All posts tagged the-weekend-australian

  • The Weekend Australian book reviews, December 2016

    I reviewed 10 books for The Weekend Australian in 2016. Most of them were very good, but my review of the book I enjoyed most – published in August – is included in full below.

    Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing by Matthew G. Kirschenbaum

    In this outstanding book, Matthew G. Kirschenbaum decodes the relationship writers have had with word processing technology since the literary world began to shift from typewriters to the personal computer. If this subject matter sounds dry, happily it is anything but in the pages of Track Changes. Kirschenbaum, associate professor of English at the University of Maryland, takes on the topic with depth and an accessible prose style. The result should have broad appeal to a general readership and be of special interest to writers, for there is much here to excite the literary-minded.

    Kirschenbaum opens by referencing one of the pop cultural touchstones of our time: Game of Thrones — or, more specifically, A Song of Ice and Fire, the fantasy novels by American author George RR Martin on which the popular television series is based. As he told a talk show host in 2014, Martin chooses to write his books on a DOS-era computer with no internet connection, using an ancient program called WordStar. Describing this combination as his “secret weapon”, owing to its lack of distraction and isolation from any threat of a computer virus, the author also credits WordStar with his long-running productivity.

    By opening with the work habits of a megaselling author and then travelling back in time, chapter by chapter, to the emerging typewriter-based storage technology of the late 1960s, Kirschenbaum eases the reader into a dazzlingly rich and absorbing history. It is fascinating to note the reluctance with which computer-based word processing was first viewed by the publishing industry. Some writers were so wary of being outed as early adopters that they chose not to disclose their new toys to their employers, or even went to the lengths of having their finished manuscripts rewritten using typewriters before submission.

    Although screen size and small memory capacities caused early concerns and frustrations, it was not long before science-fiction writers, in particular, thrilled to the ability to gain greater control over their text, as well as being freed from the tedium of retyping work. Kirschenbaum quotes a Harvard physicist who came to a realisation in the early 80s: “We all knew computers were coming, but what astonishes us is it’s not the scientists but the word people who have taken them up first.”

    Once bestselling writers such as Stephen King, Isaac Asimov and Terry Pratchett adopted word processors and publicly noted the significant improvements in their productivity, it seemed there would be no turning back. As the technology matured, computers and their inner workings became a source of inspiration for writers, too: the likes of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, which popularised the word ‘‘cyberspace’’, for example.

    Track Changes is based on five years of research and the author’s academic bent can be seen in the 80 pages of detailed notes that follow the narrative text, but never in the prose itself. This is a remarkable achievement. For a project that seems geared toward stuffiness, Kirschenbaum’s writing sparkles with well-chosen anecdotes and a keen sense of humour.

    His enthusiasm for the topic is palpable. After a section profiling thriller author James Patterson, whose occasional media nickname is ‘‘The Word Processor’’ — owing to his prodigious output, produced alongside a half-dozen close collaborators — he wonders what type of technology The Word Processor himself runs. “Surely it must be a mighty one!” Kirschenbaum suggests, before revealing the answer: “He works his stacks of manuscripts longhand. How perfect is that?”

    For the author, this subject is intertwined with his own experiences as a writer, naturally enough. It is dedicated to his parents, “who brought home an Apple”, and he notes in the preface that the book itself was written “mostly in [Microsoft] Word, on a couple of small, lightweight laptops”. The book is named for the incredibly helpful feature in Word that allows readers to see the revision history and minute variations between different versions of documents during the editing process. The origin of this feature is only addressed directly in the final chapter, where Kirschenbaum also writes:

    “Writers live with and within their word processors, and thus with and within the system’s logics and constraints — these themselves become part of the daily lived experience of the writers’ working hours, as predictable and proximate as the squeak of a chair or that certain shaft of sunlight that makes its way across the room.”

    As that illustrates, the author has a way with words, not just an appreciation for how they are processed. The final paragraph is a thing of immense beauty, too, and may bring a tear to the eye of anyone who has sat and watched as fingertip pressure applied to a keyboard instantly became words processed on a screen.

    I also reviewed the below books for The Weekend Australian in 2016. They are listed in chronological order, with the publication date noted in brackets.


