A quick survey of friends reveals mind-blowing losses: $6000 in touring income gone, $10,000 for visas that are now unusable. Mere months into the coronavirus pandemic, amid all the uncertainty, one thing is very clear: the Australian music industry will need to fight to recover. With the cancellation of mass gatherings, many career musicians and behind-the-scenes workers have lost their sole source of income as thousands of festivals and tours have been called off across the world. One website, I Lost My Gig, has tallied $300 million in lost wages for Australian artists as of March 21, with musicians and industry practitioners logging new losses every day.
Alternatives are springing up – the live-streamed Isol-Aid Music Festival last weekend had thousands tuning in to watch sets from Australian musicians – but save for a government bailout, it is only true monetary support from fans that will soften the blow to the country’s music industry. The irony of this crisis, of course, is that it’s in times such as these that we need music the most – to transport, soothe, galvanise and inspire us. It is, for the vast majority, an essential part of life. Many of the Australian albums reviewed this week are available on Bandcamp, a service that pays artists more than any of the major streaming services. If any pique your interest, consider buying them there.
It is perhaps a pithy or myopic thing to say, but the quiet, meditative debut from Snowy Band – a four-piece fronted by No Local and The Ocean Party member Liam “Snowy” Halliwell and featuring Emma Russack, Nat Pavlovic and Dylan Young – feels built for a moment such as this. Released on March 27, Audio Commentary’s disarmingly beautiful minor-chord ballads and fragile indie rock songs are by turns soothing and jolting. Not so breezy as to be anaesthetising, not so paranoid as to conjure anxiety, it is an album that has soundtracked many of my socially distanced days and nights over the past couple of weeks.
Where Halliwell once obscured his voice with effects on No Local records, Audio Commentary finds his vocals presented with a new clarity, an apt counter to his newly tender lyrical bent. “Poker face, practise lots,” he sings quietly on “Been Trying to Explain”, “my skin relaxed in the mirror, I never smile.” Lines such as this feel like hushed, intimate fragments of internal monologue. Much of Audio Commentary zeroes in on this kind of quiet reflection, bringing to mind revered American folk artist Karen Dalton or the angular ’70s heartbreak music that fills Julien Dechery and DJ Sundae’s compilation album Sky Girl. Audio Commentary plays like an album lost in time – loose, warm, uncanny, uncommon and much needed.
Even Headbangers Get the Blues
Critics like to point to Billie Eilish and Lil Nas X – chart rulers who are influenced in equal measure by pop, rap, emo and more – as the leaders of a great new era of undefinable pop. And in truth, in 2020, genre-less music is the name of the game. A melting down of genre provides radical potential but also radical sameness, because when every artist has a finger in every pie, the result is, more often than not, homogeneity.
Sydney producer Hearteyes, aka Maurice Santiago, takes a different approach to genre-less pop. His latest album, Even Headbangers Get the Blues, is a document of pop reverence, one that preserves distinct styles without removing their character, as genre pastiche often does. Over the course of 10 songs and 28 minutes, Santiago transposes his Bladee-like vocals over chilly, crystalline homages to pop-rock classics such as Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” (“Liplock”), emo trap (“Bleach”), ’90s rave music (“One U Want”) and, amazingly, new jack swing (on the album’s demented highlight “Closer to Body”). Santiago has described Headbangers as an album about the “disparity between self and the human experience”, but it’s just as enjoyable consumed as a surreal, high-speed tour through pop’s forgotten corners.
No!, the debut record from Melbourne experimental four-piece Big Yawn, is a study in contrasts so severe it could make a listener’s head spin. Listening to the album – a 13-song record of dubby, delayed synths and thrilling live drumming – can often feel like embarking on a sprint to nowhere; as drums clatter and race, a cascade of synths expand and drone, slowing time to a crawl even as your heart rate increases.
A sprint to nowhere, though, can still provide a hell of a dopamine rush, as No! proves. There is a visceral pleasure in listening to these songs unfurl, revealing new elements by the second – the alarming sound of an exhalation on “Reflex”, a squelching bubble in the corner of “Thomas”. While it borrows elements of disco and dub techno, No! does not feel, inherently, like a dance record. Drawing liberally from psych music, new age and jazz, it more often than not plays like the perfect soundtrack to the hours between midnight and sunrise, when minutes and hours contract and stretch out at will. No! is not for the faint-hearted; the film-score-like ambience will certainly put some listeners off. But those who do listen will, undoubtedly, find thrills in its wide expanses.
Melbourne singer-songwriter Chitra Ridwan draws from influences that are both familiar and in vogue; her voice and the full-throated confessionals she sings recall underground luminaries such as Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker and Angel Olsen, two musicians frequently aped in 2020 indie rock. Ridwan, though, has an ace up her sleeve: her self-titled debut EP races with a vigour and immediacy rarely felt on a first record, spotlighting a rhythm section that gives buoyancy to her open-hearted tales of troubled romance. Lead single “A Kind” is a shock to the system with its sharp, forceful drums; opening track “Leaving” bursts alive with a pound and rattle.
The effect is alchemical: the honky-tonk thump of “Keep Up” turns its tale of resisting temptation (sample lyric: “Now I’m messaging you again”) from cheerful fun to a pub stomper, while the floor tom that pounds at the heart of “A Kind” adds a galvanising edge to its kiss-off lyrics. Already a capable, canny lyricist and musician, Chitra proves that Ridwan is also a keen-eared arranger of her own music, a skill that’s hard to cultivate. It’s a promising sign of things to come.
The Avalanches (featuring Rivers Cuomo and Pink Siifu)
‘Running Red Lights’
Iconic Melbourne production duo The Avalanches are preparing to release the follow-up to 2016’s Wildflower, which was their first album since 2000’s landmark Since I Left You. And if “Running Red Lights”, the duo’s latest single, is any indication, their music is as poignant and vibrant as ever. Wildflower opened up Robbie Chater and Toni Di Blasi’s cut-and-paste mash-up art to guest vocalists and unsampled instrumentation and, in doing so, exposed a new strength in their work: an ability to make modern voices, such as those of Toro y Moi and Silver Jews’ David Berman, sound like fragments from bygone eras. “Running Red Lights” continues on that trajectory, using vocals from Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo as an anchor for a song that twinkles and glows, conjuring a kind of nostalgia for some unspecified twilit era of pop music. Cuomo’s vocals dance above the track’s gossamer synths, creating the kind of atmospheric, immersive experience at which Chater and Di Blasi excel. In its final moments, much of the track drops out, leaving space for Los Angeles musician Pink Siifu to recite lyrics written by Berman, who passed away last year. It’s an unsurprisingly heart-rending sentiment. When it comes to communion of bittersweet emotion, few are better than The Avalanches.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 28, 2020 as "Sound conditions".
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