Monday, 31 August 2009

The Forest in the Middle of a Pub: Lisa Mitchell Marchoochydore Gig Review

The Sunshine Coast has a dearth of quality live music. Very few respected artists travel to what is generally considered ‘the geriatric capital of Australia’ for there is a general lack of demand, much less a decent venue that could stage many credible artists. Thankfully though the Lisa Mitchell gig at the Sands Tavern last Saturday proved to be a notable exception to this rule.

As usual given my four wheeled status I was first inside the venue. Having not been before I was surprised at what I found. The ‘stage’ (I use the term loosely) was smaller than my old high school gym. I began to Wonder how on earth they would fit the crowd of 300 the security guards expected, without breaking several fire codes. No matter, as I was content firmly ensconced in the front row, protected by amorous couples in all directions.

The supporting bands were decidedly mixed. New Zealand expats White Birds and Lemons were particularly earnest and had a somewhat off putting stage presence. The drummer Rob Dickins was especially guilty of this as he took lead vocals on one occasion. The band seemed to be at its best when building up to the occasional crescendo, rather than the overtly twee songs they seemed content to play. Their six set song set started out promisingly, but certainly dragged towards the end.

Melbourne natives Oh Mercy were a lot stronger. Evoking Oh Inverted World era The Shins, the band stuck to its genre of janglely pop uniformly, but certainly were more engaging than what came before. Lead singer Alexander Gow certainly proved to be an entertaining front man remarking between songs on topics as varied as the quality of Queensland Beers to self deprecating commentary on the band’s song titles.

Then, after what seemed like an eternity, the main act took the stage and Lisa Mitchell arrived to a rapturous welcome. Beginning with the under appreciated Heroine the set had a lively beginning. Mitchell took the microphone off its stand and began engaging the audience while its occupants remained suitably entranced. She used a combination of artistry and allure in order to draw the audience in. Yet at times it also seemed like she was off in her own universe, retreating as she was overcome with the enormity of the crowd’s zealous affection.

Throughout the set continued with this figurative game of cat and mouse. Particular highlights included up tempo numbers Clean White Love, Sidekick and So Jealous as well as ballads Valium, Love Letter, and a beautiful solo acoustic cover of the Dire Straits hit Romeo and Juliet. On lead singe Neapolitan Dreams the crowd willingly engaged in a game of call and response when singing its well known refrain. Similarly during the middle of second single Coin Laundry, the crowd placed dollar coins on stage when the songs hook was sung and Mitchell rhetorically enquired ‘Do you have a dollar for me?’ highlighting the whimsical nature of both song craft and the gig itself.

Ably supported with a fine backing band, all the stops were pulled out as xylophones, kazoos, and other unusual instruments were used at suitable moments. For the hour and a quarter set, the tiny venue was transformed into a forest complete with fake campfire. It’s hard to believe that Mitchell was discovered in the homogonous reality television show Australian Idol, as she has successfully endeavoured to break away from those shackles to prove that she is not only the most credible artist the show has seen to date, but arguably its most talented. Judging by the fans swarming to greet her at the shows conclusion her prowess will continue for many years to come.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Diamonds in the Rough: The Problems with Australian Music

Generally speaking I am as patriotic as the next bloke. I love my Aussie Rules, I am a member of the greatest political party in the world, the Australian Labor Party, follow the Aussie cricket team even when its playing like crap, and generally take the opportunity to bask in nationalistic glory. However there is one facet of Australian culture I treat with the utmost contempt: Australian music.

For a nation so small in population terms we perform remarkably well on all other international stages. We are consistently in the top ten for medals won in the Olympics, our actors win Oscars, or are in critically successful (or popular) movies and TV shows. We are respected in all other forms of the world’s cultural pursuits, so why haven’t we achieved the same success in music?

Part of the reason is the Australian industry’s utter banality. The most popular album by an Australian artist last year was David Campbell doing a bunch of swing standards. In the two years previous, it was Human Nature doing a bunch of Motown covers. No originality there whatsoever. However, the problem is not just commercial, the Living End recently won the country’s top songwriting prize for White Noise. The problem with that is the song sounds like every other song they’ve recorded in the past decade, even though they all sound like crap. Matters are not helped when thoroughly ubiquitous, ordinary, and derivative bands such as Silverchair and Powderfinger continue to snare the industry awarded ARIAS and get treated by the music press as darlings.

UK music critic Everett True moved to Australia last year and captures the gist of the problem rather nicely.

Australians don't have much respect for the music press - it runs counter to their culture. Australian rock is all about "Good on ya, mate - well done for getting up on stage and switching that amplifier on". The idea of anyone actually daring to criticise musicians for the sound they make is almost heresy. Everyone is treated equally, which means no knocking anyone back, however great the temptation. (That'll be why Australian rock is best known to the outside world for such musical abominations as Silverchair, the Vines and Savage Garden… Unsurprisingly, Australians get the music press they deserve.

Naturally True was howled down and his comments were treated with utter contempt. But he continues to be right on the money. The recent poll conducted by Triple J on the 100 Greatest Songs of All Time is further evidence of this. Listeners of the so called ‘alternative’ radio station only chose two songs featuring female vocalists, both performed by Massive Attack. Predictability, the cultural monolith of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit garnered top spot in all of its vastly overrated glory. It reflects the vomit inducing tendency of both the Australian public and its media to favour not only male artists, but towards unimaginative rock standards, which make up just over half (51) of the list.

However, there is hope. Over the past month I have listened to five fantastic Australian albums that might well buck these existing trends. Three have been released in the past month. Post Rock band Decoder Ring return with their fifth album They Blind The Stars and the Wild Team, with their sonically charged dreamscapes including the majestic song Charlotte Rampling. Sarah Blasko's third album As Day Follows Night continues to impress me after several listens. Lisa Mitchell’s debut album Wonder, released yesterday proves that genuinely original talent can emerge from the Idol juggernaut, which usually settles for commercial mediocrity.


The other two albums were released last year and have emerged to me as late discoveries. Lior’s sophomore album Corner of an Endless Road, is an example of both fine folk music and superb songwriting talent. Sia’s latest album Some People Have Real Problems also displays these same characteristics and brings her blues infused jazz vocals to the forefront.

While each may get occasional play through Triple J, they will once again revert to their tried and true traditional radio station format, albeit with an Australian focus. Think of it as Triple M for the hipster wanker. Kings of Leon, the White Stripes and Powderfinger will still dominate those airwaves no matter how hard Triple J listeners pretend otherwise, just like its cousin a few letters down the alphabet.

It is why I will never be patriotic about the Australian music industry, despite a few diamonds emerging from the rough. May FM radio and industry awards die a gruesome and bloody death while I discover these buried treasures.