Summer Flake’s ‘Hello Friends’
A trebly guitar picks out a nervous lick from flattened sevenths as a quietly insistent rhythm section thrums underneath. The guitar snakes its melody across the deadpan backing.
I got everything I wanted
I got nothing I didn’t deserve
The layered vocals coo softly, like a Greek chorus whispering from the depths of the subconscious. Guitars kaleidoscope gently against each other, coalescing into a hallucinatory mantra.
It’s been a while since I looked you up
The same again?
Write down what I said but start it from the end
Was I happier back then?
“Shoot and Score” is the first single taken from Hello Friends, the new album by Summer Flake. It comes with high expectations, almost three years after Summer Flake’s much-lauded debut, You Can Have It All. And I am happy to say it will blow most of those expectations out of the water. It’s an intoxicating blend of pop, folk and lo-fi psychedelia filtered through the very personal vision of its mastermind, Stephanie Crase. Hello Friends is a creative, confident leap forward, which improves on its predecessor in every respect.
A solo project in all but name, Crase adopted the Summer Flake nom de guitar in 2012. After years playing other people’s songs in other people’s bands, Crase found herself at a loose end in her home town of Adelaide and started working on her own material in private. She sourced a simple recording app online and turned her spare room into a makeshift studio. There she set about working up her hundreds of accumulated riffs and melodies into fully fledged songs. “I’ve got a box of tapes I recorded over the years,” Crase told me recently, “and lots of them are very bad. I never really considered myself a songwriter but I would always have lots of ideas for guitar parts. I rarely did much singing, but I had lots of little noodles and riffs – and lots of really bad shredding.”
“Shoot and Score” is the second track on Hello Friends. The album begins with the haunting “Son of a Gun”, a rumination on a friendship recently fallen by the wayside. The interweaving harmonies of “Son of a Gun” remind me strongly of folk-rock, although Crase does get to do a little grungy shredding towards the end once the band breaks free from its sedate moorings. The achingly beautiful melodies add poignancy to the overall tone of sombre resignation. Clearly, these wounds were still fresh when the song was written.
Stick ’em up
Let’s see what you got
Up against the wall
Go straight for the heart
I know you’re nothing
If not thorough
Friendship and the ties that bind are common threads running throughout Hello Friends, with an occasional dollop of self-loathing in a couple of places, “Satellite” and “Mess” in particular. Generally, though, it’s love’s rewards and disappointments that are never far from Stephanie Crase’s mind and, like most artists, she looks inwards to understand a lot of what she witnesses outwardly.
The one exception is “I’d Ask You Not to Look Away”, which is a quiet, determined demand for equal recognition as a musician, a prejudice every woman has to grapple with in the male-dominated world of music. In typical Crase fashion, she cleverly subverts the seriousness of the lyrics by juxtaposing them with a Shangri-Las-style ba-ba-ba-ba refrain at the end. As she explained, “I meant it as a powerful thing: like, I can do or say whatever I want.” She who laughs last, laughs loudest.
Crase hasn’t always been so assertive about her music. It took a lot of convincing by her parents before she started music lessons, eventually settling on guitar when she was 11. “I tried doing group violin, but I didn’t do very well in a group,” she says, laughing, “because I was very shy… I listened to my Walkman so much that they said, ‘Well, do you want to try guitar?’ I think I originally said no, because the idea of going into a room with a stranger was really scary, but they kinda pushed me into it, knowing that I would love it. And I did.”
Crase’s older brother, Simon, was another family member who played an influential role in her musical education when, a couple of years later, he purchased all the albums in the top 20 of the US alternative music charts: artists such as Weezer, Veruca Salt, Green Day, Hole, Nirvana, The Breeders, Offspring, Beck, Luscious Jackson, Smashing Pumpkins, R.E.M., Björk, Beastie Boys, Nine Inch Nails, Pavement, Portishead. Stephanie fell in love with all of them but it was Veruca Salt and Hole that particularly resonated with the budding guitarist. The young Stephanie was in shredding heaven.
It seems Crase got shredding out of her system as a teen, though: there are no tasteless displays of guitar pyrotechnics on Hello Friends. “Tumbling Down”, for example, is driven completely by acoustic guitars, including a delicate double-tracked acoustic solo in the middle. All of Crase’s guitar playing on the new album is exceptional, and so are all the guitar tones she has created with the assistance of engineer Geoff O’Connor. But the standout feature of her playing is its clever orchestration. Rather than conventional solos, the instrumental sections are carefully arranged with intricately layered melodies and picking. Miraculously, the results never sound laboured or cluttered. The many hours of playing and recording by herself have given Crase an innate sense of arrangement and dynamics.
