Every gleaming "beginner's pack" guitar holds potential for the nascent
singer/songwriter. But it takes something more than $299 and shoddy
distortion to land in the spotlight something like having songwriting
helps. And this is Dan Kellyís trump card he's Australian troubadour Paul
Kelly's nephew. While Dan winced every time this blood relation was brought
up in mainstream press coverage he's received in his homeland, Iím sure this
linkage was only mentioned in the hope of creating interest among his uncle's
Paul Kelly stands for Australians as the kind of true-blue, dusty, gritty,
hard-working singer/songwriter they can relate to. By
turns humorous and earnest, he tells tales (or "spins a yarn," if we're
getting all colloquial) like the Aussie bush poets of old, or something. The
biggest change in Paul Kelly's tales is the shift in his protagonist's life,
the itinerant, malaise-ridden everyman from the outback giving way to the
itinerant, malaise-ridden everyman from the city. Paul's songs are not about
jackaroos and cattle stations, but the suburbs and the coast-hugging cities
non-Indigenous Australia huddles itself into (we are, in fact, a nation
largely scared of the "big brown land" that is so often associated with this
place). Paul Kelly sings songs about prisoners missing Christmas at home,
songs about long bus trips between cities, songs about sporting grounds and
national sporting heroes. He has a strange crossover appeal, playing at
both lip-ringed rock festivals and dope-ringed folk festivals. I think he even wore an Akubra hat in a few film clips.
Dan Kelly, however, seems less likely to cross over with this record, as
good as it is. Musically inventive and lyrically rich, Kelly has learnt the
sleight-of-hand that defines great authors and film directors: Take
genre/convention and twist. But the twists, of a type that may
alienate the many and excite the few, are always towards angularity.
Yet if anything could make this disc move off chain-store shelves, it would
be the storytelling skill shared by both Kellys. The lyrics are worthy of
some unpacking, because Kelly's unrushed delivery often underplays the
trim clarity and wit of his pen. The laconic narrative of "Pregnant
Conversation" a musically stripped-back tale of a reckless summer love
turning unexpectedly procreative is a good example of this clarity and wit.
For if Danís lyrical mark is his precise yet telling detail sketching
vignettes in couplets it is most evident in places like that song's poignant
second-verse punchline: "You don't seem to be smoking/ Since you found out
you're smoking for two."
Each song here brings together a cast of characters that Dan moulds gently
over the song's duration. In "Checkout Cutie," Kelly's looking down the
aisles of his local supermarket, a spectator to the furtive glances of
hormonal and indie-hip co-workers: "Checkout Cutie's whistling 'Diamond Sea'/
She's missing out on her vitamin D/ She said 'I think it's time for a little
R&B'/ She likes the new kind, some Timbaland's gonna blow her mind";
and more whimfully, "Dancin' 'long the aisles/ No freezer section's gonna
cool her fire."
In "Bunk Lovin' Man" he turns his eye to the lonely, homoerotic times of
males aboard the oil rigs that fringe sections of the Australian coast. The
rigs are places where a man takes "a road train to get there" to "leave my
whole life of crime far behind"; puts "my feet up on the rails smoking
cig after cig after cig"; and where "late at night you hear me singing/ I
set the hallway ringing/ Iíve got a voice just like a high tension wire."
The shuffle of "Tabloid Blues" taps into a set of Australia's cultural
obsessions Nicole Kidman, Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe: "There's bonfires
raging in them Hollywood hills/ We're all alone on my ship/ You better pray to
L. Ron Hubbard, honey, I don't flip/ On to the front page news";
"The harbour city was in your eyes/ Perhaps you're craving Rusty's big
strong thighs/ Though I'm a Yank and he's just a lowdown dirty Skip/ You
better bow to L. Ron Hubbard before I flip/ On to the front page news." (Translation
notes for international readers: "the harbour city" is Sydney,
home to Nicole Kidman; "Rusty" is a common Australian nickname for someone
named Russell (i.e. Crowe); "Skip" is a half-affectionate, half-derogatory
name for a (white) Australian. And further translation notes for the tabloid-averse:
Crowe and Kidman were alleged to be together soon after Cruise and Kidman split.
I know this purely by osmosis cultural obsession, I tell you.
And I leave those new to "L. Ron Hubbard" to Google that name.)
Musically, the band's loping country-and-blues swagger lends it a rootsy
base from which to pursue some angular and noisy moments, as if Pavement,
Jeff Tweedy and the Stones were jamming together. Largely drawing on the
country and blues of rock's origins to write rock songs, Kelly's guitar
style is distinctive in its drawing in of apparently contradictory elements.
There's a shade of Nick Cave's early art-punk projects, for example, in the
guitar lines even when they're screaming in moments like the pre-chorus
lead riff of the just-funky-enough "A Town Called Sadness."
Opener "Checkout Cutie" is the kind of bluesy rave-up that the word
"rollicking" should be reserved for, its rhythmic, guitar-heavy pulse urged
onward by raw production. The album is produced with a set of careful ears,
the acoustic rancor and subtlety levels falling and rising to fit the mood
of particular songs. So while "Step Into the Light" a tipsy rock song,
nailed to greatness by Gareth Liddiard's out-of-nowhere throat-shredding
high-register scream of the chorus hook plants its foot for the chorus,
"Human Sea" is a beautiful melancholic canter that is left to swagger gently
across its slightly undulating terrain.
With the interplay of subtle music and lyrics, Kelly and his Alpha Males have
just the right balance of tenderness and tenacity here, making for one hell
of a good record.