I arrive at Mladen’s house pretty early. Early enough to stick my cheap Czech beers in the fridge while there’s still room, early enough to discover that (alas) GEORGIA SPAIN won’t be playing as planned (but will still hang around for a chat); early enough to laze on the verandah in the sun as various friends wander in from High Street with vietnamese take-away, or appear carrying musical apparatus. The afternoon is bright and quiet and slow and smiling. When the feeling finally grabs enough of us, we migrate inside.
DAVE O’CONNOR greases the wheels on the whole shebang. He sits down on a chair, with his back to the sunny double-window in the loungeroom. People flop down on the floor and mattresses around him. With socked feet, one guitar, one voice and a small selection of effects pedals he slides modestly into a well of captivating sound: discretely strummed steel strings, a strong but gentle voice. Through this simple formula, a set of remarkable songs unfurls, recalling the best of ’70s bedroom folk, though never trading on any sort of nostalgic signifiers. It’s more that this sort of songwriting seems comparatively rare now, at least in my sphere of awareness – equal parts homely and avant-garde, direct and poetic, with harmonic depth that belies an endearingly simple façade. Now and then, he stomps down on a Memory Man delay pedal that sends his voice spiralling in analog echoes through the room, before being unceremoniously stomped off again. It adds a weird, pseudo-psychedelic variation to the otherwise “raw” performance – and by foregrounding the electronic filters between his thoughts and our ears, the effect serves to add both complexity and a sense of fragility.
TWO STEPS ON THE WATER set up – not in the same spot as Dave O’Connor, but instead in the garden outside, halfway under a tree. They are: Elliot on the acoustic guitar and main mouth, Sienna on the fiddle and second mouth, and Jonathan on the drums and accordion. They describe themselves as “dirty melodramatic folk music for saddies” which, like much of Elliot’s between-song banter, acts as a comedic foil for the genuine and unmitigated melancholy that flows through the songs. Not every song, or every moment – but it’s a recurring feeling. The tunes are folky in mood and timbre but feel equally informed (it seems) by the post-rock of Dirty Three or the freak pop of, maybe, The Microphones/Mount Eerie. I guess the Kate Bush reference should have been a giveaway this wasn’t going be a straightforward folk excursion. Anyway, the songs are intricately poetic, structurally strange and compelling. The accordion only features briefly, but it’s a lovely addition. Every curious lyric is perfectly wrapped in melody; every deeply earnest line delivered with unabashed Aussie drawl and unfettered emotion. While joking around is generally reserved for between tunes, the songs aren’t humourless: “My head was like a thunderstorm in a thunderstorm” is the funniest line I’ve heard all week. At other points, lyrics turn to direct commentary: “What is it that I have affronted? What is it that you think will end?” Croons the chorus of a bittersweet song about cross-dressing in public and copping disdain from corporate boys with bluetooth headsets. Apparently, TSOTW three are recording very soon and I am quite sure I will be thrashing the repeat button on whatever they subsequently release.
EVELYN MORRIS, who some of us know better of Pikelet, appears now – not in the bedroom or in the garden, but in another room again. Sitting at an old piano, with its lid removed to expose the soft hammers. We gather round, slumping into couches and the carpet as dappled, dusty light trickles in. Ev begins to knead the keys, ushering in the stragglers. And once we’re settled, she guides us through an ornate landscape of chords and gently shifting melodies, all ringing out from the piano alone. The piano was Evelyn’s first instrument, before her more public musical foray via the punk/hardcore scene, playing drums in bands like True Radical Miracle and Baseball. She returned to keys as a component of her solo/band work as Pikelet, and has recently been playing psychedelic improv sets using keyboard too, but this is the first time I’ve heard her piano-specific compositions (or “investigations” as she calls them). They’re long, sprawling, but unpretentious: melodically and rhythmically dense, by turns invoking classical, jazz and avant-pop modes. I lied slightly when I said it was piano-only; vocals do occasionally burst into view. They’re sufficiently scarce and decisive that every instance is intensified. A line about a woman lingering in her suburban backyard in pyjamas becomes almost mythic, albeit intimate, secluded. I’m reminded of the ambitious, complex, somehow otherworldly explorations of Joanna Newsom and Owen Pallett. Deeply listenable, but almost hermetic, like a glimmering musical maze in which you’ll never quite reach the centre.
I won’t lie – I didn’t hear what GREGOR KOMPAR did when he played. I went to get minimum chips from Jim’s Fish & Chips in Northcote. Got a pineapple fritter too, with some cinnamon batter stuff on it. Very good. I intended to be back in time to hear Gregor but that didn’t work out. This is sad, but I did investigate Gregor’s work insofar as it’s available on the internet – mostly under the guise of ‘Filthy Ingredients’ – and I have to say, it’s amazing. Probably very different from what he did in the garden, but amazing nevertheless: artfully clinical MIDI tapestries, warbling atari chords, soft-edged synthetic clouds and ancient-seeming electric guitar lacework. So there’s that, which I highly recommend. I’ll review you live next time Gregor, I promise.
By now the house is teeming with bodies, and LALIC are plugging in. The band – which might more accurately be described as the project of Mladen Lalic Milinkovic with nifty additional instrumentalists – is celebrating the launch of its first album and evidently a lot of people are excited to witness the sonic baby being born. Lalic don’t muck around; key tracks off the now freely-available ‘Broken Foot Rabbit Hole’ are lovingly reproduced in the room where our afternoon’s entertainment began, with Mladen steering the ship and intoning stirring vocals in a calm, unaffected manner. Despite the complete lack of self-importance, there’s an aura of urgency and consequence surrounding Lalic’s music that belies the casual delivery. These aren’t party songs, and though they operate in the pop sphere, they’re not really pop songs either: they’re carefully crafted jigsaws, wispy dream sequences of harmony and veering rhythms. Your ear can comfortably follow the patterns, but rarely predict them – a wayward 6th or 7th chord is just as likely around the corner as the beaten-track major/minor option. It’s charming to hear these songs at a house party, but it’s not where they belong – they don’t even belong in a pub. Exactly what physical space they do belong in I’m not sure, but a record has the beautiful upshot of floating in the ether, occupying whatever environment you empty it into. ‘Broken Foot Rabbit Hole’ may be best enjoyed simply in the space between your ears, but here and now, with bodies swaying and a band of skilled minstrels executing the tracks under the tungsten lightbulb and the cigarette smoke curling upwards on the verandah, nobody’s complaining. In fact, this is one of the summer’s most perfect moments so far.