A perfect illustration of this is “So Long”, which starts out like a distant relation to the Santo & Johnny classic “Sleep Walk”, or perhaps “Albatross” by Fleetwood Mac. For the first minute the track is purely instrumental, with Crase’s ringing, clean guitar taking the lead role, bending the notes with a whammy bar to simulate a Hawaiian steel guitar. Dreamy, multi-tracked vocals come to the fore with a tale of a spent relationship in decline, wistfully repeating the phrase “so long”. Suddenly there is an abrupt change of gear as the guitar tones become distorted and the entire song quickens and goes into heavy shoegazing territory. It’s almost like “So Long, Pt 2” rather than a continuation. This is probably my favourite song on the album and would have made a fitting album closer. In fact it’s track one, side two of the vinyl edition, so we’ve only just passed the halfway point. As final as “So Long” sounds, Stephanie Crase has darker intentions for the album’s conclusion.
The biggest point of difference between Hello Friends and its predecessor is that this time Crase is working with other musicians rather than playing everything herself. Moving to Melbourne from Adelaide during the recording was also a factor. “I’d get to the end after 100 hours of working and I’d be like, ‘Oh yeah, I get how it sounds now – go back and do it again.’ And I was just getting real messed up. And then I moved to Melbourne and didn’t have the luxury of having a spare room where you can have all your instruments and things, and I’d started playing with a different band … and it just seemed to make sense.” Having Geoff O’Connor to help co-ordinate the production has also been a relief for the artist. “He would work through a million types of reverbs until he could sense that we were onto it.” Crase laughs, as she often does during our conversation. “I think he’s a very, very intuitive and patient man.”
For most of her career, Crase was “just the guitarist” and she became a singer reluctantly, out of necessity. Her lack of experience – or perhaps it’s just confidence – occasionally shows. “With vocals, I don’t know whether it is with headphones or being in a small room or hearing it dry or unmixed, but I find performing vocals live really easy but performing for a recording really hard. And I also think it’s just an aesthetic thing, that I really like singing on a recording really quietly and just double-tracking and triple-tracking everything. There’s a couple of songs where there’s three harmonies and then vocals underneath and separate second call-and-response coming in so there’s 40 vocals that all need to be triple-tracked on one song, so that’s why [I say] Geoff is a patient guy.”
Last week, Summer Flake’s label sent out “Wine Won’t Wash Away” as a feature track ahead of the album’s release on Friday. It’s a power-pop noise anthem that recounts a turbulent New Year’s Eve Crase experienced tagging along with a lovelorn friend who tormented himself by a going to party, knowing he would certainly bump into his ex. Crase’s song parses the predictable unhappy outcome, capturing the reckless energy of a frantic night out. Like everything else Summer Flake does, it’s catchy as all getout.
Even at their most pensive, the melodies of these songs are engaging and memorable. Many of them keep popping into my head at odd times, and I am similarly struck by all those “guitar noodles” that Crase has cunningly devised. After hearing “Satellite” I kept humming “kill me now” as I did my daily rounds. Crase is a master of the bait-and-switch technique: musically, “Satellite” sounds like an engaging pop song, but its lyrics conceal an acrid sense of self-loathing. The song’s narrator feels woefully inadequate at maintaining a healthy relationship and longs for oblivion. The darkness of the lyrics turns the sweet music bitter in the singer’s mouth.
The album closer, “Mess”, is even more nihilistic, if that’s possible.
I have gone
So far left of the centre that when you call
I will flee
So why are you even talking to me?
When I’m a mess
You can’t count on me
I’m a mess
One that you don’t need
So long as your heart beats
I’m a mess
“Mess” is drenched in reverb and a wash of vocals, with the gorgeous melody providing consolation for the singer’s bleak feelings of hopelessness. Even as it decays, life can become more beautiful.
Hello Friends is a perfect title for the second Summer Flake album. People already familiar with Stephanie Crase’s work will be glad to welcome her back into their homes. Many others, who may have been strangers until now, will want to become better acquainted. As Humphrey Bogart's Rick says to Claude Rains at the end of Casablanca: “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
BALLET A Midsummer Night’s Dream
QPAC Playhouse, Brisbane, until April 16
Arts Centre, Melbourne, April 5-9
VISUAL ART Punuku Tjukurpa
Penrith Regional Gallery, Emu Plains, until May 22
OPERA Ariadne auf Naxos
Hawthorn Arts Centre, Melbourne, April 2, 7 and 10
THEATRE The Great Fire
Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney, until May 8
VARIOUS Thirroul Seaside and Arts Festival
Various venues, Thirroul, NSW, until April 3
VISUAL ART Blue: Alchemy of a Colour
NGV International, Melbourne, until April 3
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 2, 2016 as "Shredless Summer". Subscribe here.