For all the bands who think they know rock’n’roll, Sydney duo Polish Club use their debut album to prove they actually do. By Dave Faulkner.
Polish Club’s ‘Alright Already’
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: real rock’n’roll is as rare as hen’s teeth. Many people think they know how it’s done but very few ever make a convincing show of it. Alright Already, the debut album by Polish Club, breathes new life into the corpse of rock’n’roll. Rambunctious and raw, it’ll make the zombie dance once more.
A sprightly drumbeat kicks off proceedings as we overhear the vocalist preparing himself for action: “(ahem) … yeah … okay.” When a gritty guitar joins the fray the singer immediately jumps in, full-throated and lusty:
1000 hours yeah it feels that long
You came here for some money and a dream so strong
But it’s useless, where have you been, baby?
Polish Club is only a duo but together drummer John-Henry and singer/guitarist Novak make a powerful racket. The first song, “Where U Been?”, has barely made it past the two-minute mark before it ends and track two kicks in. “Come Party” is faster, louder and even more intense than the rousing opener: the wicked will get no rest tonight. Title notwithstanding, “Come Party” isn’t a rallying call for mindless hedonism but a lover’s plea for restraint in the face of peer-group pressure to kick on. At least, that’s what the lyrics are saying; the music delivers the opposite message. The ferocious blues power of “Come Party” will make a body want to jump, shout and shake it all about until all hours.
Novak and John-Henry met through mutual friends in high school. After a couple of false starts, the two connected again in late 2014 and they discovered they had an amazing musical chemistry during a jam session. On that day, Polish Club was born.
Two weeks ago I met up with the duo at a pub in Sydney’s Newtown and they recalled their eureka moment. John-Henry had come to the rehearsal studio with a really simple idea, which he described to me this way: “Let’s just fuckin’ play really fast and try and move as much air as possible.” And that was it. The two of them locked into a groove and the music flowed effortlessly, writing a batch of new songs together immediately. At least one of the songs from that first rehearsal made it onto this album: “Beeping” proves that Polish Club’s instincts were on the money from the get-go. As Novak told me, “We found a style that felt natural for me, for the first time ever. I think I was just more comfortable and less uptight. Less worried about what we’re in it for, what it’s gonna be. I just wanted to do something enjoyable. As simple as that.”
“If It Was Me” is track three on Alright Already and the band’s headlong charge slows down momentarily, relaxing into a loping feel not a million miles away from early Kings of Leon. Novak and John-Henry are both fans of Caleb Followill’s family band, though Novak’s favourite group is The Strokes, while John-Henry’s is The Stooges, and those influences show up elsewhere. “If It Was Me” has an extended up-tempo finale – they just couldn’t pull their punches completely – and as a result it is the longest song on the album. It still doesn’t break the four-minute barrier, clocking in at an epic-for-them 3'39". In fact, half of the 14 songs on Alright Already are less than three minutes long, with two of them only managing a minute-plus. There is no fat on any of these arrangements, which is all a part of their “manifesto”, according to John-Henry – that is, to “just sing as hard as you can and then do it as quick as possible and finish as quick as possible”.
The next song, “Beat Up”, pushes the musical accelerator back to full-tilt boogie as Novak sings the all-too-familiar tale of being pestered by an annoying drunk at a party.
We’ve been talking way too long
Still got tales for days now I’m gone
Cause they’re gone and you remain
Singing that same refrain
Yeah, we all know you love that song.
On the page, Novak’s lyrics are impressionistic and can be a little imprecise, but as you hear them sung they roar past like a freight train and don’t allow room for argument. They just sound completely right to the ear, even if they read awkwardly. It helps that Novak’s voice is a veritable force of nature, delivering every sentiment with absolute conviction. As a vocalist, Novak is equal parts soul belter and punk hollerer, which is also true of Polish Club’s music generally. Their songs have an R&B swagger that underpins their rock aggression – no surprise, given motown and soul music were an inspiration for them when they got together.
“Why Should I” makes this motown influence explicit with a guitar overdub that percussively thrums on a single octave, a move taken straight out of The Supremes’ playbook. The song is about keyboard warriors and virtue signalling, and when I questioned Novak about its lyrics he was happy to go through it line-by-line with me:
U bitch and whine. But ain’t no one reading ur lines
“You’re fuckin’ posting shitty political opinions on Facebook. No one cares.”
