To take even the most cursory scan through the YouTube comments below a recent music video from Melbourne four-piece The Teskey Brothers is to wonder whether the nascent soul band are the cure to all that ails the music industry.
“After Amy’s death, I thought her music would be the last of its kind,” one commenter writes, in memory of the British singer Amy Winehouse. “Then you came.”
“The music industry needs this band,” another affirms, praising The Teskey Brothers as “true singers who play their own instruments”.
That these four strapping young men from Melbourne, born and raised in the lush hamlet of Warrandyte, could be saviours of all music that is soulful and pure may come as a surprise. Brotherly duo Sam
and Josh Teskey, along with friends Brendon Love and Liam Gough, don’t exactly cut the figures of soul men on the brink of stardom. But their dogged ’60s revivalism and warm-hearted affability has found an audience – a big one.
Since the release of the band’s debut album, Half Mile Harvest, The Teskey Brothers have toured the world to adoring crowds, won the $30,000 Levi’s Music Prize, found a fan in Marvel star Chris Hemsworth and accrued millions of streams on Spotify. With a new album, Run Home Slow, the band are preparing to ascend to a new level of fame, selling out multiple shows at Melbourne’s 2000-capacity Forum Theatre.
And it makes sense: the Teskey Brothers draw upon the influence of old-school greats such as Otis Redding and Sam Cooke, ape their textures and colours and feelings, and breathe out songs that sound and feel exactly like ’60s classics, devoid of political context or history. It’s music that’s easy, digestible and unburdened. What’s not to love?
We live in an era obsessed with reboots. Each week brings a new blockbuster that’s simply a shinier, less complex version of an old blockbuster, sanitised to within an inch of its life and sold to the broadest possible audience. Run Home Slow is an ultra-sanitised reboot; it is the 2017 remake of Ghost in the Shell. An album that re-creates the soul of ’60s Stax Records, with a whiter cast and less cultural resonance.
It is no lucky mistake that Run Home Slow sounds an awful lot like ’60s soul heavyweights – and not only in Josh Teskey’s unsettlingly Sam Cooke-esque voice. The album was recorded with analog gear and produced by Paul Butler, who has worked with St Paul and the Broken Bones, Devendra Banhart, and Michael Kiwanuka. Butler’s production does its intended job well: the horns are rich and warm, and each tape-machine crackle triggers an almost Pavlovian response of comfort. But there is no moment on the record where something feels revelatory or even vaguely new.
Much is being made in the music industry right now of “AI-generated hits” – songs born from an algorithm. But what about a record such as Run Home Slow, so beholden to re-creating its influences? Procuring the same gear as your idols is all well and good, but it’s rarely the equipment that makes good music. Musicians are deified because they were innovators, not gearheads.
In the lyrics, too, there is little new to be found. On the album opener, “Let Me Let You Down”, Josh Teskey sings:
Let me tell you a story
About two people in love
It’s not always that easy, no
In fact, it gets pretty tough…
That’s about as complex as things get on Run Home Slow. When the band’s frontman Josh Teskey sings, he adopts strange American affectations. It seems almost an acknowledgement that what this band is doing amounts to little more than elaborate cosplay, or worse.
The Teskey Brothers painstakingly re-create the music they profess to love, but in the process, they scrub it of all political context. The band’s idol, Sam Cooke, made inherently political music that spoke to the civil rights movement and black liberation. It is strange to hear music that was once groundbreaking and actively radical defanged in the way it is on Run Home Slow.
The album’s most interesting song is “So Caught Up”, though it still is a chore. With its repetitive main hook and impressionistic lyrics, the song scans as an attempt to synthesise more concise contemporary R&B songwriting with The Teskey Brothers’ lush, meticulous production. It’s a mildly pleasant listen – there’s little on Run Home Slow that isn’t – but it just feels dull.
A question lingers after every song on the album: Why am I listening to meticulous but heartless revivalism when the original Stax catalogue exists? Or even music by much more competent, and occasionally innovative, revivalists such as Leon Bridges or the Daptone Records roster.
It is not as though there is anything inherently wrong with revivalism. Tame Impala often get pegged as “revivalist” because of their worship of a certain kind of ’60s and ’70s psych rock. But the Perth band are still recognised as one of the most innovative and musically influential in recent memory because of the way they build on their forebears – ever experimenting and evolving. The problem with the kind of blind worship The Teskey Brothers display, then, is that there is absolutely nothing being given back here. All four members of the band are incredibly skilled musicians – that is undoubtable – but at the end of the day, what they have made is simply facsimile.
Then, there is the elephant in the room. While Run Home Slow draws all its references from black music, this is music for non-black people. As noted in a profile of Leon Bridges – The Teskey Brothers’ compatriot in straight-down-the-middle revivalism – that ran in The Guardian in 2015, this kind of retro worship is usually, for whatever reason, marketed towards and consumed by older white audiences. Bridges himself said he was drawn towards soul music because there was “a void out there, there’s no black men making this kind of music. The only person I knew that was bringing it was Raphael Saadiq.”
In Australia, in 2019, this is still an uncomfortable proposition. This is not a country at ease with those in opposition to whiteness. And when a band such as The Teskey Brothers, four young white men who make soul music – a genre rooted in the experience of slave-era and Jim Crow-era black Americans – are lauded and deified, it feels symptomatic of a listener who wants to consume black culture without actually having to interact with black artists.
All artists copy and borrow, of course, but it is, hopefully, in service of something new; new music that builds on what came before. To painstakingly re-create it feels more like a cheap trick than it does art. Speaking about the band’s first album, Half Mile Harvest, Josh Teskey told a publication that the “analog distortion when you’re running hot into the tape machine ... was the inspiration for us to record the album at all” – which sounds about right for Run Home Slow as well. This is a record that takes a lot and makes very little impact – it is a musical ouroboros.
MULTIMEDIA Lucy McRae: Body Architect
NGV Australia, Melbourne, until February 9
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Museum of Brisbane, until April 19
VISUAL ART Taking the wood from the only hospital to build a new casino: Cameron Hayes
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VISUAL ART In Full View: Works from the Lyon Collection
Lyon Housemuseum, Melbourne, September 7—January 26
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CLASSICAL The Little Mermaid — In Concert
Arts Centre Melbourne, September 6-7
MULTIMEDIA Karin Chan: Garden of the Sorrowful
Moonah Arts Centre, Hobart, until September 21
VISUAL ART Finkelstein Gallery presents
Finkelstein Gallery, Melbourne, until September 28
MUSIC Festival of Wirra Wirra
Wirra Wirra Vineyards, South Australia, August 31
INSTALLATION Dream by Michael Woods
Meat Market Studios, Melbourne, until September 4
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 31, 2019 as "Lost soul".
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