  • The Weekend Australian album reviews, December 2016

    I reviewed 14 albums for The Weekend Australian in 2016. Many of them were great, but the only five-star rating I awarded was to the below album, which was released in April. The full review follows.

    Halfway – The Golden Halfway Record

    It makes sense that artists get better with age, for with age comes experience and thus a greater palette of colours with which to paint becomes available. Yet in popular music — in rock ’n’ roll especially — the common narrative arc is for young bands to burn brightly with their early releases before eventually losing some of the energy, hunger and joy that brought them together to make music in the first place.

    There are exceptions to this trend, of course, and Brisbane band Halfway is one of them. The Golden Halfway Record is the fifth album that this eight-piece band has released, and it is the third album in six years on which the band has exceeded its own high standards. Any Old Love earned 4½ stars on this page in 2014; it was a near-perfect collection of songs that prompted me to describe Halfway as one of Australia’s best rock bands.

    And after careful consideration I can only conclude that this album is perfect, and that there can be no doubt that Halfway is among a handful of the most talented and consistent acts in operation. It’s a major statement to make about a band that most Queenslanders haven’t heard of, yet alone those who live in the country’s south and west, but all of the evidence can be heard in this sensational 11-song set.

    Book-ended by a dramatic intro and outro, The Golden Halfway Record offers yet another significant stylistic leap for the performers and particularly for the primary songwriters, guitarists John Busby and Chris Dale. The progression from 2010’s An Outpost of Promise to Any Old Love was pleasing and commendable, but this is something else. Heard here is a band at the peak of its powers, to use a critics’ cliche, yet the most scarily impressive aspect of this ascent is that the octet may have only just passed base camp. One can only imagine the summit Halfway yet could reach.

    The trouble with writing, recording and releasing a perfect album, of course, is that the task becomes even harder next time. But that’s for the band to worry about, not us. We listeners get the pleasure of living inside such exquisitely crafted rock songs. The album as a whole is so well plotted and paced that to pick single moments feels barely adequate, but to name just one, fifth track ‘Welcome Enemy’ is a new high-water mark.

    It pulses with an effortless wisdom and depth that belies how hard it is to write music so affecting with the same old ingredients available to every rock band in the world. From front to back, The Golden Halfway Record is exactly what its title describes. It arrives with the highest possible recommendation, and an insistence that if you’ve ever enjoyed the combination of guitars, bass, drums, keys and vocals, you simply must hear this.

    I also reviewed the below albums for The Weekend Australian in 2016. They are listed in chronological order, with the publication date and my rating noted in brackets.


  • The Weekend Australian book reviews, December 2015

    I reviewed a handful of books for The Weekend Australian in 2015. Most of them were very good, but my review of the book I enjoyed most – published in November – is included in full below.

    The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships by Neil Strauss

    'The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships' book cover by Neil Strauss, reviewed in The Australian by Andrew McMillen, 2015In the opening pages of Neil Strauss’s 2007 book The Rules Of The Game, the dedication reads: “To your mother and father. Feel free to blame them for everything that’s wrong with you, but don’t forget to give them credit for everything that’s right.”

    Eight years later, Strauss — an American author who came to prominence as a journalist for Rolling Stone and The New York Times — has published The Truth, which is dedicated to his own mother and father. “They say a parent’s­ love is unconditional,” he writes. “Let’s hope that’s still true after you read this book.”

    The Truth comes a decade after The Game, which tracked his journey from dateless no-hoper into master ‘‘pick-up artist’’. The multi-million seller is often maligned and mis­understood as a manual for dateless no-hopers looking for cheat sheets on how to attract the opposite sex, yet The Game is a powerful narrative of transformation which ends with Strauss giving away single life after finding love.

    This new book begins with Strauss cheating on his girlfriend — a different woman to the one he met at the end of The Game. What follows­ is a thorough exploration of the inside of his skull, and how his behaviour toward women has been shaped by his parents’ toxic relationship: a hypercritical, overprotective mother and an aloof, distant father who spent his whole life browbeaten by his wife. It’s a superb­ set-up to a long book, which quickly becomes a compulsive read powered by questions of how Strauss can escape his warped childhood and regain the trust of his scorned partner.