U drink some wine and suddenly u start to chime.
“You get drunk and then you have all these opinions that you don’t really deal with when you’re sober.”
It’s clear his lyrics have a very specific meaning for him but it doesn’t bother him if anyone has a different interpretation. “I’ve always believed it can be whatever makes sense to you,” he says. “What I’m always about, No. 1, is melody, when I’m doing it, so the initial thing is to find sounds and shapes of words that fit that melody and that flow.”
As a songwriter myself, I agree with this idea completely. Lyrics are not poetry so they cannot be understood in silence. Their meaning is also conveyed through the emotions added by the melody and the rhythm. As McLuhan put it, the medium is the message.
Polish Club raced out of the blocks and attracted attention immediately. Exposure through Triple J Unearthed led to an invitation to perform at Brisbane’s Big Sound music conference in September 2015 where they came to the attention of noted American producer Rob Cavallo, who has produced platinum albums for Green Day, My Chemical Romance, Goo Goo Dolls and even Phil Collins. He immediately signed the band to a worldwide deal and they soon found themselves in Los Angeles starting work on their debut album. “We were in this amazing studio that was god-knows-how-many-dollars a day,” remembers Novak. “And Rob had an 18-wheeler truck of guitars and, like, 50 amps.” Novak says their heads were spinning from all of the options. “I’m, like, ‘Dude, I don’t fuckin’ know. I mean, I have one amp that I always use…’ ”
Cavallo had him try out the bass that Green Day used on American Idiot, and the guitar that Goo Goo Dolls played on their hit “Iris”. The trouble is, none of it seemed to be working. Cavallo even went out and bought Polish Club the same sort of basic guitar and amp that Novak had been used to playing back in Australia, but it was the producer’s meticulous style of recording that was the real problem. “We were recording in different rooms,” Novak says. “And there was sampling of the drums and all this stuff…” Cavallo tried to get John-Henry to record to a click track as well. “We discovered it ruins the vibe a bit,” the drummer told me ruefully. Novak added, “When you go into someone’s house and they’ve got three Grammys on the wall, you [say], ‘Just do it your way. I trust you to figure out what’s best for us.’ ”
It wasn’t until they were back in Sydney and had time to reflect that they realised what they really needed to do. The answer was to approach things as simply and directly as they had from day one. For Novak that meant one thing: “Put us in the same room and press record.”
They discarded the Cavallo sessions and recorded Alright Already at Linear studios in Leichhardt, Sydney, with Wade Keighran from Wolf & Cub sitting in the producer’s chair. They initially tracked all the songs live with overdubbing kept to a bare minimum, usually just an extra guitar and some backing vocals. By keeping things uncomplicated and live their sound stayed authentic and their energy remained intact which, for an album like this, is the entire point.
As I said, many people think they know what it takes to make a rock’n’roll album but few actually do. On headphones, listeners will hear extraneous noises and studio conversations picked up by the live mics as the takes were recorded. For example, during “My Delight”, an uninhibited rockabilly two-step towards the end of the album, I can discern John-Henry asking Novak, “Do you like that?” as he changes the drum arrangement in the middle of a take. “Broke”, a political diatribe built around a sleazy, grinding guitar riff, finishes with someone laughing and saying, “Cool, man. I figure the looser it is, the better.” Then the sound of squeaky hinges on the studio door.
Alright Already is not a perfect album but it’s as good as it needs to be and a hell of a lot better than most others. There isn’t a dud song or false note on it and I guarantee it will liven up any party, even a party of one. Whether it’s the moving “Divided” or the rollicking “Watchuknow”, everyone is sure to find something that pushes the right buttons for them. It does for me.
VISUAL ART Love: Art of Emotion 1400-1800
NGV International, Melbourne, until June 18
STREET ART Wall to Wall Festival
Walls throughout Benalla, Victoria, April 7-9
FESTIVAL Bleach Festival
Venues throughout the Gold Coast, until April 16
MULTIMEDIA Nathan Beard
Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, until May 28
THEATRE Black Birds
The Joan, Penrith, until April 8
VISUAL ART The Dark Matters
White Rabbit, Sydney, until July 30
THEATRE Mark Colvin’s Kidney
Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney, until April 2
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 1, 2017 as "Wax and polish".
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