Short version: shock revelation: keen fan of band loves their new album.
Long version: I think the point at which I fell for The Basics was watching a 2007 clip of them performing Hey There live in the Herald Sun studio. It was such a catchy, exuberant tune, such a strong-flavoured pastiche – pastiches being something I enjoy very much – and Wally in particular looked as though singing this song in a studio with the acoustic of a broom cupboard was about the most fun a human being could have. That combination of melodic songwriting, strong stylistic flavours (lots of different ones; they’re never boring) and a sense of fun remain, but with the years they’ve acquired a serious side. This new album has a political edge, as well as a broad stripe of melancholy lovelornness. It’s also assertively Australian. It’s very much the sound of them being defiantly who they are, in several different directions.
The album opens spikily with Whatever Happened to the Working Class, an acoustic folk jeremiad about the uselessness of politicians, the materialism of modern Australians and the general shitness of everything. It memorably rhymes “class” with “arse” (“Whatever happened to the working class? / Oh, we’ve got politicians sitting on their arse”). It’s pretty uncompromising and the lyric is to the fore: the long lines with numerous unstressed syllables sit over the music in a prominent way. This is one extreme of the album. The second track introduces the other side, though it has a similar tempo and is similarly melancholy. A Coward’s Prayer is a spacious, romantic piece of stadium-rock, dominated by Tim Heath’s swooping guitar lines and a soaring chorus melody with equally soaring vocal harmonies (and masses of reverb). In contrast to the political song that precedes it, with its extremely specific references to “Chisels, Oils and Js” on Australia Day, this is so open it needn’t even be a love song for a woman – it could apply to almost any close relationship in which the other person is at low ebb and the speaker feels he’s let them down.
When what you say is misunderstood
And what you’ve done does not feel good
I pushed you there, I know that now
But I’m trying to make it up somehow
Just hold on, I believe in you
Change will come, it’ll comfort you
Cause I never meant to cause you any pain
And I only wish that I could see you whole again
A real lighters-in-the-air moment – though I guess people use their mobile phones for that these days.
We now get a group of three upbeat songs. Roundabout is the recent single, an infectious piece of fifties-style rock’n’roll with a syncopated riff, one of only two songs sung by Wally – of the rest all but one have Kris on lead vocals. The lyric has a lot of fun with the sustained development of a metaphor: “Just when the open road was stretching out ahead / You and I were side by side, same destination in our head / Our life on cruise control, no need to check the mirror / And everything was somewhere out there in a straight line to the future / Till we hit a roundabout… You pull to the left, I pull to the right… Going round and round and round and round the roundabout”. It’s a super song, though it does make me glad I’ve never been in a car with any of the band. Time Poor is another political one, satirising modern busy lifestyles (“We’re time poor / That’s our burden / Time poor / It’s the western way”). It’s punky, shouty, sharp and funny. Good Times, Sunshine is the second Wally-voiced song; it was previously released in November 2014 as part of the Lucky Country EP (the link is to an earlier review of the track), but I feel it fits better here. I like the textures it explores, especially the scraper and shaker and the use of breath noises in the intro; melodically and harmonically it has Beatles-y echoes, and the lyric portrays someone who’s struggling but looking forward to things getting better (“Sometimes you drive me crazy/ But good times, sunshine’s ahead”).
Two quieter love songs follow. Every Part of Me is an understated grower, built over a light, rapid drum pattern. I enjoy the delicate textures and the balance between the quietly jaunty instrumental parts and the wistful sadness of the vocal (“Every part of me misses you every day”). Kris’s voice sounds very close here. To Think of You is a highlight of the album, building up from a minimal bass pulse and adding layers of guitar ostinato and later piano – though this is also a song that works beautifully in simpler live arrangements, and it stands on the strength of the melody and the feeling it expresses: looking back on a relationship that was never going to last but is still deeply missed.
Ashleigh Wakes is upbeat again, and a particular favourite of mine. It has a saturated, busy texture, a fantastic lively bass line and a jangly guitar tone reminiscent of Crowded House or even The Smiths – it very much has the feel of one of those socially-conscious eighties bands. It gives vignettes of characters working boring jobs for a predictable future, but in the chorus rebelling: “I ain’t going to take it any more / Cause my life is mine and mine alone / And I don’t need anybody keeping score / You can live any way you want.” It’s hard not to dance to Ashleigh Wakes, and the same is true of the afrobeat Tunaomba Saidia, another song that was previously released on the November EP. This song about a refugee fleeing Uganda for a scarcely better situation in an Australian camp puts into perspective the frustration and claim to self-determination in Ashleigh Wakes – first world problems? Who really gets to choose anyway?
