The Beginning Of The End (MGM)
GIMMICKS HAVE A SHELF LIFE a tad longer than full cream milk, but not much beyond that, as “the bit” becomes familiar and the joke/shock loses its punch. But despite this, you know that someone somewhere in a bad shirt and questionable facial hair would still advise a client that a short life is better than no life at all so gimmick all you can kids.
Not all gimmicks are created equal to be fair, and the one deployed here on The Beginning Of The End – a duelling duet album from inside a contested relationship, where the bitterness makes a Negroni feel sweet by comparison but the sex can ignite – has a long tradition in country and to a certain extent in blues. It’s certainly provided years of vicarious enjoyment (or recognition) for listeners, and extended careers for the likes of Tammy Wynette and George Jones, who were a couple before, during and after their duets, or Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn, who were not a couple.
The latter pair’s You’re The Reason Our Kids Are Ugly, is kinda getting near the tone of parts of this debut album from The Pleasures – the never-a-couple of Catherine Britt and Lachlan Bryan, who recently explained their whorehouse-tinged backstory , and Damian Cafarella and Brad Bergen – though humour here is more rare and much darker than Conway and Loretta would have ventured, and the barbs are sometimes more vicious than Tammy and George landed. Still, the parameters are familiar, with the details to be filled in.
But here is where the gimmick-busting or at least gimmick-diverting comes with The Pleasures. Far from one note, lyrically, the warring duo traverse ground of tenderness and indifference, need and misunderstanding, as well as recrimination, vengeance and hurt. Lots of hurt. Likewise musically, Britt and Bryan – who move between unison and alternating vocals – slip and slide from chugging blues to lowriding country, from churchified and even sanctified to honky-tonk and, at one point, cowpunk.
Cowpunk? The Elvis and Cobain-referencing Paranoid comes out the blocks with scratchy guitar and two-fisted drums, unison voices stretched with the urge to slap around some “agitating, aggravating, accusating haters” and then walk straight to the county jail. It’s made even more stark by being followed by Sad Song, which sounds exactly as you would expect it to sound with that title: downcast fiddle, a slow shuffle and the voices worn down to a weary acceptance. Yep these are combatants with some major mood shifts.
If Homewreckers (like that NZ comedy, folks hired to end affairs with efficiency and distance) leans into a kind of Chris Isaak slinkiness, and Every Story Has Two Sides is a dragging blues whose rhythmic ambivalence mimics that in the lyrics (“I don’t want your hands on me … I’m just trying to pull you in”), Three Star Hotel and I Fell For It sit deep in the tradition, dressed for the part. The former, an acoustic ballad wrapped inside a piano heartbreaker, like Nashville reconfiguring The Weight, is a couple wearing something open at the chest hair and slit to just above the knee, but feeling more needy than lustful. The latter, three drinks and a barroom piano in to a long night, is a little unsteady on its (tapping) heels, but nodding nonetheless at the woozy slide guitar.
Yet there is something gritty in Three Star Hotel and something happily sweaty in I Fell For It that contradicts the surface and ties things to just enough reality. People, not just characters, figure in the songs, which in the end is what pulls some of the more familiar tropes back to earth: there’s real sharpness to Britt’s singing in parts, which suggests she’s remembering, not pretending.
The odd one out of the 11 tracks here is Seven Spanish Angels, which closes the album with the sad Texas weariness of Willie Nelson singing Townes Van Zandt. Written by Troy Seals and Eddie Setser, and recorded by Nelson with Ray Charles 40 years ago, it doesn’t feature a combative couple’s back-and-forth, is the most languid in tempo, and ends with violent death in peaceful unison. What the?
But there’s something both amusing and touching in imagining the lovers/haters whose combat we’ve been party to up till then, accepting that rather than burn the other down that they should go out together, entwined as ever. So we let them slip away. Out of kindness I suppose.