Listening to Faulty Landscape, the new album by Perth musician Ermine Coat (aka Alex Griffin), I feel like I’m copping a collection of greatest hits. Not in the sense that its songs are disconnected or hammy, but it strikes me that Ermine Coat has fully unleashed its pop potential (whether or not mass appeal is a consideration), hereby wringing every last hook, lithe beat and irresistible chord progression from its furry pelt while remaining staunchly lo-fi, weird and sketchy round the edges. Which is a treat. This is an album that feels distinctly and inevitably of its time, without offering many nods to vogueish genre conventions; it encourages you to stop and reflect on this moment in cultural expression. And while it’s unwise to make sweeping statements about periods in music, particularly a period that you’re still in the midst of, if one thing seems to’ve typified the mid-twentyteens for me it’s been the transparent conflation of underground and mainstream aesthetics. It’s not that collisions of the two supposed poles are anything new: from Yoko x Beatles to The Monkees x counterculture cinema to Nick Cave x Kylie, it’s a well-trodden and often profitable gambit. But while such intersections once felt novel and provocative, they’re now mundane. Kanye can chop Aphex Twin and Arthur Russell into warped rap songs without jeopardising mass appeal. Rihanna can cover Tame Impala and no-one’s particularly ruffled. I mean, there’s always a permeable membrane, a certain discourse between stardom (Tame) and superstardom (RiRi) but what’s more interesting there is the unexpected interplay of aesthetics and the presumed ethos that would underpin them. From the mundanity of this interplay, this forgetting of mythology, less constrained and more compelling records can bubble up.
So I’m sensing that same dissolution of counterpoints here, in favour of a natural symbiosis of poetry and approachability; a sense that the project needn’t belong to either the long-surffering-underdog nor the pop-success-story narrative. Ermine Coat once felt like a self-conscious entry in the niche-as-hell DIY tradition – I’ll never forget Alex handing me a scribbled-on CD-R (2011’s “LP”) with a handmade paper-collage cover on the Freo line train. It was a good CD but seemed wilfully oblique; Faulty Landscape, conversely, speaks like a record that almost anyone could take something from. The beauty of this is that Griffin’s ruminations, which within Ermine Coat have always felt ruthlessly personal, now open themselves up to a kind of communality. You can listen to Griffin mention close friends by name on ‘Parking Lots’ but the song’s careening fuzz-pop pulse pulls you close, and you can supplant the song’s awkward parties for your own, its Carlton Draught for your own, its carrots for your own. That the vocals are clear and loud enough for lyrics to be discerned is helpful too, and surely no accident.
An embrace of the pop canon seems readily announced on opening track ‘Hounds of Love’ – it’s not a Kate Bush cover, but in an alternate universe it might be. It’s just as melodic, synth-laden and wryly romantic, spinning around a simple refrain: “How much closer can we get?” Its immediate follow-up, ‘Uneasy Riders’ throws countless snotty guitars at you over a nasty thin snare, but it’s got a Buzzcocks-level catchiness that means you could take it out for dinner with your parents.
The aforementioned ‘Parking Lots’ (not to be confused with EC’s 2013 album of the same name is a joyous slice of unlikely early-twenties optimism, wrung through AM radio distortion with that nimble Young Marble Giants type bass. Its gently wistful sharehouse imagery lurches into focus on ‘Rent Network,’ though now there’s a dejected outlook, icy steel-string quavers and skeletal rim clicks propping up heartbreaking mumbles: “We might still watch tv in the evenings / but you go back to your room and I go to mine / we used to take each other’s clothes off / but now I just watch yours on the line.”
‘WA Inc.,’ likewise brings its share of melancholy, but offsets it with Griffin’s distinctive sense of humour (“I’ve got more ideas than DJs living in Melbourne”) before building to a poignant crescendo. ‘Splendour ‘04’ is a sweetly wrought hymn, comprising the album’s dynamic nadir before we launch into the motowny chug of the ‘Bye, Baby.’ The latter is a magnificent, seemingly platonic love song: “I wanted to impress you, I googled everything you said / I really wished you liked me man, I wish I didn’t have to guess.” This might be the album’s most musically lush track, too, ambitious in a way that sounds gleeful rather than ostentatious.
‘Down BYO River’ brings us back to melodic punk territory in the Total Control vein. It’s got a rhythmic momentum that belies some grim recollections of days spent drunk, self-loathing and disoriented (“I have to check if I threw up in the garden again”). ‘Cannington Dogs’ is another left turn, a cryptic but evocative a capella poem sung over the sound of dishes being done. But if you think the curveballs have exhausted themselves, brace yourself for ‘Robin Thicke Alone In The Studio.’ It’s a moody slab of post-Dean Blunt rnb that seems to also be an earnestly conceived vignette imagining the creative process of the much maligned singer. “It has to be perfect, it has to be real / he has to sound exactly how he’s meant to feel / The engineer is bored (queueing up Netflix): he turns his vocals up in the mix.” We get a flash of Thicke as pathetic ego-driven husk, but also as human. Exactly how much we’re supposed to empathise with the fictionalized Thicke is unclear. Whether the parable is also a tongue-in-cheek undercutting of Griffin’s own ambitions and album-spanning emotional directness is also up for debate. But whatever it is it’s a wonderfully asymmetric bookend to an album comprising a startling amount of ideas and images. Blood-quickening riffs, gut-wrenching private narratives, memorable melodies. Despite what I presume is an innate bias towards local releases, when I first heard this album playing on RTR I didn’t know what it was – and I thought to myself “fuck, I need to get this, this could be my new favourite thing.” Griffin’s duo with Mitch Henderson Miller, Mining Tax, released one of my favourite gems of 2015, casting a sweeping and sometimes scathing gaze on contemporary Australia. With his third solo album, Griffin casts that gaze back on himself, and the tender contours of daily experience. But like all good stories, these tiny details feel as big and as devastating as the landscapes that surround them.