    The narrative covers four tumultuous years of Strauss’s life, through sex addiction therapy and a temporary reconciliation with his partner, followed by the supposed freedom of alternative relationships, such as an attempt to live with three sexual partners concurrently. He is aware of how this all sounds to anyone familiar with The Game: he encounters a man at sex addiction therapy who points out that “a book about learning how to meet women is destructive, and a book about learning how to stop meeting them would be good for the world. And ironic”.

    What sells the story is Strauss’s writing, which is never less than engaging, and frequently­ funny, heartfelt, or both. His observ­ations are astute and poignant: when attending a conference for polyamorists — people with more than one lover — and feeling awkward around a bunch of naked strangers, he notes: “Loneliness is holding in a joke because you have no one to share it with.”

    Like The Game, The Truth might be miscateg­orised under ‘‘self help’’ in bookstores, because the questions Strauss grapples with are universal: how to find love, maintain a relationship, and manage sexual attraction to others without jeopardising what you have built with your partner. Like his past few books, it is written in a first-person perspective, yet the lessons he learns during his journey can be understood and appreciated by many. This is a clever gambit­, and part of the reason that his writing appeals widely, as any attempt to directly instruct­ the reader would dampen its impact.

    Throughout the book, Rick Rubin — a famousl­y bearded record producer who has worked with many great musicians, from Jay-Z to Slayer — pops up as both wise counsel and exasperated onlooker to the author’s behaviour. Similarly, a therapist Strauss meets while being treated for sex addiction provides regular guidance and perspective, and occasionally she and Rubin appear in the same scene. All of the characters Strauss draws are three-dimensional and believable, including a few fellow sex addicts who have their own dysfunctional relationships and attitudes toward faithfulness.

    The two individuals who come under the most scrutiny are the author’s parents, however — hence the dubious dedication at the book’s beginning. Now 46, Strauss has been trying his whole life to please his strict, punishing mother, who frequently confided in her son how much she hated her husband. During therapy, he discovers that there’s a name for this sort of thing, where a mother is emotionally dependent on a child and has intimate discussions that should be had with a spouse: emotional incest.

    Learning that his mother wants to be in a relation­ship with him blows Strauss’s mind, naturally, but also helps him to understand why he’s been unable to live in a healthy, long-term relationship. The toxic environment in which he was raised coloured his romantic experiences in adolescence and adulthood. He became more dysfunctional after learning how to seduce­ women in his 30s.

    “My whole life, I’ve been fighting against love for my freedom,” he realises at about page 300. “No wonder I’ve never been married, engaged­, or even had a love that didn’t wane after the initial infatuation period.”

    Strauss is an incisive writer, and his struggle in these pages has to have been the toughest assignme­nt he’s ever taken on. It’s certainly his best and most important work to date. “For me, the best way to understand what actually transpired in any given situation is to write about it until the truth emerges,” he notes at one point. Writing this book can’t have been easy, yet the real genius of his work is the multiple layers at which he engages the reader.

    Just as The Game is often misunderstood as a straightforward seduction guide, The Truth could be misrepresented by those who seek to pursue alternative sexual relationships. As with the book he published a decade ago, though, the destination is more important than the journey, and where Strauss finds himself at the end is a much happier place than where he began.

    I also reviewed the below books for The Weekend Australian in 2015. They are listed in chronological order, with the publication date noted in brackets.


  • The Weekend Australian album reviews, December 2015

    I reviewed 15 albums for The Weekend Australian in 2015. Many of them were great, but the only five-star rating I awarded was to the below album, which was released in early August. The full review follows.


    HEALTH - 'DEATH MAGIC' album cover, reviewed by Andrew McMillen in The Weekend Australian, 2015That this Los Angeles-based electronic pop quartet insists on capitalising all of its song and album titles speaks to the confronting nature of the music it creates. DEATH MAGIC is the group’s third album, and its best: a futuristic and immersive marriage of electronic beats and pop sensibilities. Its style on previous records was rooted in the abrasive repetition of noise rock, and while that scaffolding remains in place, HEALTH has spent the six years since its last album, GET COLOR, perfecting an aesthetic which is entirely its own.

