IN SOME ALTERNATIVE UNIVERSE, in some ideal world for these two local outfits, they would not be knocking around with us in the early parts of the 2020s.
Given their druthers, each group would have existed at a time when “millennials” might have been people arguing over if 2000 or 2001 was going to mark the end/beginning of the millennium; when the seismic transition from a Sydney prime minister to Sydney prime minister would have referred to PJK giving way to JWH; and when Eurovision was something only the desperate, the comic and those who could pronounce douze points paid any attention to.
Think of that decade of choice as their own Wonder Years, without the Daniel Stern voiceover, but probably some variation of Winnie Cooper – everybody needs a Winnie Cooper equivalent if you’re writing songs. Even if you’re as long-experienced as all these blokes, who have more than a dozen albums between them.
Plonk them back there in the 1990s though, and the chances are Royal Chant (Mark Spence, since the beginning quite a few albums back, Wade Mobbs, for some time, and various friends over the years here and in the US) and Michael Carpenter & The Banks Brothers (Zane Banks, Jy-Perry Banks, and … yes, you guessed it, Michael Carpenter) would not have crossed paths. Except, maybe, warily, on crossover nights at one or two Surry Hills pubs.
Royal Chant play a noise-meets-tunes brand of guitar pop, its roots in the American alternative scene that flourished on the margins, first as inspiration for, then as leaner alternative to the Nirvana generation of rock bands. The most obvious touchstone is The Pixies, but there are flashes of Dinosaur Jr and Replacements, so you can tell already that while they may dress down, musically, they’re not afraid of the pretty flourishes.
It’s built on a sound that chooses presentness over clarity, so that guitars and keys can sometimes be indistinguishable, vocals are slightly back in the mix, and the only gloss is on the tequila bottle label.
Carpenter and the brothers Banks tip their hat to the new honky tonk surge in American country music that had begun the move of country from occasionally visited hinterland to the centre of culture. The touchstones here on album number two are plentiful, from Brooks & Dunn, Reba McEntire, Garth Brooks and Taylor Swift’s favourite, Tim McGraw, to Travis Tritt, Alan Jackson and Dwight Yoakam. So you can tell they may be polite and precise but they’re not here to be quiet.
It's built on a full-spectrum production range that doesn’t sacrifice even the smallest tom tom or the subtlest hiccup in the vocals while making sure your dancing feet can’t mistake the kick and no note of the pedal steel disappears into the loud checks of your pearl-snap shirt. And lordy, it might be coming at you, but at all times, the gloss is bright.
So you know the parameters of the two albums, would you want the stuff between? Yeah, I reckon you wouldn’t mind it.
The best bits of Royal Chant crackle with a kind of energy that has attitude but not snottiness, a world where you could imagine Buddy Holly with Husker Du instead of The Crickets (and much better, digging deeper, lyrics). But at the same time a willingness to let the air escape slowly as it does in the forlorn grandeur of Rhetorical Homecoming Queen, or the more battered but teetering in drama, Sowing Doubt In Magnetic Fields.
Disaster Recipe, for example, feels like Gary Glitter enlisted in the Marines: big stomping march, chanting backing vocals, modest melody that sits back and lets the beat do the lifting, while Everything Everything can’t completely disguise its ‘60s leanings within the rough-throated urgency.
The Daily Exchange comes racing out of Minneapolis with a beer buzz and a wet harmonica, zipping past you in less than two minutes, followed immediately by the smudged fuzz of I Woke Up This Morning And It Was A Waste Of Time, that finds its dramatic feet about two minutes in and doesn’t seem in a hurry to get up and leave.
Speaking of beer buzz, slipping on almost any track from Mr Goodtime on a jukebox would earn you the eternal love of the bar owner as the room will either be working up a big thirst on the dancefloor (the springy Where My Heart Used To Be, or the title track), inviting someone to take a respectable spin before buying them a drink (the better behaved 18 Wheels And The Road or Kind Of Love) or buying a couple of bottles for the bouncing ride home (the hectic Judy’s Got A Shotgun with the guitar chaser to its double shot of pedal).
Even the somewhat slower moments have a bit of the crying-into-my-beer feel (New Town) while pushing a bit of southern fried soul into the mix (the brassy Don’t Turn Me Loose, which has the weirdest pronunciation of concierge ever) might just bring in some new clientele.
There’s fun to be had here, but if there is a problem for Carpenter and the Banks it is that Joshua Hedley had the same thought as them this year https://www.bernardzuel.net/post/for-joshua-hedley-there-are-two-types-of-music-country-and-country and his ‘90s throwback songs feel a little sharper and a little brighter in their equally generic clothing.
But as Royal Chant might tell them, look around fellas, it’s not who might be wearing it better later that counts, it’s who’s wearing it right now when the penny drops in the slot.