Favourite songs of 2016

  1. Maxwell – Lake by the Ocean
  2. Solange – Cranes Across the Sky
  3. Mitski – Once More to See You
  4. Angel Olsen – Shut Up, Kiss Me
  5. Frank Ocean – Ivy
  6. Lush – Out of Control
  7. Julia Jacklin – Pool Party
  8. Brian Fallon – Steve McQueen
  9. The Weeknd – I Feel it Coming
  10. Michael Kiwanuka – Falling
  11. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – I Need You
  12. Carly Rae Jepsen – Boy Problems
  13. Pup – If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will
  14. Spain – Station 2
  15. Allo Darlin’ – Hymn on the 45
  16. Rihanna ft Drake – Work
  17. Mobo – Apple Cider, I Don’t Mind
  18. Richmond Fontaine – I Got Off The Bus
  19. Marissa Nadler – Janie in Love
  20. The Goon Sax – Sometimes Accidentally
  21. Japanese Breakfast – Everybody Wants to Love You
  22. The Lonely Island – Mona Lisa
  23. The Handsome Family – Back in the Day
  24. The Tindersticks – Hey Lucinda
  25. Tegan and Sara – Boyfriend

Book review: ‘I am Brian Wilson’ by Brian Wilson and ‘Good Vibrations: My Life as a Beach Boy’ by Mike Love (2016)

When Mike Love described Brian Wilson’s masterwork Pet Sounds as “Brian’s ego music”, he set himself up as one of pop culture’s ultimate heals, the philistine who lucked into a golden age and complained about how yellow everything looked. While his bandmate (and cousin) has long been cast as the tragic hero, Love has occupied the role of the moustache-twirling villain, the crass opportunist to Wilson’s wounded artistic genius.

Love writes about a pronounced split in the Beach Boys fanbase between those who prefer Brian’s innovation and sophistication and “the masses” attracted to the more straightforward nostalgia of his version of the group, which continues today with Love as the only remaining original member.

This schism dates back to Pet Sounds, the greatest pop album ever. The shadow that work cast hangs over both these memoirs; I Am Brian Wilson even utilises its familiar Cooper Black font. For Wilson, it set a benchmark he could never live up to and coincided with his withdrawal from touring life. In Love’s version of events, the record’s relative commercial failure and Brian’s increasing drug use signalled an end of the wholesome early version of the band.

As suggested by the oddly declarative title, I Am Brian Wilson foregrounds Wilson’s take on events which are already much-publicised and analysed. He has worked with a ghostwriter, but anyone who has seen his spectacular solo shows or seen him interviewed will recognise the voice immediately: vulnerable, faltering, pained, unexpectedly funny.  He describes the narrative as “a music story and a family story and a love story, but (it’s) a story of mental illness, too”.

There’s a lot of pain here, from the abuse he suffered at the hands of a cruel father to the pressure he put on himself to his years as the virtual captive of a quack psychotherapist, Dr. Landy, who he remembers as “a tyrant who controlled one person”. Yet there is a candour and even a childlike openness to how he describes the battling voices in his head and the self-doubt and self-imposed pressure which led to him abandoning the ambitious, visionary Smile project, which was originally conceived in 1966 and eventually revisited and completed in 2004.

While Love usually only features in Wilson’s book in connection with some legal action or other he is launching, Brian is a constant feature in Good Vibrations, with Love trying numerous angles to dislodge him from his position as a figure of pathos and empathy, the wayward genius fighting a losing battle with his demons.

Other times, Love too closely resembles the drunk uncle at a wedding whose speech has rambled on too long and worked a little too blue. He revisits his infamous, ranting speech at the group’s induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and blames his sourness on that occasion at not having meditated that day.

Elsewhere, he is content to throw shade at Wilson’s achievements, with the glorious ‘God Only Knows’ (named by Paul McCartney as his favourite ever song) perfunctorily described as “one of the album’s most celebrated numbers” and the haunting ‘Til I Die’ is only mentioned as evidence of “Brian’s gloom”. His co-written kitsch monster ‘Kokomo’, however, is poured over like it was the Zapruder film.

Love’s moments of finger-wagging anger and self-serving revisionism do sit alongside some fascinating details, like his account of writing the lyrics for ‘California Girls’ and recording the song’s heavenly harmonies and counter-harmonies. He had to sue the rest of the band for his contributions to that song (and others) to be recognised, a point he makes with some insistence.

