly in the camp of diffident jangly pop, so immersed in the history (especially the trans-Tasman end of it), and so open about it that it is almost a contractual obligation for a reviewer to check off the list. There’s The Chills and The Clean, Go-Betweens and Guided By Voices, Dick Diver and R,E,M., Yo La Tengo and Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, The Apartments and Courtney Barnett.
Which doesn’t mean they sound alike, as their attitudes and approaches swing back and forth across different corners of the same field, or the same city. But they are certainly not wholly un-alike.
In general, you could say the more experienced Goon Sax, now on their third album, lean more at times into a lightly dissonant, art pop sphere, with touches of (impossible) Germany and insouciant France, ‘70s New York and the parts of Manchester which spawned The Fall and Joy Division.
They’re also more comfortable sliding in retro electronic drums and chilled keyboards, coming at you at angles that dare you to like them. This fits in with a slight distance they set up between them and a listener, that isn’t about feeling superior but rather suspecting inferiority and stepping back protectively.
But don’t mistake all that for some aversion to tunes. Sometimes they’re touched by a narcotic languor, sometimes with an amphetamine buzz, but they’re there.
Quivers’ debut album wears its fondness for pretty more boldly. Harmonies and unison singing, guitars which chime as well as jangle, strings and indie disco rhythms, all add up to attractive sounds in songs that make liking them very easy. The vocals here lean, literally: there’s a sense of hunched shoulders on entry and tipping back against the wall to see who’s around. But once set free there are almost lush backing voices that dare you not to like them.
The weakness of a diffident manner usually comes up in slower songs when the vocals must carry more of the load. If you’re doing a big dream pop/shoegaze sound this can be hidden away behind the upfront noise, but when it’s simplified singular sounds underneath the lead not-quite-controlling voice, the failings can be too exposed for some people.
Quivers suffer from this more than The Goon Sax, but they also pull off the quietest songs of the two albums with delicacy, gentleness and warmth – and when necessary layered female backing voices - carrying our ears past the mixed-back main vocal. Their closing ballad might be on its way to timeless.
Both Quivers and The Goon Sax find the right balance between sounding like they’re not trying too hard and sounding like they’re not trying at all. The Goon Sax often prick your skin lightly and feel agitated, Quivers may smooth your hair and feel bruised. There’s a place for both.