    Since 2009, the quartet has composed an eerie, atmospheric score for a popular video game, Max Payne 3, and according to an interview published on Pitchfork in April, they “made this record like four times”. The rewrites were well worth it.

    This is among the most vital and exciting albums to be released in any genre in any year. It is a masterpiece of staggering depth and immediacy. Each track pulses with energy and the optimism of youth, yet its overarching lyrical theme is an obsession with the end of life: “We die / So what?” sings guitarist Jake Duzsik on fourth track ‘FLESH WORLD (UK)’. “We’re here / Let go,” he intones atop an insistent backbeat and snippets of warped, metallic squalls.

    Wedged among the unrelenting darkness are two anomalously poppy tracks, ‘DARK ENOUGH’ and ‘LIFE’, which appear back-to-back in the middle of the set list. “Does it make a difference if it’s real / As long as I still say ‘I love you’?” sings Duzsik on the former track, while on the latter he reflects, “Life is strange / We die, and we don’t know why”.

    For a bunch of guys in their early 30s, this preoccupation with death is curious, but as fuel for their art, clearly it has been a boon. The mood that surrounds these themes is far more ebullient than funereal. In acknowledging its mortality rather than denying it, HEALTH seems to have replaced existential anxiety with self-confidence. First single ‘NEW COKE’ is the album’s darkest arrangement, wherein Duzsik’s ethereal vocals state a mantra (“Life is good”) that’s offset by waves of engrossing electronic distortion, like a plane crashing in slow motion. In the middle of the track, there are a couple of brief moments of silence, before the diabolical noise returns anew.

    Stylistic decisions such as these are perhaps influenced by the notion of “the drop” in electronic dance music: compulsive snatches of anticipated euphoria which spur the mind and body into action. DEATH MAGIC is a tough album to categorise: half pop, half electronica and wholly immersive, it is the sound of four singular musicians mining a rich, untapped vein of material. Defiantly, proudly, this band sounds like no other in existence. What HEALTH has come up with here is a towering achievement best played very, very loud.

    I also reviewed the below albums for The Weekend Australian in 2015. They are listed in chronological order, with the publication date and my rating noted in brackets.


  • The Weekend Australian book reviews: Joel Meares and Liam Pieper, May 2015

    Two books reviewed for The Weekend Australian in a single article, which is republished below in its entirety.

    Sex and drugs and on a roll

    'We're All Going To Die' book cover by Joel Meares, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, May 2015Genuine candour is one of the most difficult emotions to capture in any form of human communication, writing included. There seems little point in committing to write a memoir if not to tell the whole truth and nothing less.

    This is especially so for young writers, whose ambition and urgency to impress by sharing their innermost secrets has become something of a cliche in an era of online ‘‘oversharing’’. Walking the line between tiresome navel-gazing and insightful, rewarding revelations is tough, but with his debut book Sydney writer Joel Meares succeeds with style.

    In his job as arts editor of The Sydney ­Morning Herald, 30-year-old Meares acts as a cultural gatekeeper, deciding who and what is worthy of coverage. In We’re All Going to Die, his astute editing skills are on display across 10 personal essays that illuminate his early life and formative experiences as a young adult. There are ­occasional asides to his professional career but, by and large, Meares uses the book as a vehicle to examine his intertwined paths as a writer, son, friend, horror-film enthusiast and gay man.

    It is on this last path that he is at his ­strongest, through two central chapters that draw the book into stark focus. The first ­concerns Meares slowly coming to terms with his homosexuality in his 20s, after denying it constantly throughout his childhood and adolescence. One section, in particular, ­provoked a sharp intake of breath, when ­Meares writes that he denied his homosexuality because

    … being gay is something you grow up knowing is bad. It’s not just the ‘‘that’s so gay’’ shit of playgrounds, it’s that being gay, the very idea of it, is ingrained as something ‘‘other’’ — it’s still the go-to pressure point when you really want to take a young bloke out right at the knees.

    I’m sad to say that these sentences rang true for me, as someone a few years younger than Meares who has only relatively recently become aware of the gravity of these types of insults. It is insights such as this for which We’re All Going to Die is strongly recommended, as Meares is clearly a man with something to say and ample ability with which to say it. The chapter that immediately follows, titled So Is Dad, concerns his father’s coming out and it is beautifully and sensitively written.

