Built To Spilt and The Smallgoods Live at The Corner Hotel
There was a time many years ago when New Year’s celebrations meant buying a couple of slabs, a tray of Coles sausages and waking up in the front yard of a friend’s parents house half-way through the first day of the new year. These days, things have moved on, and the entertainment spark of New Year’s Eve is as powerful as a packet of sparklers suffering from rising damp.
The anti-climax of New Year’s Eve seen off safely, and it was time to celebrate the changing of the calendars with a gig at The Corner Hotel. The relatively recently reunited Telecom had been and gone by the time we’d arrived, unfortunately; two minutes after our entry, and with Mountain Goats in hand, and the curtains opened to reveal The Smallgoods. It’s been a while since the last Smallgoods appearance – or it seems that way, whatever the temporal facts – but save for the absence of the enigmatically charismatic Shags on keyboards, it was the same, popaliciously excellent Smallgoods as ever before.
It’s lazy, cheap, and patronising to revert to Port Fairy references in describing the journey The Smallgoods invite you to join. But it’s almost unavoidable, and definitely convenient. For all of those visits to strange country towns under the gaze suspicious, and occasionally leering eyes of the locals, there’s a pleasant meander through territory that seems as familiar and welcoming as the back of your hand. And so it is with The Smallgoods. There’s a hint of Syd Barrett in the psychedelic pop aesthetic; but whereas Syd went off for a walk and never came back from lunch, The Smallgoods are your close companions on a journey that you feel you’ve always wanted to go on. There’s a cinematic integrity to the band’s tales of driving down the highway while listening to California Dreaming on the radio; the harmonies are lush, like The Beach Boys without the dysfunctional domestic backdrop. It’s a dream that you don’t want to stop, a story you don’t want to finish, but it does, and it leaves you yearning for more.
Built To Spilt come from Boise, Idaho. The only thing I know about Idaho is the state’s reputation for production of potatoes, which is probably as relevant as an American saying the only thing they know about Australia is Russell Crowe (sic). The Smallgoods dabble into the sparkling fringes of psychedelia; Built To Spill plough epic fields rich with Neil Young riffs, sprayed liberally with the essence of the Grateful Dead.
Doug Martsch looks like a 1980s high school maths teacher with a secret life in rock ’n’ roll; like the rest of the band, he’s light on audience banter, and heavy on the licks. Brett Nelson is a vision of hirsute glory, the wild man who’s spent a decade living in a cave, with personal grooming modelled on fading photos of late-era Jim Morrison and 1980s Carl Wilson.
With Built To Spill, the simplest pop inquiry becomes a philosophical treatise on the psychedelic underpinnings of rock ’n’ roll; every moment is a carefully measured step in an enchanting sojourn across indulgent rock territory first discovered in 1974, and still offering treasure to those who know where to look. John Howard sought to reinstitute the anachronistic notion of history as narrative; Built To Spill revive the concept of rock ’n’ roll as a narrative dominated by contiguous riffage and lyrical precision.
As with The Smallgoods, all good things must to come to an end, and with a few rarely played tracks thrown into the mix, Built To Spill are off with a wave and a smile. The new year has barely begun, and already things are looking – and sounding – pretty damn good.