JAMES TEAGUE – “LAVENDER PRAYERS”
You might ask why I’m writing about this record now, and not a few months back when it officially surfaced. That’s a fair question, and I suppose the answer is that only recently have I felt the need to; only recently have I reached the conclusion that simply not enough has been said about this rather remarkable release. Of the reviews it has had, too few have been willing to engage it thoroughly as a collection of songs, instead berating the album’s stylistic volatility. I can’t claim neutrality on this one – having worked in a musical capacity with the ripple-haired minstrel on a few occasions. But, if it’s any consolation, nothing I ever write is neutral (ha! Had you fooled this whole time). Anyway – “Lavender Prayers.”
James Teague belongs to an old-fashioned class of musician – not necessarily in sound, but in approach and philosophy. The pop music games of 2012 (internet hyping/mystique, elaborate gimmickery, increasingly ridiculous genre contrivance) are alien to the 23 year old, who seems instead to sit for hours in his tree-hollow, warbling hallucinatory beauty and polishing incense-scented chicken-pickings. While plenty of songwriting auteurs of the moment (Grimes, Bon Iver) are happy to start with an aesthetic or mood and let the songwriting follow, Teague is a song guy through and through – a fastidious painter of vignettes through whatever breed of couplet, chord progression, melody and stylistic trope seems right at any given juncture. The ensuing identity of each tune is a rich and multifaceted world unto itself, instead of a component of some more general statement. Which means that “Lavender Prayers” doesn’t have a singular sound, at all – there’s whistle-worthy chamber-folk (“Strange Birds,” “Valley of Restrain”), dense and swirling art-rock (“Misplaced Soul,” or thhe proggy “Naked Eyes, Deluded Minds”) and straight-up pastiche (“Where Sorrow is Forgotten” and “Like A Dream,” which draw on rollicking country rock and barnyard ragtime respectively). Whether or not you agree that these eclectic micro-narratives are awesome simply for being eclectic micro-narratives (I think so!), it does mean Teague’s album necessitates an engaged listen; you can’t give it a spin in the background while you cook French Toast and “get” it. The fact that Teague includes the lyrics to each track on his Bandcamp speaks volumes. Nothing here is flippant, and Teague wants you to take it all in – enticing you to slowly, intently digest his Byzantine pop poetry. The good news is that doing so is heaps (heaps!) of fun. I could go on for hours about the specific lyrics, chord/tempo changes, licks and subtle flourishes that spark moments of genuine magic. But I should probably let you go discover those for yourself.
SPRAWL – “LOLLIGAG”
Sprawl may just be the most underrated band in Perth. A post-industrial wasteland of 8-bit whirring, clanging bonfire percussion, psychotic vocal seizures and dense electro-rock brawls, their sound puts the “ooze” is “bamboozle” and the “punk” in “cyberpunk.” Actually it might be responsible for the “bam” and “cyber” bits too. Live, they present a tangle of digital apparatus, rock band tools o’ the trade and trumpet for good measure, flinging a fizzy paint-bomb at your senses that is, strangely, both ostentatious and brazenly honest. Impressive echoes of HEALTH, pissed-off Animal Collective, and (in particular) the DOOM and Super Metroid soundtracks. But what of “Lolligag”? Well, it condenses all of these live evocations into something decidedly ”produced”: instead of flitting around the room, the processed percussion samples aim right for your eardrum with unabashed artificial precision. It’s Cyborg music for sure: “live” organic elements sit fused – but in clear juxtaposition – with the digital detritus and glitched-out noise flourishes. “Ebenezer” is a cool slice of shoutey, chiptuney indie-punk (remember Test Icicles? anyway, this is better) with genuine Internet-Explorer-wants-revenge type venom seething underneath. “Himalayan/Heralayan” (I see what you did there, Sprawlies) takes the sort of smoothly incanted vocal melody and rapid-fire hi-hat that TV On The Radio dig on, here weaving it into a disorienting nexus of gamelan crumble and cash register implosion beat wigout. “Heartbeast” is the most Metroid-esque tune here, and with its angrily purring drums and trumpet interruptions, it’s as invigorating as a fight with the Mother Brain. “Goblin Killer” is the only track that doesn’t work for me, smacking of MOR soft-wrock accidentally mashed with futuristic monster noises (though, without the rest of the EP to make it look bad, it’s still pretty damn good). In any case, “The Breakfast” provides a fittingly downbeat afterglow to all the apocalyptic catharsis. After setting out with soundtracky ballad piano, a creepy Twin Peaks vibe begins to congeal as whispered vocals enter the shadowy fray. Garbage-disposal-hovercraft bass lends a moribund groan, and the whole thing collapses under its own heavy-liddedness. “Lolligag” isn’t a flawless EP, but it’s an incredible one, at times a confusing one. Sprawl are presumably only just warming up. Don’t be surprised if you see these freaks tearing up the main stage at Laneway with the best of ‘em in a few years.
RUNNER – “INDIANA”
I slid into Fat Shan Records recently to escape a squall and to say g’day to Chris ‘The Shan Himself’ Healing. As usual I was taken aback by the increasingly vast space dedicated to new or new-ish local releases, an entire mood-lit wall festooned with Perth-begat CDs, cassettes and vinyl. Among the trove I spotted Runner’s “Indiana” EP, looking pretty as it is apt to with its cover’s enigmatic watercolour seascape courtesy Max Plumley – and the music herein is no less enchanting. Taking the sinewy metronomy of Interpol, the cheery pop brightness of Belle and Sebastian and the misty grandiose of Explosions in the Sky, Runner remind you that despite the psychedelic re-volution of the late noughties, indie rock has always been one of Perth’s fortes. These five tracks are as charming as they are well executed; gently unorthodox vocal melodies gliding over politely jousting fender noodles and muscular low-end rhythms. Instrumental opener “Salt Lamps” is the shortest and might even be my favourite – its pastel disco determination and subtle adrenaline rush makes it a real pleasure to behold. Where it falls down (if at all) is in the same department as their live shows: in the unwillingness to take substantial risks, the general inclination to take the road oft-travelled. It still makes for wholly pleasant listening (and I mean pleasant in the best way, not so as to damn with faint praise) but those wishing to be challenged somehow will be left wanting. Maybe that’s enough – those who dig on the beauty of Runner will embrace the songs, those hoping for twists and turns will look elsewhere. For me, this is a wonderful sounding EP that’s hard to fault, but also one plays it safe too much for me to find my heart racing or my breath taken away. Runner have set the mood for their musical world: next, we see how they play around within it as they continue to grow and explore.