    Elsewhere, Meares writes of his brief but intense enthusiasm for ecstasy and cocaine. “In Subway sandwich terms, I’ve never been a six-inch man — it’s always been a footlong or nothing,” he writes. “With jalapenos.” This dalliance culminates in panic attacks and several visits to the emergency room, capped with a stern warning from medical professionals that some people just can’t handle their drugs. “Drugs scared me once because they were ‘bad’; they scare me now because they are bad for me,” he concludes.

    The essay on drug use is rooted in a feature story Meares wrote years ago about Sydney’s cocaine scene, and the same is true of his chapter on paruresis, or ‘‘bashful bladder’’ syndrome, which grew out of a 2012 article for Good Weekend magazine. In that story, Meares proved himself a willing comic foil for a serious topic by admitting he had long struggled to ­urinate anywhere but in a closed toilet cubicle. It’s fascinating, this psychological quirk that caused many men embarrassment and inner pain when faced with shared urinal situations, such as at music festivals, yet Meares handles it with good humour and grace.

    'Mistakes Were Made' book cover by Liam Pieper, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, May 2015Slightly more embarrassing than being unable to piss in the presence of other men is the act of hugging a pony in northern NSW and unknowingly picking up a tick that burrows its way into the back of one’s skull, towards the brainstem, and breeds. This simple transaction — a hug for a tick — becomes near-fatal for Melbourne writer Liam Pieper, who contracted a bacterial infection that disabled the lymph nodes on one side of his body, partially paralysing him and coming dangerously close to entering his brain. This took place while Pieper was visiting the cannabis countercultural hub of Nimbin. He was on assignment as a freelance journalist, researching a story for an unnamed “Very Important Magazine”. He ended up filing a 15,000-word story that was three times longer than the magazine requested, written under the disorienting effects of the arachnid’s neurotoxins. The “tick-addled gibberish” was spiked by his editor and the writer nearly died.

    This sequence of events isn’t funny. Or at least it shouldn’t be. But the way Pieper contextualises it is very funny indeed. This opening essay, Catching the Spirit, is one of four that comprise Mistakes Were Made, a breezy and compelling read that exhibits Pieper’s hilarious, dark way of observing and interpreting the world around him.

    The central narrative thread through these four stories is the writing, publication and promotion of Pieper’s memoir, The Feel-Good Hit of the Year, released last year, where he wrote about his experiences as a teenage drug dealer, including the time he sold cannabis to his parents. “What I didn’t understand then is that the first angle to a story to come out tends to be the one that stays around,” he writes. “My folks got a little pot off me once, and that would be the defining narrative of my life for the foreseeable future.”

    With this little book, Pieper builds a strong case for redefining his narrative post-memoir: the other essays concern contrasting racial prejudices in Australia and the US, being stopped at Customs by Los Angeles airport and queried on his drug history, and his brief adoption of a dog named Idiot Geoffrey. His writing is electric: charged with meaning and energised by surprising comedic turns. Between Meares and ­Pieper, there’s not a trace of tiresome navel-gazing; instead, true candour abounds.

    Andrew McMillen is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist and author of Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs.

    We’re All Going to Die (Especially Me)
    By Joel Meares
    Black Inc, 210pp, $27.99

    Mistakes Were Made
    By Liam Pieper
    Penguin Specials, 67pp, $9.99

  • The Weekend Australian book review: ‘The Abyssinian Contortionist’ by David Carlin, May 2015

    A book review for The Weekend Australian in May 2015, republished below in its entirety.

    The Abyssinian Contortionist: biography of a circus performer

    Book cover for 'The Abyssinian Contortionist: Hope, Friendship and Other Circus Acts' by David Carlin, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, May 2015A biography written across several years in real-time, in the immersive style of narrative non­fiction, The Abyssinian Contortionist is a book as striking and memorable as its cover art. Its author, Melbourne-based writer and teacher David Carlin, charts the course of his friendship with a circus performer named Sosina Wogayehu, who was born in Ethiopia, visited Australia as a teenager in the late 1990s, and has lived and worked here since.