The album finishes on two songs that have been in The Basics’ live sets for a while but not recorded in the studio. Hey Rain is a cover of a song by Bill Scott. Tim takes the lead, his warm, unpretentious voice just right for this deadpan, somewhat sweary ode to the wet season in northern Queensland, with Wally and Kris bringing out the sweetness of the song with their harmonies. They haven’t fancied the piece up too much from the live versions (one can be heard on Leftovers, another here) but have taken the opportunity to include both piano and guitar – it’s usually one or the other – and a bowed upright bass. Finally there’s Feels Like Love, which was on the live album /ðə ˈbæzɪtʃ/, a mournful romantic closer that makes the most of guitar and organ tremolo and of the blend of their voices.
I bought the iTunes version of the album so I got two bonus tracks. Both again are very consciously Australian. My Old Mate is a fun four-square pub rocker, again sung by Tim. It’s an affectionate but humorous performance of a certain kind of Aussie blokedom – fond of booze and rock, salt of the earth, not very reflective. The lyric celebrates my old mate, who’s really great and to be found hanging round where there’s a good time, my old mum, who’s lots of fun and hangs round where there’s free wi-fi, and my old gramp, who’s a bloody champ and hangs round in restrooms… There’s a coda in which Tim’s going to see his baby today, so it’s nice to think at least someone on this album eventually gets to have a shag – even if it’s, as it were, in extra time. The second is a live version of The Lucky Country, their scorching piece of political rock first released in November.
It’s interesting how message and genre work together in the political songs; the album explores different musical ways of commenting on the world. I don’t feel entirely comfortable with Whatever Happened to the Working Class, though it’s made me puzzle and think a lot, which is surely a good thing. Partly the problem is my British squeamishness over class and who gets to speak as or about the working class; the Australians I’ve discussed the song with have none of them reacted to it in quite the same way. They’ve also pointed out Whatever Happened relates to a tradition of blunt political songwriting that they’re more used to than I am. However, Time Poor is pretty blunt too and I find that extremely effective. For me the angry punk/rock mode of protest works better than mournful folk, which carries a risk of seeming righteous and whingey (though I do like folk in general). Time Poor also benefits from its dramatic call-and-response element and its humour; it’s one of the best songs on the album. Tunaomba Saidia uses genre in a different way: it employs a Kenyan style, benga, in which it is normal, as here, to tell sad stories through happy music. For a non-African listener this makes the serious message creep up on you after you’ve heard and enjoyed the song several times. It also invokes an external perspective on Australian affairs – though its theme of poor treatment of asylum seekers is just as appropriate to Europe, and indeed all of these songs, despite their explicitly Australian frame of reference, address general Western problems.
Although it’s easy to treat the relationship songs as a separate group from the Australian and political ones, there’s a coherence between the darkly critical attitude of the political material and the soul-searching of many of the more personal numbers. The romance and tenderness of the love songs provide a balance to the scathing approach of a song like Whatever Happened; Ashleigh Wakes with its character-drawing and social commentary is a kind of bridge between the two positions. The album is well-sequenced, so there’s a good progression from item to item though the material is very varied. The songs are also tied together by the fact Kris sings most of them, and one gathers he wrote most of them too. He does a great job, but it might have been nice if Wally had had a few more leads; here he’s confined to retro belters. He recorded himself singing To Think of You on the piano at home and it’s a beautiful version – maybe he wishes he’d bagged this song at the time? But To Think of You seems to be personal to Kris. If, in its refusal to settle for one style, its relish of musical exploration and its humour, this album expresses who all three Basics are, the experiences and opinions behind it seem to be very much Kris’s.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that I love this record. Being already a fan of the band means that there’s a level of connection and sympathy that’s already in place for me when I listen to their music. I’m also very conscious that this is someone’s work, the product of much labour, time and emotional investment; of course that’s true of most records, but I feel it more strongly in this case. However, I don’t think any of this makes me listen uncritically, and being so fond of their previous releases meant I came to the album – which has been long awaited; it was recorded in March to April last year – with high expectations. I can honestly say those expectations have been met. This is a gorgeous collection of songs, by turns thought-provoking, moving and just massively catchy, and I’ve got it on heavy rotation. Five stars from me (admittedly one of those stars might be for the amazing beard Tim grew for the recording…) ★★★★★