Royston Vasie, "Tanah Merah" Album Review

Until a couple of days ago, I knew very little about Royston Vasie. I’d heard them mentioned on RTR – with Peter Barr giving special mention to the ‘League Of Gentlemen’ reference which constitutes their band name – but beyond that, I was a stranger. An email asking if I might like to write about their debut album, “Tanah Merah,” was an intriguing and unexpected gateway to a Melbourne-based band that’s now got my mind zigzagging from era to era, reference point to reference point.

Australia has never suffered from a dearth of nostalgia-infused rock bands. Critics might like to lambast bands like Jet and Wolfmother for crudely rehashing old sounds, and politely tease other more interesting, critically-celebrated acts (Tame Impala, Pond, Empire of the Sun) for sharing a rear-view-mirror approach to inspiration. But this isn’t some aberrant bout of Gen Y retro-romanticism; for decades, many of our most prominent exports have been fixated on sounds of the not-so-distant past. In the ‘70s, Daddy Cool mined ‘50s doo-wop wisdom; in the ‘80s, The Stems built their paisley-print empire on ‘60s garage and ‘70s power pop. Since the early ‘90s, You Am I, The Vines and The Living End have borrowed heavily from rock’s formative decades, and nowadays DIY darlings such as Eddy Current Suppression Ring, Super Wild Horses, Twerps and Dick Diver are all redolent of specific eras and geographies in music of yore. Now maybe I’m gathering a handful of examples and trying to squash them into an “argument” – maybe doing so disregards scores of Australian bands that have been on the vanguard, uninterested in looking back, pioneering things never-before-heard. But by now you get my point: nostalgia and revivalism have long been, and remain, key players in Australia’s game of let’s-make-some-rock-music.

This lineage – itself peppered with both greatness and dross – plays on my mind as I listen through Royston Vasie’s debut LP. “Tanah Merah,” never ventures off the beaten track, though it’s not without an imaginative streak, either. The opening riff of the opening track, “You Want It Now,” briefly calls to mind the crusty straightforwardness of Melbourne’s aforementioned DIY circles – then, a mere four bars in, big production and tambourine and melodic guitar chords and driving toms slingshot us straight into Oasis and/or Dandy Warhols territory. The oncoming verse – complete with slack-jawed dual vocals and a twangy lead guitar line – does little to shake these associations, and a sprawling, snotty chorus recalls Blur at their more anthemic. Ensuing tracks, which come on quickly and confidently, follow suit: “That’s My Girl,” “All the Little People,” and wannabe-crowdpleaser “Come On” (do we really need another song called “Come On,” really?) are all basically tantamount to a single ambition: let’s make ballsy tunes people can sing along to that sound more-or-less like the bands we love. Far be it from me to decry that ambition – many great bands have been born out of it. My only concern is that too rarely do these eleven tracks hint at anything beyond the mold; too comfortable do Royston Vasie seem simply reminding us that, oh yeah, rollicking, jammy, referential rock & roll is a “thing.” If The Living End worshipped Stray Cats who similarly worshipped ‘50s Sun Records rockabilly heroes, it seems Royson Vasie worship ‘90s/’00s Britpop and American alt-rock bands who in turn worship the Velvet Underground and The Rolling Stones. This is not a criticism so much as a potential cause for concern down the line: if you spend too much time paying homage and not enough carving out your own space, then, well – observe figure A (Jet), relegated from heroes to zeroes in the public consciousness over the course of just three records. History will be unkind to them, and rightly so.

Meanwhile, like I said before, “Tanah Merah” isn’t without its imaginative moments. There’s a willingness here to put uniform aesthetic on the line in order to pursue multiple avenues: some tunes here ditch the leather jackets and instead invoke the sort of disco-tinged indie-punk that NME would have frothed over in 2006 (not exactly a ringing endorsement, I know, but I make the comparison affectionately). At other times – like at the start of “All the Little People,” there are auspicious hints of dark, eddying psychedelia that could lead Royston Vasie onto interesting tangents if they were prepared to explore them. The playing throughout is hard to fault; at its most loud, determined and jagged, the wall-of-sound is a force to be reckoned with.

At this point I’m finding my listening-reactions hard to reconcile. “Tanah Merah” is an album that suffers from paradoxes. There’s a sense that Royston Vasie want to come off as bedroomy and nonchalant; their back-to-basics songwriting, egalitarian riffage and sharehouse-next-door image are geared towards projecting that kind of vibe. But with their “explosive” choruses, slick production, super-safe (to the point of being barely there) lyrics and flawless tracking, one suspects they wouldn’t mind scoring Triple-J adoration and the next iPod commercial, either. When it comes to musical style, it feels like Royston Vasie want to please the retro-tragics, the pub rock headbangers, the authenticity-conscious indie kids and the mainstream rock-dabblers all at once. One big lesson here, I think, is that while some bands can have their cake and eat it too… setting out to do so is not necessarily a very realistic game plan.

If it sounds like I’ve spent this article either criticizing Royston Vasie or damning them with faint praise, it’s because I think they’re capable of more. Amid a listenable, fun but deeply unsurprising album, there are glimmers of intrigue. In a 2012 interview with Mess+Noise, Royston Vasie listed Eddy Current, Nick Cave and Paul Kelly as favourites – they’d do well to take leaves out of those artists’ respective books. As per the former, ditch the high production values and American accents and embrace spontaneity to create something that feels a little more real. Like Mr. Cave, foster complexity and darkness, and expand the top of the funnel – inviting the gamut of influences into the sound. And like old mate Paul, ensure you’ve got something to say, an honest way to say it, and a great song to hang it on – without focusing too hard on pastiche. Is it fair to hold this relatively new band, who are presumably making songs for kicks, to such high standards, to the bar set by some of Australia’s best ever rock-blokes? Probably not – but Royston Vasie should consider doing so themselves. By channeling that greatness without imitating, focusing on substance over style, they’re a band who will quite readily graduate from being an entertaining trip to the past to a group with a future worth following.