Searching For The Heart Of It All (Teardrop/MGM - or buy it via Bandcamp or robsnarski.com)
WHEN YOU’VE GOT ONE OF THE MOST IMPRESSIVE voices in the country, an elegant, slowly baked, and even more slowly rolled out, instrument that for better or worse consigned you to being a chronicler rather than a flighty speculator, handing over the lead vocals for a third of the songs on your new album seems at the very least counterintuitive.
This becomes even more perplexing when those voices are the kind of individuals which hold the centre and can grow to dominate: Rebecca Barnard (of many things, but Rebecca’s Empire for one), Romy Vager (of RVG), Peter Milton Walsh (of The Apartments), and Gareth Liddiard (of several things, but most recognisably The Drones). Mate, you might be asking for trouble here.
Yet here is Rob Snarski, not just sharing space but sharing focus with “his so-called friends” (to give the album its full artist credit, which encompasses the as-usual quality playing of Graham Lee, Rosie Westbrook, Kiernan Box, Shane O’Mara, Ben Wiesner and Jack Howard). It was, Snarski says, “to give the album more sonic variety”, though perhaps just as importantly, to “mimic the way we might listen to music these days”.
That is, with peripatetic attention and unexpected routes rather than obvious connections: styles changing track to track sometimes, references dipping back-and-forth through the decades, and stories navigating between personal, historical and commissioned – sometimes simultaneously.
That last one, commissioned, applies to at least one song, Standing Next To David. Its genesis is in a lockdown-era income stream Snarski developed, Song Gift, where he writes songs on request, many of them ending up as gifts. In a way that tells you even more about the way this album works when you might not expect it to, Standing Next To David began as a song commissioned by a UK fan as a story-of-our-lives gift to a partner, turned into a mixture of the man’s love for his wife and concurrent adoration of The Triffids’ David McComb (as described in the email he sent with his request), and ends up being a graceful, quasi-country song of touch and dreaming that feels as connected to Snarski as anything he might have spontaneously written.
There’s a connection that can be made from that song to a later track on the record, Poor Florence Broadhurst. Ostensibly about the artist, interior designer and businesswoman, who was brutally murdered in 1977, the song in its simple, almost Cohen-esque progression has both a sense of grace and an emotional bridge from her story to the moved narrator, and then to us, the listener. It’s in his empathy, his narrative skill, and it’s in his voice,
Which brings us back to those replacement vocals, The tender fragility of Walsh’s voice is given a carriage of piano and acoustic guitar in Sweet Edie, which feels tenuously attached to earth but at the same time certain to last beyond the final breath. For the elegiac mix of folk lament and French ballad that is Feeling Kind Of Blue, Barnard reverses the fragility without ever suggesting anything other than the first sightings of exposed nerve endings.
By contrast, the Mink DeVille meets Velvets escalating drama of My Friend Too finds a low-vibrating Vager letting tension show as she watches an emotional claim being pulled away from her, and the ruggedly/nasally Liddiard slopes through the febrile subtext of Give The Man A Coin (with Snarski in occasional softer-edged co-commentary) in much the same manner as the guitar feels as if it must sprawl but never shortens its stride.
In each case, the story – the song – feels moulded to the singer but yet hooked in by more than association with each other. So much so that we come to see the voices aren’t replacements but something like a light being shone from a different angle by the same source, the songwriting.
Oddly enough that point may be driven home on the record by a song without any vocals at all, The Last Man On Earth, which is all European refinement, a touch of Italian cinema in the strings, and the sad-eyed call of Howard’s horn. Here’s a song that guides you with just the lightest but surest touch on your back, like an elegant companion on the dancefloor who anticipates your moves and allows you to be both an individual and a seamless partner.
And isn’t that the heart of it all?
Rob Snarski & His So-Called Friends will play at The Great Club, Marrickville, on September 3, and The Wheatsheaf, Adelaide, October 14/15.