    It feels strange to summarise Wogayehu in a sentence as stark as that, however, as hers is a story of such emotional depth and complexity that it is certainly deserving of a book-length narrative. In Carlin, we have a narrator of rare honesty and bald self-doubt. On numerous occasions he makes clear to the reader that this story was written in close collaboration with its subject: he writes of poring over early drafts of the manuscript with Wogayehu, taking in her feedback and sharpening his prose accordingly.

    At one point, while visiting an Ethiopian locale of special significance, he writes, “I look across at Sosina relaxing in the cool air, chewing on her lunch. ‘Do you think this is where the book should end?’ I ask her.” (The answer is self-evident, as the story continues for another 10 pages.)

    This meta, self-reflexive style of writing easily could have been a gimmick, and quickly tiresome, but from the outset it is clear Carlin is a master storyteller who is well-equipped for the challenge of capturing the life of a woman about whose culture, at the outset, he knows practically nothing. The subject of The Abyssinian Contortionist is clearly a remarkable person of unusual social mobility and ability, yet Carlin manages to navigate the high-wire act of astute observation without falling into hagiography.

    Wogayehu’s story begins in her birthplace, the national capital of Addis Ababa, where the eight-year-old entrepreneur earns pocket money by selling single cigarettes to passers-by each afternoon after school. (This fact alone speaks volumes of her canny character.) Life in Ethiopia is tough, and although her father has a job at a local brewery and her mother runs a combined hotel, restaurant and cafe attached to the family home, their means are limited. Sosina teaches herself how to bend her body into seemingly impossible shapes by watching a weekly German variety show on the only television station in the land, and it is in the family lounge room that her career as a contortionist and circus performer takes root.

    So she joined Circus Ethiopia, a group that performed on Broadway in New York, in London and Europe, and in Australia. A scandal erupted within the ranks of the performers, who were disturbed by their exploitation, financial and sexual, during a visit to our shores. The man at the centre of subsequent charges, Marc LaChance, committed suicide after confessing his sins of pedophilia. A splinter group of 15 performers, mostly teenagers, fled Circus Ethiopia seeking humanitarian asylum from the Australian government, which eventually relented by agreeing that Sosina and her friends could stay.

    It was while working as a director for Circus Oz — “among trapeze bars and tightwire walkers”, as he puts it — that Carlin crossed paths with the young performer, who had recently graduated from the Australian national circus school. As he notes at the beginning, he was drawn to make a book “that traced the contours of the gap” between the two of them. Carlin states early in the piece that he was also looking to write about something other than himself, having published his acclaimed debut in 2010, Our Father Who Wasn’t There, about his father’s suicide when Carlin was six months old, and his resultant search for paternal figures.

    This story, however, would have been a far less compelling read if it were a straight biography, as Carlin-as-narrator is present throughout its telling. His regular asides are by turns poignant and comedic, as the narrative smartly jumps between reconstructed scenes from the past and first-person observations in the present without jarring the reader. This is quite a skill, and it is one of Carlin’s chief achievements here, as the book was written across several years and includes two visits to Ethiopia. The closing chapters see Carlin tagging along to his subject’s home town following a death in the family, where he is allowed the rare privilege of bearing witness to the startlingly wide-screen, surround-sound manner in which Ethiopians mourn and grieve. In these scenes, Carlin’s fish-out-of-water presence — as a tall white guy among a sea of dark skin — is never clearer, and his insights into this foreign culture are many and worthy. Throughout The Abyssinian Contortionist, his writing is so crisp and vivid that, on reading its final pages, I felt a deep satisfaction and a longing for more.

    Andrew McMillen is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist and author of Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs.

    The Abyssinian Contortionist: Hope, Friendship and Other Circus Acts
    By David Carlin
    UWA Publishing, 244pp, $29.99

  • The Weekend Australian album review, February 2015: Pearls

    A review published in The Weekend Australian in February 2015.

    Pearls – Pretend You’re Mine

    Pearls – 'Pretend You're Mine' album cover, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, February 2015The best moment of Pretend You’re Mine is a lead guitar break that appears towards the end of track seven, ‘Baby’. It’s an extraordinary 30-second passage that breaks the song wide open, changing keys while also providing crystal-clear context to what this Melbourne-based trio attempts to achieve on its debut album.

