The John Steel Singers : Tangalooma
The term ‘summer soundtrack’ irks me to tears. It clings rather pointlessly to the frivolous perception that summer is merely an indulgence in carefree abandonment and frolicking jubilation while purporting that the music is somehow more relevant as a result of that fleeting feeling. Great music is never exclusively associated with a single mood.
To their credit, The John Steel Singers – for the most part – seem to understand this. The Brisbane band’s debut album may be entitled Tangalooma – an ode to the pristine Queensland bay area while appealing to their music’s otherworldly, tropical and idyllic lilt – but the record’s splendour lies in its less apparent facets.
Lead vocalist/guitarist Tim Morrissey realises mid-way through the opener, Your Favourite Perversion, that describing someone as his “favourite perversion” is unequivocally disturbing – and possibly arrest-worthy – which leads to his concession that “All I really want / Is someone to call mine / A mutual desire”. It’s a slightly off-kilter percussive-pop ditty that draws the listener into the sextet’s quirky, creative pop nous. By the second track Overpass, trumpets and trombones are heralding the band’s bright, ethereal and adventurous pop aesthetic, accentuated by vocal harmonies and glistening melodies.
Indeed, it was this palpable adventurousness and ambition that would impress and persuade Go-Betweens singer-songwriter/guitarist Robert Forster to produce the group’s debut album. Consequently, The John Steel Singers’ exuberant spiritedness has been captured beautifully by ensuring that the bulk of Tangalooma was recorded live as a group. Mixed by Nicolas Vernhes (Animal Collective, Deerhunter, Dirty Projectors, Fiery Furnaces), Tangalooma manages to find a balance between multi-layered intricacies and breathy spaciousness, dynamic propensity and breezy playfulness.
Perhaps the most impressive element to The John Steel Singers is the open-minded nature in which they pursue the art of pop songwriting: there’s the overarching playfulness that leads frequently to refreshing experimentation; the daggy-ness, flamboyance and drama (Cause Of Self and Toes And Fingers); the juxtaposition and irony (Evolution’s bumbling infectiousness and underlying eccentricities – or the fact that the album’s catchiest track, Masochist, is followed by the mellowed lullaby of Once I). It’s not without its hiccups, though: You’ve Got Nothing To Be Proud Of is over-indulgent (and frankly, a little grating) whereas Great Divided Self sounds deficient next to every other track on Tangalooma.
Dying Tree , on the other hand, is a definitive moment on Tangalooma. Shifting from creeping folk melancholia to haunting guitar jaunts and eerie effects, Dying Tree proves a confounding and particularly rewarding venture. In a dynamic tonal shift, Rainbow Kraut explodes with a rollicking, uproarious vigour; in perhaps the album’s most urgent number, the fuzzy bass-driven rocker finds Morrissey delving into sensitive territory: “I was waltzing the wife of a widower / Though I was unaware at the time / She was living the life of a silhouette / I was towing the line between her sodden life”.
As emphasised by its closing track Sleep, John Steel Singers are unafraid of veering into risky, experimental territory – and as it turns out, even the sprawling instrumental kind. The talented six-piece have avowed steadfastly that enticing listeners without delving into such fearless exploration would render the journey less exhilarating and rewarding. As a result, John Steel Singers have delivered much more than a ‘summer soundtrack’ – alongside Richard In Your Mind and The Boat People, they’ve delivered one of the year’s most engaging ‘bizarre but oh-so-brilliant’ alt-pop records.
The John Steel Singers album Tangalooma, is our Album of the week and is out now through Dew Process/Universal