I wake up in Brisbane with a cat meowing in my ear and purring on my chest; I remember it’s my birthday. I go record shopping in West End, and meet a practicing witch selling wands around the corner. When the day gets older we go to The Zoo, which turns out to be a concert hall or maybe you’d call it a bar, in any case not an actual zoo, but it’s still an auspicious-feeling place. There’s dumplings and Gladiators pinball down the road and when we return there’s THE GOON SAX.
The Goon Sax are a trio, all bright-eyed and a little gawky yet ineffably cool. As they fire up their drifting 4/4 rhythms, melodic bass lines and lax first-posititon guitar chords, the brain (or my brain, anyway) is quick to index them among a recent squall of bands who revel in such musical tropes, as well as frank lyrics delivered in Australian accents; the kinds of bands you tend to find on Chapter Music or Bedroom Suck. They’re also distinctly reminiscent of The Go-Betweens, which should come as no surprise since band member Louis’ father is, in fact, Robert Forster of the aforementioned. They’re going to cop all of these comparisons for a while yet, and on the one hand they’re fair enough. But as Louis furrows one eyebrow and intones coy Edwyn Collins-esque couplets, and James Harrison sighs endearingly clunky confessions, and Riley Jones choofs away neatly and nonchalantly on the kit, it feels like there’s something singular and memorable about them, too. The double entrendre of their name is a red herring: their music neither evokes the tasteless youthful abandon of suckling on a goon sack, nor does it imply the life-affirming howl of a saxophone. Instead, their knack is for articulating socially awkward situations and bits of the self that you’d rather not confront: “I want people to like me / I want people to think about me” declares Forster in one tune. “I’m so sorry that I’m no good at talking / let’s be quiet and focus on walking” drone the boys in unison in another. Sometimes the self-loathing and indifference can feel a little tired or tiresome, but usually the delivery gets it over the line on the few occasions that the writing misses the mark. They’re only going to get better, and already they’re tight (but not too tight), with great songs, a charming palette and a vastly enjoyable presence.
The next day we take the van up to Pomona, rolling in through the sun showers and over misty green mountains, until we pull in next to the Majestic Theatre. Here, I watch the gardener tend to the lawn as a rainbow spreads across the marbled grey sky. I drink tea and admire the silent-movie organs that flank the stage. After an uncertain duration of milling about, the theatre floods with people, the lights dim, and a woman named Helen (who here goes by McKISKO) takes to the stage.
McKisko is evidently not concerned about making an audacious first impression. There is no grand entrance or brash statement to announce her preoccupations. From the outset, her tunes are slow-creeping sketches of sound, faintly traced melodies and minimalistic guitar phrases that glow, flicker and sustain themselves, like a candle at the far end of the room. And, like focusing on a candle, the experience of watching a McKisko set is both a little unusual and thoroughly calming; somehow even numinous and transformative, in a way you can’t readily grasp. I can more easily compare McKisko’s sound and approach to local Perth artists – the likes of Golden String, Rabbit Island and Jane Harris – than I can to international peers. Why? Beyond the hushed-folk-meets-experimentalism thrust, perhaps it’s Australian accent, which here is plenty gentle, but nevertheless often suppressed in the world of hushed indie-folk-art-pop-whatever. In any case, her singing voice oscillates easily between crystalline trilling and conversational half-singing, which renders would-be bombastic lines like “we can be part of the glorious chaos that litters out path” altogether homely, friendly, unpretentious. None of this is to suggest that McKisko’s sound lacks artfulness or ambition. Certain tracks truly push the envelope with their sparseness; others press startlingly abstract or uncanny lyrics right up to your eardrums. Others throw conventional structure out the window, while still others grow into lush loop-pedal collages, with droning electric organ, oblique percussion sounds and processed melodic interjections swirling through the grand old room.
When the set wraps up, I scarcely know how to re-enter the real world. I’m not ready, frankly. Don’t miss seeing McKisko, if you get the chance; in the meantime, her albums are on Bandcamp, and they’re beautifully recorded. FFO Juana Molina, Sufjan Stevens, new-school Vashti Bunyan; and anything that fuses attention to detail with quiet, understated beauty, really.