    Pearls trades in glam rock, according to publicity materials accrued since forming in 2011, yet that loaded term arrives with significant baggage attached and should be shelved in favour of keeping a few distinctive traits in mind: shared male-female vocals, uniformly sharp songwriting and a refined aesthetic best exemplified by the album cover, which features two-thirds of the band in soft focus beneath artful fonts.

    Pretend You’re Mine is a self-assured collection. The aforementioned ‘Baby’ is an instant classic pop song built around clattering percussion, lock-step guitars, lovestruck vocals and a few root keyboard chords that burble away, low in the mix. It’s breathtaking in its simplicity and efficacy and, like all great music, it belies the difficulties of the craft itself.

    Elsewhere, ‘Dirty Water’ is stalked by an unhinged, distorted lead guitar tone that’s indebted to a generation of shoegaze practitioners, and opener ‘Big Shot’ pivots on a strutting bassline and menacing gang vocals that mimic the guitar melody. It all ends with the propulsive title track, which slowly fades out and begs for the entire experience to be repeated. Debut albums as great as Pretend You’re Mine are rare; they deserve to be applauded and savoured.

    LABEL: Dot Dash/Remote Control
    RATING: 4.5 stars

  • The Weekend Australian book review: ‘Something Quite Peculiar’ by Steve Kilbey, January 2015

    A book review for The Weekend Australian in January 2015, republished below in its entirety.

    Steve Kilbey’s rock memoir offers juicy details of The Church days

    'Something Quite Peculiar' by Steve Kilbey book cover, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, January 2015Steve Kilbey’s rock ’n’ roll memoir Something Quite Peculiar is a book best described using the adjective of its title, as the abrupt and unfulfilling closing chapters are completely out of sync with the generous story that comes before. What starts as an entertaining and informative autobiography by one of Australia’s most idiosyncratic musicians peters out and leaves the reader frustrated by what could have been.

    Surely this can’t have been a stylistic decision on the author’s part, as much of the 1980s, the most commercially successful period of Kilbey’s band The Church, are coloured in vivid ­detail and powered by strong narrative momentum. Rather the book’s incomplete nature suggests a writer up against a hard deadline. Fans are sure to be disappointed that the more recent years of Kilbey’s life flash by in too few pages.

    The positives of this book are many, most notably the author’s wry self-awareness and his ability to tell stories. From the opening pages it’s clear we’re in safe hands. Born in Hertfordshire, England, Kilbey was three when his family moved to Australia.

    They settled in Wollongong, where his ­father was a foreman and his mother worked in an insurance office. Their eldest son soon found a taste for attention-seeking — or, as he puts it, “an incredibly precocious pretentiousness was beginning to manifest in spades: an intrinsic desire to perform and be rewarded”.

    In early high school, in the Canberra suburb of Lyneham, he saw a live band for the first time at a school social and saw his future: “I felt implicitly that my place was up on the stage making the music, not down there dancing around.”

    Kilbey’s vast musical IQ thus began developing at age 16, when he opted for a bass guitar instead of its more popular six-string cousin, and began learning his favourite songs by ear. Soon he joined a popular local covers band named Saga. This plum gig earned him almost as much as his father was making, but more importantly Kilbey could play close to 1000 songs by the end of his 18-month tenure.

    These scenes from Kilbey’s youth are written in an easy, conversational style. Richly drawn and compelling, his story is buttressed by plenty of comic self-deprecation and wry foreshadowing for the international rock star he’d become.

    Over the years, much has been made in the music press of the fractious, fraught relationship between members of the Church, a band that has achieved much in its 34-year career and is still recording. Things didn’t begin well when Kilbey enlisted a former schoolyard bully to play drums in the band’s first incarnation. Nor, decades later, when the tedious nature of months-long world tours spent in close confines with the same handful of men would eventually lead to tantrums, sabotaged gigs and mid-tour walkouts.

    Kilbey identifies himself as the ultimate self-saboteur, however, when he tries heroin for the first time in 1991, at age 37, and subsequently loses the next 11 years of his life to addiction. Fittingly, these final chapters take a dark turn, and the frivolous, funny narrator is replaced by a man filled with pain and regret. “It’s quite an upheaval to write much of the story from here on in,” he notes on page 250. “It doesn’t come lightly or pleasantly like the earlier chapters: each memory fills me with shame and revulsion and sadness in differing amounts.”

