Four reviews published in The Weekend Australian in November 2014.
Jack Ladder & The Dreamlanders – Playmates
Jack Ladder’s slow-spoken deep baritone adds drama to everything he says. Only occasionally does this po-faced delivery backfire, when a questionable simile leaves his mouth, as on ‘Let Me Love You’: “I need you like a miner needs his torch in the dark.” Ladder’s excellent band the Dreamlanders — Kirin J. Callinan (guitar), Laurence Pike (drums) and Donny Benet (bass) — demonstrates an increased interest in electronic sounds, most notably on second track ‘Her Hands’, propelled by synthesised bass and layered percussion.
Ladder’s voice sits strongly in this mix. It’s a nice evolution from the rock instrumentation that coloured the Blue Mountains-based singer’s previous release, 2011’s Hurtsville. ‘Model Worlds’ pivots on Benet’s busy bassline; Callinan’s violent electric guitar tone drives ‘Neon Blue’ and ‘Reputation Amputation’. American singer Sharon Van Etten lends her voice to the opening track, ‘Come On Back This Way’, as well as ‘To Keep and to Be Kept’. The only misstep is at the end: if the dreary ‘Slow Boat to China’ had been lopped off, Playmates would have been uniformly strong.
RATING: 4 stars
Black Cab – Games of the XXI Olympiad
A thrilling artistic vision based on sporting achievement, Games of the XXI Olympiad is an album unlike any other. It’s the fourth LP in 10 years by Melbourne rock band Black Cab, whose immersive, stadium-ready sound was last heard on 2009’s excellent Call Signs. This time the band has ditched the electric guitars in favour of electronic sequencing, synthesisers and percussion, and the result is its best work yet.
It’s a concept album based on the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympic Games, where doped-up East Germans topped the medal count and no Australian won gold. Seventy minutes long and bookended by tracks named for the opening and closing ceremonies, its first proper song is a 10-minute long rave-up “tribute to performance-enhanced swimming”, according to the publicity material.
Elsewhere, another upbeat track is named for Kornelia Ender, who won four goal medals in Montreal. If all this sounds like a bizarre obsession for a few blokes from Melbourne, keep in mind that their first album, 2004’s Altamont Diary, was based on the Rolling Stones’ disastrous free concert in 1969.
Principal songwriters Andrew Coates and James Lee are clearly fond of drawing inspiration from historical events, and what they’ve achieved here is masterful. The German-centric themes are solidified through the inclusion of earlier singles ‘Sexy Polizei’ and ‘Combat Boots’, while the euphoric mood of ‘Go Slow’ is the singular highlight.
LABEL: Interstate 40/Remote Control
RATING: 4.5 stars
Lia Mice – I Love You
Born in Cairns, Queensland, and based in Lyon, France, Eleanor “Lia” Mice spent her 20s immersed in Brooklyn’s noise-punk scene. Her second album, I Love You, betrays little of this life experience, however: these are short, sharp pop songs backed by bass, keyboards, synthesisers and electronic percussion. The overall tempo is higher than what was heard on her 2012 debut, Happy New Year. The album comprises nine tracks at a touch under 30 minutes, and there are some compelling ideas here, though on repeated listens it reveals itself as somewhat one-dimensional.
Mice’s vocals are invariably delivered slowly and treated with reverb, which lends an ethereal and nostalgic glow to her style. The highlight is the middle track, ‘All the Birds’, a down-tempo number that revolves around a memorable chorus hook: “Flip the record over / Play it at the wrong speed / Dance a little slower”. There’s beauty in simplicity here: the song arrangements are unhurried and barely evolve in the space of two to four minutes.
The real strength of this work lies in Mice’s vocal and instrumental melodies, however. The closing minute of ‘Saint-Malo’ finds her ascending and descending scales beautifully; it would have been nice to hear more moments like this. Fans of electronica-influenced pop acts such as M83 and Crystal Castles will find plenty to enjoy here; there are shades of the latter act in the pitch-shifted vocals and pulsating synth line that drive the opening track and first single ‘Our Heavy Heart’. Mice is a skilled songwriter with a clear sense of her abilities, and I Love You is a commendable entry in the canon of experimental pop.
LABEL: Rice is Nice/Inertia
RATING: 3.5 stars
Bertie Blackman – The Dash
For her fifth album, Melbourne-based singer-songwriter Bertie Blackman has changed her approach to the craft: rather than writing solo, she enlisted the help of fellow pop brains including Julian Hamilton (the Presets) and John Castle (Megan Washington) in a series of short recording sessions.
The result is The Dash, a kinetic set of nine songs that together form Blackman’s strongest and most accessible work. It’s a perfectly weighted collection that begins with the elegant synth lines and call-and-response vocal hook of first single ‘Run for Your Life’, and flashes out half an hour later with the frenetic backbeat of ‘War of One’. The instrumentation surrounding these songs builds on the synth-pop beds that were heard on 2009’s Secrets and Lies and 2012’s Pope Innocent X, a pair of excellent pop albums.
Blackman is stretching her vocal limits on these choruses, but has never sounded better, and neither has her sense of melody. On the album’s one tender moment, ‘Darker Days’, she is accompanied by little more than a palm-muted electric guitar — a stark contrast to the dancefloor-ready numbers heard elsewhere; but this track is her singular vocal highlight, and one that demands repeated listens.
Brevity is often an asset in pop music, but the sheer strength of The Dash leads one to wonder whether the singer had a few extra tricks up her sleeve that could have bolstered the set list. Regardless, there’s wisdom in this decision: better to release a great short album than a longer one that’s merely good.
RATING: 4 stars