Ridiculous as it often is, Love’s outsider perspective is undeniably fascinating and sometimes his rage is well justified. In contrast, Wilson’s memoir has a weepily beautiful mellowness and a real poignancy that shines through the acrimony and wasted years.

One cannot help but be moved as he describes the redemptive, celebratory mood of his latter-day return to the live sphere and his view of creativity as something hallowed and elusive. Most memorably, he likens song writing to catching goldfish in your hands: “They dart one way and you see a little flash of orange, but you don’t really know whether they’re coming or going”.

 

Gig review: Walter Martin, Sam Shinazzi @ Newtown Social Club, 29/5/16

After a career playing organ and bass in the much-loved The Walkmen, Walter Martin began his solo career with a children’s album, We’re All Young Together. He credits the creative left-turn for unlocking something in his writing and it’s easy to see a directness which carries over from that project to the low-key, autobiographical songs of most recent record Arts and Leisure.

Another songwriter known for working in an autobiographical register is support act, Sam Shinazzi, playing tonight as a two piece with guitarist Adam ‘T-Bone’ Taylor. The set includes ‘Bones’, all vulnerability and intimacy and ‘The Day We Met’, a stirring ode to friendship and memories. There’s also the whisky-soaked ‘Closing Time’, which Shinazzi describes as his bid to be featured on cult TV show Nashville. Some slivery guitar work on a cover of The Cure’s evergreen ‘Lovesong’ ends the set. Shinazzi’s shows are always a treat, full of heart and an unerring knack for bittersweet melody.

Undaunted by a small Sunday night crowd, Walter Martin is a good-natured presence, chatting amiably about the inspiration for each song and looking every bit a performer content with the niche he has carved out for himself. He begins with ‘Jobs I Had Before I Got Rich & Famous’, which takes a wryly funny look at his life selling roses and mowing lawns before a chance encounter with a famous pop star changed his direction.

Drawing on his travels around the world and his half-forgotten college studies in art history, these are charming songs of self-deprecating wit and unexpected detail. In songs like ‘Michelangelo’ and the almost spoken word ‘Watson and the Shark’, there’s a joyous attitude to the world of art galleries which offer a refreshing perspective on an often stuffy scene.

He also plays a couple of songs from a forthcoming record of vignettes about musicians, including the striking ‘Lana’, written from the perspective of a concerned brother observing Miss Del Rey’s heartbroken songcraft from afar.
The night wouldn’t be complete, however, without something from his children’s record and he obliges with the lullaby ‘It’s a Dream’ and a gorgeous rendition of ‘Sing To Me’, a tale of clumsy playground love. The sparse but enthusiastic crowd coaxes one last song from him, new track ‘I Wanna Be a Country Singer’ and as with everything he played, it proves small in scale but immensely likable.

Gig review: Chvrches, East India Youth @ Enmore Theatre, 4 February

East India Youth’s last record, the immaculately produced Culture of Volume saw William Doyle pushing his intellectual brand of electronica in a more pop direction, something like the Pet Shop Boys beset with paranoia. But in this live setting, where he is a manic, jerky presence behind a laptop, the chilliness of his music is pushed to the fore.

It’s compelling stuff, with the seven minutes of ‘Hearts That Never’ throbbing with dread and doubt, spluttering out into a maximalist freakout. ‘Entirety’ is similarly dark, a burnt out look at our media-saturated culture which flirts heavily with white noise.

Though working in at least broadly similar territory, Chvrches music comes from a much warmer place, aiming for something anthemic and affirming, rather than the missives of alienation East India Youth specialises in. They play with one of the most spectacular light shows the Enmore Theatre has seen in recent memory, an industrial array of cool pastels and neon, and the backdrop adds significantly to the epic feel.

These are genuinely huge, streamlined soundscapes from the opening ‘Never Ending Circles’ to the bubbling synths and surging optimism ‘We Sink’, while the hook-laden ‘Make Them Gold’ shows their almost machine-like efficiency in creating bright, sugary synthpop.

Admitting to having initially “stood still on stage and wished for the ground to swallow me up”, Lauren Mayberry is now a genuinely energetic frontwoman, small in stature but with star power and vivaciousness to spare. The Enmore stage can dwarf less charismatic performers, but she works the expanses between the two banks of synths expertly.

