There’s an unassuming joint on Lygon Street, near the Brunswick Road intersection, that occupies a special place in local lore. From the street it’s not much to look at: one of those digitally printed aluminium signs, a couple of patio umbrellas, a glass shopfront. But the interior plays host to a treasure trove of Melbourne memories, many of them less than sober, most of them involving Italian food indulgences. CAFÉ ROMANTICA (the name reiterated inside in cursive pink neon, featuring martini glass) is open from 5 in the afternoon ‘til 10 the next morning, dishing out pizza, pasta, burgers, wine, coffee, gelati, whatever, for the duration – all in a room of hodgepodge décor and inexplicably inspiring vibes. Like any all-night cafe, Romantica is a place of late-hour epiphanies, after-party levity and post-heartbreak soulsearching. Given it’s a fixture in so many local lives, it was – presumably – only a matter of time before Café Romantica was immortalized on music-record.
The musicians to finally take on that lofty responsibility are ANDRAS FOX and OSCAR KEY SUNG. Their team effort LP ‘Café Romantica’ is out soon on Chapter Music, and tonight they’ve invited us (well, everyone) to a special preview performance of the new material at Brunswick’s slick pseudo-warehouse venue Howler. The day comes around: I sleep til mid-morning, head down to another Brunswick café to revive myself with eggs, roll on to Northcote then Preston and back after playing music and drinking tea with some buddies. I walk home past the many wiggly elbows of Merri Creek and the CERES environmental park where polychrome chickens putter and vegetables grow free and strong. I tune the radio to the football – the Eagles give Collingwood a ten-goal flogging. In high spirits, I head down the road, towards the Howler entrance-carpark and a large, dark room humming with potential kinetic energy.
Just after my arrival, SUI et SUI wade into their set. Sui et Sui is the live manifestation of the music of Sui Zhen (aka Becky Sui Zhen, pronounced sue-ee cheen) who makes mesmerising minimal pop, with leanings in the bedroom blissout / balearic groove / analog chillwave direction. Allegedy this is Sui Zhen’s take on Japanese post-punk; I don’t know much about Japanese post-punk but if it sounds anything like this I might have to investigate further.
It’s a live show that – despite expanding the lineup from just Becky to three performers – manages to remain beguilingly sparse. Slow, warm drum machines ebb under sporadic keyboard palpations and high, effect-splashed vocals. Under the thin, crystalline surface, monochrome tropical guitar swirls like seaweed and scattered bass motifs throb in the depths. A few sample-pad loops are triggered with drum sticks; they come and go in the breeze. Every delicately crafted element plays off another like Sui et Sui was a network of winking eyes in the mist, and the cumulative effect is a deceptively catchy, mysterious, slow-slink joint-popper affair.
When ANDRAS & OSCAR take Sui’s stead on stage, it’s evident that they’ll be trading the aloof intrigue for full-blown, unapologetic dance pop. Per their fresh, washed + ready to eat single ‘Everytime I Go,’ these tunes are borne of a ‘90s chart-pop sound aesthetic, informed by the vocabulary of vintage house, disco and contemporary R&B. Which, when you think about it, pretty well describes that airwaves-devouring hit of recent times, Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” – and despite the obvious disparity in shtick and budget, the essence here is not so different, save for the absence of wayward vocoder. Like Daft Punk (say, in their mellow Discovery moments and in their more organic diversions of late) these tunes are classy workouts for the body, not so much the brain; Oscar’s vocals function as mellifluous melodic motives with a soulful human touch. Try unpick them as poetry, and they fall apart pretty quickly, but let them wash over you and they’re an exuberant syrup of emotionally uncomplicated croon. Likewise, Andras’ production on these tracks doesn’t really flirt with danger or disruption. The kick drum hovers around 120bpm, or just north, the keyboards comprise jazzy triplet piano stabs and chocolate-smooth synth noodling. Perhaps the most diversionary quirk is a tune that revolves around a very fake and fun keyboard “slap bass,” but it’s hardly what you’d call a trailblazing move. Nay, the pair have concoted a solid formula, derived from time-honoured methods, that’s ripe for the dancefloor and – simultaneously recalling those French superstars in robot helmets and the best of underground DIY dance production – fits snugly into the zeitgest, the obvious yet elusive here ‘n’ now.
The tail end of the set sees its finest moment. The banter between Andras and Oscar, which has been mostly half-awkward reflection on each of their self-conscious “costume changes” and eating habits, makes way for more fluid song-transitions and, lo and behold, a pair of awesome onstage dancers (the “Fandroids.”) The fandroids disappear for a track or two but return for the final jam, along with a bunch of other stage invaders, in a jocular cloud of looseness that celebrates how equally silly and beautiful this whole dance-music-concert-gathering ritual is. The music dissolves, the party-of-many grinningly wanders offstage, and Andras announces the obvious location of the after-show drinks ‘n’ snacks.
Fans of Oscar and Andras’ separate work might find themselves underwhelmed by how few risks are taken in this collaboration, how they seem content to dwell in inoffensive common ground rather than push each other in bold new directions. After all, Andras’ recent release ‘Overworld,’ is a beautiful odyssey of textural exploration and a deep rhythmic tapestry, and he’s already got another EP – the wonderfully named ‘Vibrate on Silent’ – on its way, so the creative juices are flowing. But sometimes, like when it’s 3.30 AM and you’re tuckered out and heading home and the tummy rumble kicks in, you don’t want to be challenged – you want warm, tasty, familiar comfort. The sort of comfort offered by Café Romantica, and seemingly by the songs off its forthcoming namesake. To bastardize old Bill (I’m sure he would have vibed it): If Andras and Oscar’s music be the late-night margherita of the soul, play on.