The hot cross buns have been baked and gobbled, or else fobbed at a discounted price; the Easter eggs have been consumed and their wrappers splayed leaving distorted foil patterns on tabletops. On this calendar-attested long weekend I find myself back in Melbourne, and for the most part I swan about aimlessly: leafing through books, avoiding rain, affording myself a beer here and a game of pinball there. But it would have seemed remiss not to attend a gig, and luckily enough there’s a particularly appealing one tonight, Easter Sunday, at a venue I’ve never attended featuring a band I’ve been meaning to see live (The Harpoons). So I meet with A & C, and C makes us some burgers and we stroll in autumnal chilliness to the tram which chugs, squeaks and dings us to our destination.
When we enter, near the start of proceedings, it’s MILWAULKEE BANKS gracing the stage. Two men looking pretty serious, in caps and black longsleeves; one is hovering behind a laptop and trigger device, cradling a mic in one hand, while the other prowls around the front of the podium – mic to his mouth, eyes slightly widened, centre of gravity lowered. They are a hip-hop duo, though musically, they eschew the genre’s more common tropes – there’s no boom-bap, no funk/soul sampling, nor are they overtly channelling the slow syncopated extremes of trap or the stomp of hip-house. Instead, they seem to be treating their tracks as dark contemporary electronic pop, subsequently layering rap vocals. It’s a neat concept, one that should allow them to straddle different demographics and wiggle into a range of bills, but does it work? Mostly – the combination sits best when the vocals are at their most subdued, and the laptop-handler’s occasional pitched-down vocals add a nice spooky touch. When things get rowdier on the mic, it starts to feel like an awkward clash; “m*therf**ker” getting barked in an Aussie twang makes for a strange bedfellow with moody, stylish synth-beatsmithy. But hey, maybe I’m just being a square. In any case, it seems to be working for them, and if they can further hone their idiosyncrasies they might become a really memorable force.
Next up are those fated HARPOONS, who A & C have been telling me to go see for many moons, and it’s cool that we’re all doing so together. We drink some whisky on the charmingly decorated balcony/smoking area – potted plants floor to ceiling greet us, backlit by moonlight and neon – before racing inside so as to not miss any of the hotly anticipated set. To be fair, a crummy mix – whereby everything somehow sounds too loud and too quiet, and altogether muffled and indistinct – means that it wouldn’t have been too big a shame to have missed the first few songs. But that soon gets sorted out, and we’re able to fully appreciate the sultry neo-RnB slow jam excellence of this much-loved local ensemble. There’s no doubting their remarkable collective talent: everyone pulls their weight, with Marty on electronic beats and semi-acoustic marimba (drum-kit’s gotten the boot, it seems), Henry and Jack nailing guitar and bass duties, and Bec – undoubtedly the most viscerally impressive of the lot – absolutely shreds it up on the voice-aeronautics. “RIP to the competition,” as Lil B would say. But a few songs in I’m wondering: is there anything new on offer here? Or is it just four kids who grew up in the ‘90s channelling contemporary RnB for a quietly nostalgia-hungry crowd?
The answer soon arrives: yes, there is innovation in the Harpoons’ sound, and for every homage to the brilliant production and vocals stylings of yesteryear’s smooth-moving heroes, there are bold hints of experimentation. We hear excursions into ambient pop, lush four-part harmony, global folk influences and punishing club rhythms. Weaving itself throughout is a sort of life-affirming motown/soul sensibility that harks to the band’s more traditional roots. By the tail end of the set, the crowd is hurling itself at the ceiling in a rhythmic way, and singing along in a joyful unselfconscious way, and it’s almost a rude shock to the system when The Harpoons don’t play an encore. But all is well. And we are happy.
GOLD FIELDS soon take command of the airwaves, dusting every surface with a generous coating of rich cheese powder: but in the best way possible. We have back-to-back indulgent hits from the likes of Kelis, Outkast, Michael Jackson and other such heroes. My jaw periodically drops: surely they’re not playing “The Next Episode” straight after “Beautiful (feat. Pharrel)”? But oh, how they go there. And suddenly the shameless sacred backlog of bangers unfurls, clunkily and gleefully.
In stark contrast come the first few songs by COLLARBONES: dark and distantly nihilistic, throbbing but never quite inviting you into the party, with washed-out vocals and cacophonous production keeping you at arm’s length. But soon a distinctly positive vibe reasserts itself, with picture-perfect frontman Marcus Whale offering cheery, silly banter and beatmaster Travis Cook grooving dorkily up back in flip-out sunglasses. The set proves to satisfy on a number of levels: there’s subtle complexity to the compositions, but also plenty of roof-raising pulsations to pump your fist to, and Whale delivers some very special dance moves. In its artful croontronica way it reminds me of seeing How To Dress Well, but it’s about six times better. The set ends with an utterly preposterous remix of of Phantom Planet’s “California” – aka the OC theme song – blaring out in all its daft EDM glory through the room while Travis Cook thrusts and boogies to a crowd who have long since resigned themselves to the joyful silliness. We enjoy a final wiggle to the DJ’s selections before swapping the darkness of the club for the darkness of the street; knowing that to have witnessed sets like these on a Sunday night, to have danced and laughed as we have, is surely something of an Easter miracle.