‘Leave a Trace’ and ‘Clearest Blue’ are also pristine, building patiently before exploding into choruses big enough to fill stadia, while ‘Empty Threat’ sees the ever dynamic Mayberry pounding the drums with gusto. Martin Doherty’s Scottish brogue on ‘Under The Tide’ and the almost torch song languor of ‘Afterglow’ are welcome changes of pace, but for the most part it’s the irresistible formula perfected in ‘Recover’ and ‘The Mother We Share’ which dominate, crystalline melodies floating over a base of clattering beats.

Flick through the new music playlist on Spotify any given week and you’ll find at least half a dozen bands imitating their festival-ready brand of shimmering synthpop, but Chvrches remain the leaders of this burgeoning movement.

Gig review: Matthew E. White @ Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent (Sydney Festival), 15 January

Dressed immaculately in a tailored suit and rarely seen without a boyish grin, Matthew E. White is nothing if not happy to be here, even if heavy jetlag and the novelty of the travelling Spiegeltent means he’s not quite sure where here is. “We played this Spiegeltent once before, but in Bergen, Norway” he says. “I got in here today and I was like ‘I’ve been here before’ it’s freaking me out”.

He gets his bearings soon enough with ‘Tranquility’, where whispered, almost spoken word vocals about the transient nature of life build until the song seems set to collapse in on itself, before a second guitar belatedly chimes in, giving the song a second wind. Written as a reflection on the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, it’s a tender if atypical start.

But White’s music is hardly all doom and death and things immediately take a turn for warmer, more joyful territory with ‘Love is Deep’. ‘Vision’ shows his considerable versatility as a singer, swinging seamlessly from breathy vocals to a soaring, upbeat, soulful style which has seen him regularly earn Curtis Mayfield comparisons.

Last time they were out here, White recalls, they were so jetlagged that they abrupt fell asleep mid-meal in a Domino’s outlet. Thankfully, there’s no such lethargy tonight, though slow jam ‘Fruit Trees’, moves like treacle in the best possible way.

There’s a lush, lush cover of Lee Hazelwood’s ‘Wait and See’ and a sunny snapshot of religious devotion in the blissed out ‘Circle ’Round the Sun’, White crooning the line “wrap your arms around me, Jesus” with such conviction that even non-believers can’t help but be swayed.

The setlist switches gears in the second half to his more bluesy, groove-heavy side with the likes of the harmony-laden ‘Steady Pace’ and ‘Feeling Good is Good Enough’ raising the energy. ‘Rock and Roll is Cold’ is a floor-shaking rave-up where brushed drums are exchanged for John Bonhamesque pounding. It wraps up with a group hug and a gentleman’s bow to a now energised crowd.

At one point, White mused on his ambitions of moving to Australia and buying himself a “real fresh” ute to go exploring in. Based on tonight’s showing, this hugely likable and talented performer is more than welcome to set up shop here.

Gig review: Mercury Rev @ Oxford Art Factory, 7 December

A critical phenomenon in their early 2000s pomp, Mercury Rev may be a much less hyped act these days, but their decreasing profile has had little effect on their status as a spectacular and singular live band. They throw themselves into their cosmic rock with glee and a rare abandon. Frontman Jonathan Donahue is a particularly animated presence, conducting his bandmates like some mad scientist and gesticulating and vamping his way through the high drama of the songs.

There are whole worlds of psychedelic lushness here, from the woozy lullaby of ‘Endlessly’ to the guitar meltdown that ends an otherwise mellow ‘Frittering’, which dates back to their weirder, noisier 1991 debut Yerself Is Steam. There’s a welcome focus on the classic Deserter’s Songs, with the swooping dynamics and Disney fantasia of ‘The Funny Bird’ and the shimmering ’Holes’ and the mini-epic ‘Goddess On A Hiway’.

These are songs at once wildly ambitious and completely inclusive, and they’re playing with a shape-shifting zeal. ‘Opus 40’ builds from something delicate into cathartic release before morphing again into white noise. Their latter-day work has tended towards muted prettiness, but live they’re loud and expansive, with new songs like ‘Central Park East’ and ‘Autumn’s In The Air’ both expressions of childlike wonder, full of symphonic grandeur.

Later, there’s a trio of songs from All Is Dream, including ‘Tides Of The Moon’, a cosmic, soaring ‘You’re My Queen’ and finally ‘The Dark Is Rising’, an atypically plaintive moment in an often euphoric set. It’s a stunning finish to an alarmingly good performance, a semi-forgotten band serving notice that they’re still special.

