EM BURROWS & THE BEARDED RAINBOW @ MOJO'S BAR, FRIDAY OCTOBER 21
To start with the personal: I have a weird relationship with psychedelic rock these days. The genre was my gateway drug to "weird music," and to much of the stuff I love now. As a teenager I prayed at the altar of Syd Barrett, had my brain turned inside out by Mink Mussel Creek and their influences in turn. The genre's become increasingly prevalent in recent years - particularly in Perth and Freo, where the spectre of Tame Impala looms large- and inevitably I find myself critiquing whether its implementation is genuinely mind-expanding, or merely trading on bankable tropes. The latter means witnessing innately experimental music reduced to a "paint by numbers" approach that is the antithesis of the counterculture spirit it's indebted to, which is no fun. And then, there are other times when it's like you're hearing a delay pedal for the very first time again, and the whole world glows in technicolor. Returning to Mojo's after a spell away, I'm met with many shades of psychedelia, folk, rock and pop (often all at once). My brain and heart weave through, trying to unpick what does and doesn't inspire.
I walk into the sounds of MAJUMBA. At once, the soundscape strikes me as classic dime-a-dozen Fremantle psych-rock: safe bluesy riffs with a bit of fuzz, chugging drums, post-Kevin Parker effects chains, but no apparent imagination. But actually, as their set goes on, it opens up into some cool tangents; rollicking punky codas, thick monotone passages, and there's one song with a particularly beautiful, high melodic bassline that perfectly cocoons its faintly jazzy chords. So no, Majumba aren't the epitome of my grumpy old man grievance, but I guess they're still honing a creative voice; I hope they hone it towards the road less travelled.
Out in the rear courtyard, EMILY GARLICK is gently capturing hearts with a serene, flawless voice and tinkling stratocaster. It's been a while since I heard anyone with such impeccable technique (vocal technique, mic technique, guitar technique) playing at a local pub, though Emily doesn't come off as supercilious in the context. Instead she peacefully works her song-loom, occasionally yielding results that sound a little too polished (in a commercial radio way) but frequently weaving gold, as with the final tune, a magical strain called "Fingernails" that pits unpredictable melody against quick-blooded, melancholic double guitar.
Inside is DIGER ROKWELL who's limbering up into a notably eclectic, joyous string of tunes. The man with the WA cap and t-shirt treats us to a nickelodeon of styles, ranging from vocoder-laden G-funk to space disco, moody house to dusty beat tourism, Hendrix-hop to jungle. While for some producers this might seem confused and cluttered, Diger somehow pulls it all into his motley aesthetic whirlpool and makes it blend, though the variety keeps its sense of reckless liberation. He looks like he's having plenty of fun too. This might be my favourite Diger Rokwell set I've seen. Unable to resist, I dance like a silly fruit tingle.
Out in the garden it's JOHNNY BURROW, the younger cousin of tonight's headliner, armed with just a mic and electric guitar. He uses both to great effect, dispatching wonderful slacker folk songs. They're personal, witty, deadpan without feeling aloof. Reference points come to mind: there's a hint of Malkmus here, as well as the wide-eyed, honest bedroom pop musings of Darren Hanlon etc. But Johnny doesn't specifically sound like anyone at all. Which is pretty remarkable.
Inside we meet MOONPUPPY, a bunch of fresh-faced fellers channelling substantial pop traditions. It's well-orchestrated guitar music that alternately recalls The Smiths, Orange Juice, Mac DeMarco and the languorous vocal croon of Julian Casablancas, among other things. Chords reach beyond standard pop/rock harmony and - thanks to the smooth, mellow delivery - often wander into west coast soft-rock territory. But none of this sounds like postmodern pastiche; it's been arrived at independently, with plenty of heart, and endearing roughness around the edges. A charming Haruomi Hosono cover ('Sports Men'), meanwhile, shows that their influences come from far and wide. They're a pleasure to behold, an earnest reminder of why you liked indie rock in the first place. Definitely "ones to watch," both in the hackneyed music-industry sense but also, just, a band one should go see.
MARLINSPIKE fire up and immediately my psych-rock bullshit radar is on high alert again; the first few minutes play out like generic space-rock jamming that hasn't been novel for forty years. But soon enough this bleeds into song forms, and we get a tune that sounds like a Celtic air channelled through Aussie blues-rock of the '70s. Like Led Zep's folky excursions, but steeped in dank lager. A large part of their appeal is the drums, which are delivered with a clipped accuracy worthy of a marching band (the drummer, in turn, looks incongruously well-groomed). The bass is punctual and plucky too. So, these things pin all the guitar swirl to a taut rhythm section, stretched over jagged edges. And despite their nods to the psych-rock canon, they're not married to it: songs just as readily spiral into passages recalling recent Radiohead, or the melodic post-punk of Television.
And they lob the shuttlecock to the band of the hour, that is, EM BURROWS AND THE BEARDED RAINBOW. The group's releasing an EP tonight, which is called Solitary Sounds although their aesthetic is actually all about big, layered, team-effort arrangements.
And what a sturdy team. Assured bass and effortless drums with a soul music kinda touch; juicy rotary organ, precise chiming guitar, crisp backing vocals and percussion. Of course, Em Burrows sits at the sonic centre: her confident vocal projections and emphatic piano drive these tightly-spun songs forward.
And they are unmistakably songs, not soundscapes or sketches or anything else. Each has a distinct self-contained identity, an instantly memorable hook, clear lyrics. Each boasts a decisive mood and musical lineage. The sanguine, bouncy hemiola feel of 'Weights and Measures' recalls Jethro Tull or early Yes, while 'Solitary Sounds' and 'Dreamers,' tempt comparison to The Zombies and Jefferson Airplane. 'Timeline' is a big bluesy burner, and 'Paces' spreads Doors/Beatles undulations over a funky backbeat.
There's no point pretending this isn't throwback music - right down to their fanciful flower power band name, the Bearded Rainbow wear their influences on their velveteen sleeves. What separates them from any number of retro-rock caricature bands is (firstly) their thrilling adeptness, and (secondly, moreover) the earnest and adventurous quality of the songs. Each feels like a genuine reflection on a contemporary moment, even if it's rendered in a period style, and this honesty is complimented by the pre-ironic optimism of the sound. Lines like "woah-oh, nothing really changes, ah-ah, we're going through our paces" might sound banal in the hands of a lesser artist, but Em Burrows shoots them through with anthemic melody and lively resolve, so the message feels universal and timeless rather than trite. It's a skill epitomised by Fleetwood Mac, who could make axioms hit home with euphoric immediacy - and Em Burrows is on a similar tip, while also peppering her lyrics with psychedelic whimsy (tigers howling at the moon, bubbles in outer space, and so on). In the end, the central and gravitational appeal of Em Burrows and the Bearded Rainbow isn't that they sound a bit like A and B '60s band or use X and Y instrument sound. It's that they're clearly playing the music they absolutely, desperately love, and they're doing it with full commitment and gusto. In moments of such clarity, all my anxiety around the use of psych-rock tropes seems laughably irrelevant. And if such pure musical moments aren't a joy to be cherished, then I don't know what is.