    Fair enough. The book’s final 20 pages are some of its most interesting and insightful, devoted as they are to describing and analysing this period of Kilbey’s life. However, it’s a cop-out that the third-last paragraph in the book begins, “So I left Sweden in 2000 for a couple of years in America after having met an American girl on tour in 1999, and had another pair of twins.” What? It is bizarre that these seemingly key moments in his life are reduced to a flippant sentence in the closing pages. (We learn in the outro that Kilbey’s first pair of twin daughters, Elektra and Miranda, are musicians in a Swedish pop duo named Say Lou Lou — another interesting admission left way too late.)

    Perhaps cursory dismissals such as these are intended to highlight the egocentric and self-obsessed nature of the author, traits which Kilbey readily acknowledges. But the absence of any detail of his more recent years — besides a brief opening scene at the 2010 ARIA Hall of Fame induction ceremony, and a closing scene at a 2011 Sydney Opera House show — leaves a sour taste. For all the space devoted to discussing songwriting techniques, killer live shows and the importance of strong encores, what’s most peculiar of all is that this fascinating story ends on such a weak note.

    Andrew McMillen is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist and author of Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs.

    Something Quite Peculiar: Man of The Church. The Music. The Mayhem.
    By Steve Kilbey.
    Hardie Grant, 272pp, $29.95

    Further reading: an extract from my book Talking Smack featuring Steve Kilbey.

  • The Weekend Australian album review, December 2014: The Gin Club

    A review published in The Weekend Australian in December 2014.

    The Gin Club – Southern Lights

    The Gin Club – 'Southern Lights' album cover reviewed in The Australian, December 2014With five albums in an 11-year career, this Brisbane folk-rock collective is at the peak of its powers. Southern Lights completes a trilogy of essential recordings that began in 2008 with Junk, a two-disc epic; this was followed by an even stronger release in 2010’s Deathwish. Here, we’re treated to 10 tracks attributed to seven songwriters. Quality control remains enviably high, as there’s not a dud among the track list. Comprising nine distinctive musicians, this band has never tasted the fruits of mainstream success.

    It is an unwieldy and expensive group to tour. Positioned on the fringes of the independent rock scene, not particularly fashionable and with its members a few years past their youth, the Gin Club is a difficult prospect for the music media to cover. Its unbending pursuit of songwriting perfection is admirable, however, and with Southern Lights these nine players inch closer to this goal.

    From the bustling rock ‘n’ roll of Adrian Stoyles’s title track and Scott Regan’s ‘Alcatraz’ to the tentative, laconic vocals of Conor Macdonald’s two tracks, ‘Capricornia’ and ‘Proud Donkey’, every song here hammers home the breadth and depth of this group’s talent.

    That this release is seeing the light of day more than 18 months after it was recorded in April last year speaks to the eternal question faced by independent artists the world over: how to support a passion alongside a career? Long may the Gin Club continue to alternately write in isolation and, when financially feasible, join forces to share its wonderful music with the world. Southern Lights, like the two albums that preceded it, is simply too good to remain unheard.

    LABEL: Plus One Records
    RATING: 4.5 stars

  • The Weekend Australian album reviews, November 2014: Jack Ladder, Black Cab, Lia Mice, Bertie Blackman

    Four reviews published in The Weekend Australian in November 2014.

    Jack Ladder & The Dreamlanders – Playmates

    Jack Ladder & The Dreamlanders – 'Playmates' album cover reviewed in The Australian, November 2014Jack 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.

    LABEL: Self-Portrait/Inertia
    RATING: 4 stars


    Black Cab – Games of the XXI Olympiad

    Black Cab – 'Games of the XXI Olympiad' album cover reviewed in The Australian, November 2014A 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

    Lia Mice – 'I Love You' album cover reviewed in The Australian, October 2014Born 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

    Bertie Blackman – 'The Dash' album cover reviewed in The Australian, October 2014For 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.

    LABEL: Warner
    RATING: 4 stars