Gig review: Luluc @ Newtown Social Club, 27 November

An alt-country/folk singer with a warm, honeyed voice, Caitlin Harnett’s music sits somewhere between the haunted folk of Karen Dalton and Neil Young in mellow, pastoral mode. On songs like ‘Honey Are You Alright’ she strikes a delicate balance between downbeat and defeated. Fans of emotive Americana, come on in.

Ex-Deloris frontman Marcus Teague, AKA Single Twin, takes the middle slot and it’s a set as notable for his surreal, dryly hilarious song introductions as the wordy, finely detailed music itself. The languorous ‘My Silken Tooth’ is introduced as being “about the most unfortunate pizza delivery ever made” and it only gets more bizarre from there, with riffs on becoming completely flat and forming your garbage into the shape of an ex. The music is uniformly first-rate meanwhile, with the sparse, intimate ‘Goodnight’ featuring some ghostly whistling.

Continuing the theme of talented musicians whose serious music belies their jovial demeanour, Australian expats Luluc are a laid-back, jokey presence from their first song ‘Reverie On Norfolk Street’. They quickly endear themselves to a small but appreciative crowd who mainly remain seated in front of the stage.

Their set features most of last year’s excellent, slow-burning Passerby,full of close harmonies, gentle melodies and an overall sense of warmth and comfort. ‘Without A Face’ is a good example of their quiet but lush approach, with restrained beats sitting underneath cozy harmonies. ‘Star’ sees them summoning the ghostly melancholy of Nick Drake, while ‘Tangled Heart’ adds a bit of reverb to a tale of a lost love and lingering thoughts of loss.

Zoe Randell’s voice is a thing of wonder, never forceful but mightily expressive. Even songs as filled with yearning and sadness as ‘Passerby’ and ‘Gold On The Leaves’ become almost overwhelmingly pretty and tranquil. They finish with an encore of ‘Little Suitcase’ and ‘I Found You’, further softly strummed reminders that passion need not be measured in volume.

Gig review – Waxahatchee, Ali Burton and Jen Buxton, Newtown Social Club, 3 July

Gamely battling a scratchy throat, Newcastle singer-songwriter Jen Buxton offers a raw, autobiographical brand of punk folk in the vein of The Smith Street Band or a more subdued Frank Turner. She’s got a sourly funny, self-deprecating stage presence and spirited songs like ‘Anhedonia’ and ‘Don’t Change Your Plans’ as well as a cover of Cory Branan’s ‘Crush’. Disarming stuff.

Ali Barter’s music comes from a more ethereal place and though her set is unfortunately interrupted by persistent technical problems, she does get an unusually attentive crowd for a support act, with the likes of the gentle, floating ‘Run You Down’ and the more brooding ‘Community’ proving highlights of a promising but stop-start set.

“You guys are weird” Katie Crutchfield a.k.a Waxahatchee tells the crowd. “You came to this sad ass show on a Friday night”. Playing in solo mode in her first ever Australian show, Katie Crutchfield is soon into stride with the purposefully fuzzy ‘Grass Stain’, a song which sees her vowing to “drink ‘til I’m happy”.

There are more arresting, confessional lyrics where that came from, like on the gem ‘American Weekend’ where a barbed guitar line underscores strange and memorable images of heartbreak: “you are shoved awkwardly into my head”.

The crowd hang on every word of ‘Tangled Envisioning’ and the 90s rock of ‘Under the Rock’. It’s a still, subdued batch of songs but as on the irresistible ‘La Loose’ where crowd members add their own backing vocals, there’s also a real pop sensibility.

As well as cherry picking the highlights of this year’s excellent Ivy Tripp, there’s also a lot of material from American Weekend, including ‘Bathtub’ and ‘Noccalula’ and the beautifully fragile ‘I Think I Love You’.

Far from being a sad ass affair, there’s something arresting about seeing such personal and introspective music and you’re left reflecting that there’s no better way to spend a Friday night.

Gig review – Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell, Star City, 27 June

A former jillaroo who ditched her cowboy hat when she made the switch to being a full-time musician, Harmony James has retained a real earthiness in her music and a knack for heartfelt, straightforward storytelling. On older songs like ’30,000’ she does a nice line in travelling songs while ‘Skinny Flat White’ is a well observed slice of life. Obviously stoked to be part of this tour, she proved a good choice for support act, not least because her setlist includes a song touching on the influence of tonight’s headliner, ‘Emmylou’s Guitar’.

Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell may be icons in their field, but there’s a likably low-key tone to tonight’s set, with both chatty and relaxed throughout. Their creative partnership has been a productive period in terms of songwriting, but they both remain first rate song interpreters and begins with Gram Parsons’ ‘The Return of the Grievous Angel’ which sets the tone for the night; classic country delivered with attention to detail and an obvious reverence for the source material.

Further covers include the Townes Van Zandt classic ‘Pancho and Lefty’ and Lucinda Williams’ aching ‘I Just Wanted to See You So Bad’, where the interplay between Crowell’s earthy croon and Harris’ ethereal lilt make it arguably better than the original. Perhaps the real jewel though is ‘Love Hurts’, originally a hit for the Everly Brothers. In Harris and Crowell’s capable hands, it’s an affecting slice of yearning with heavenly harmonies underscoring its message of consolation.

‘Bring it on Home to Memphis’ and the autobiographical ‘Red Dirt Girl’ continued the mellow mood, while ‘Back When We Were Beautiful’, a skeletal lullaby in recorded form, was more fleshed out with upright bass, lap steel and tasteful guitar from Australian Jedd Hughes adding to the harmonies without threatening to overwhelm them.

The crowd was appreciative throughout and coaxed the band back on stage for a hushed version of Crowell’s evergreen ‘Stars on the Water’ before bringing Harmony James back onstage for the closing ‘Boulder to Birmingham’. Despite the huge room, it felt intimate and relaxed, a chance to see two of country’s most fabled names in laidback mode.

Gig review – The Drones play ‘Wait Long By the River…’, Sydney Opera House, 24 May 2015

Can it really be ten years since the release of Wait Long by the River and the Bodies of Your Enemies Will Float By? Apparently so, and the Drones, sadly absent from the live circuit of late, are back to celebrate a decade of existence for this messy, sprawling beast of a record, a work of both brutality and beauty. It hasn’t dated a day.

It begins with ‘Shark Fin Blues’, which is classics Drones territory, images of despair and a desire for self-annihilation paired with some savage riffs. Once voted the greatest Australian song of all by their fellow musicians, it’s such a fiery, rousing opening salvo that one enthusiastic punter is inspired to yell “Play it again!”.

They don’t do that, but launch straight into ‘Baby’ which sees Gareth Liddiard’s ragged howl of a voice in magnificently malevolent form. ‘Shark Fin Blues’ and ‘Baby’ make for a cracking opening to a record, but all the more compelling in person where Liddiard makes for a magnetic frontman, wild-eyed and loose-limbed, spitting like a fountain and contorting himself crazily as he doesn’t so much play his guitar as strangle noise out of it.

Fiona Kitschin and Dan Luscombe, on bass and lead guitar respectively, are a much more still presence on stage but just as vital to the barbed sound which ranges from minimalist sparseness to dense intensity and underscores all the pent up frustration and anger of the lyrics.

For all the savagery of their music though they come across as fairly relaxed characters and aren’t afraid of having a laugh at their own expense. There’s a story about a “GPS fuck up” that saw them take a scenic route to the Opera House and when Liddiard blows out a hired guitar amp, he jokes he might have to put it on his credit card. Luscombe has another solution: blame fellow Vivid guest Morrissey.

There’s nothing light-hearted about ‘The Best You Can Believe In’ though, which builds from a deliberate, sparse opening and almost spoken word vocals into something cathartic and huge. You can hear the ghost of The Birthday Party here, that same sense of ominous abandon.

Equally thrilling is the midnight black ‘Locust’, where that indelibly haunting opening, just some sparse keys and Liddiard’s tumbing words, is greeted with euphoric recognition from the engaged crowd. There’s a real sense of space and isolation in this song and it’s hard to believe the name ‘Georgie’ has ever been sung with such passionate ferocity as it is here.

The guitar meltdowns of ‘This Time’ and ‘Sittin’ on the Edge of the Bed Cryin’’ continue the intensity, while there’s also a couple of classics to round out proceedings: the epic ‘The Minotaur’ and the haunted ‘The Miller’s Daughter’.

As well as providing a potent reminder of the enduring power of Wait Long… the night also offered a glimpse of what The Drones might do next with an unnamed new mini-epic, a typically fevered rocker with lyrics about death which climaxes in a tangle of guitar noise and an insistent refrain.

In the encore, they end with their traditional closing song, Kev Carmody’s ‘River of Tears’. A mighty howl of protest for the Indigenous activist David Gundy, who was controversially shot by police in his home, it’s a searing finish to a show which confirms The Drones as one of the very best live bands this country has produced.