Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Steinbecks "Kick To Kick With The Steinbecks" (Matie Recordings)

Shaking off their winter torpor, blackbirds hustle for new worms in the morning dew. Daffodils emerge, seduced by vernal sunlight. The borders throng with swooping cabbage white. All the signs of springtime - a smirking Chancellor, supermarket aisles crammed with emulsified chocolate eggs, solid lines forming above the relegation places - are present and correct. But still, we are restless. Where the blazes, we ask, is that new Steinbecks album?


* * * * *

At last the day comes and, shaking off our own winter torpor, we unburden the CD of its shrink-wrapping. It doesn't disappoint.

We knew it wouldn't, on the back of their honeygorgeous "At Arkaroo Rock" 7" (which
set all this heart-beats-wildly expectation running last summer) and the equally assured "Through The Curtain", a further LP preview via the more recent “Sunday Matinée” label sampler. What’s interesting, though, is that much of "Kick To Kick" is more urgent, more plaintive than those two tasters. Many of the songs are more in the man-overboard vein of 7" closer "Cabin Fever", although the record also showcases the ripples and swells of their pristine eco-balladry, as well as throwing in a couple of ardent, unapologetic celebrations of the music the Meadows brothers love and grew up with.

It begins with "Homesickness", uptempo and melodic, a tale of longing for our plundered earth which artfully scuttles over lost haunts and missing moments before "At Arkaroo Rock" returns to gently soothe us with geology (and with a short but super-sweet twisting guitar line embellishment that was cruelly faded from the single version). It’s followed by "We Cannot Hope To Compete With Such Colours" - a renewed blast of fiery indiepop, a vivid vision of wide-eyed wonder – and then "Below The Limen", a lithe and louche blues-rock deconstruction which shuffles in sideways as the band start, stylistically, to spread their wings.

The pared-down side to the Steinbecks comes to the fore with "A Semblance of Hope" and the mandolin-led "Cold Little Bones": these tracks are sparse and aching and spare, charting moths and rust and no little mournfulness. However, sandwiched inbetween them on the running order, the sparkling "I, Radio" is anything but stripped-back; zestful and thrillingly ALIVE, it may be the finest ode to the wireless since "Transmission", a triumphant tribute to radio; to vinyl; to the human ear. Anchored in both spoken word and evangelical shout, "Radio" is their "Endless Art".

(Ever more dimly, we recall our own hazy weeks spent in Australia, and much as it was frustrating that commercial radio felt able to completely ignore its nation’s finest bands, it was at least a joy to hear "Streets Of Your Town" appear every couple of days, as if by way of special concession the payola kings would allow just one slice of dark, homespun pop to sneak the B-list. The irony, of course, is that given free rein "I, Radio" would sound perfect coming out of summer speakers on Albert Park, would vaporise every cobweb and every unmelted heart within audible range).

The second half of the album meanders ‘twixt autumn hues and dazzling sunburst just as adeptly as the first. As well as "Through The Curtain", with its super-danceable coda invoking artists from Faron Young to the Field Mice, you'll find the spry and upbeat "Trying To Be Someone" - which proves it’s no coincidence that the Smiths get referenced in two tracks here - and "Burning Holes In The Sun", so good it gets two outings: the first spiked and aflame, the second trillingly mellow and absolutely, almost violently, pretty. The winning goal, however, comes from a set-piece: the title track, the final cut. "Kick To Kick", set at a funeral service for a friend, is warm and wonderful and moving without ever being less than 100% tuneful & brisk. And, just as on the first song on the album, some late-on lightly-deployed piano draws out slivers of extra atmosphere.

* * * * *

Twenty years ago, their "At Home And Abroad With The Steinbecks" début needed to be stickered with a label saying "features ex-Sugargliders". Whilst the Steinbecks have hardly been prolific since then (when their last album, "Far From the Madding Crowd", came out, people were still wondering whether Spain would ever win a football tournament in the modern era) in 2014 there’s surely no doubt that they've hewn their own, distinctly impressive canon, one that stands apart from all that we know and so surely love of their former incarnation.

Robert Forster used to bemoan how Australia was ever in the midst of rock n'roll and garage rock revivals, making it no place for literate and intelligent pop. That might help to explain why the Steinbecks have sometimes been more feted in enclaves of the UK and the US (not least Bristol and Santa Barbara!) than on home soil. Indeed, the closest the Steinbecks have got to that clichéd yet venerated Aussie rock tradition has probably been the repeated exhortation on their album sleeves to "PLAY LOUD". 

Instead, as we remarked of their "Recorded Music Salon" outing (forgive us our turn of the century lower-case):

“they still continue to try and refine the fine songwriting tradition which australia has spawned over the last decade or two; one which does not start and finish with forster / maclennan but also takes in the greater moments of everyone from the triffids to girl of the world, the lucksmiths or the cannanes”

For us, that’s what the brothers and their current collaborators Jerry Rinse, Joseph Bromley and Matt Sigley, are still doing. As an aside – oh, how we love asides - the fact that we were teenagers when Josh and Joel were teenagers, and that we gingerly contemplate an approaching middle-age as they, more gracefully, age with us, probably helps: it certainly provides a clue as to why we find ourselves excitedly cheering Joel on during "I, Radio", whereas more youthful listeners might regard its sentiment as a tad Luddite.

Um... yes, of course, we reckon you’ll enjoy “Kick To Kick” if you savour the Smiths, Orange Juice, and the Go-Betweens; or the Butterflies of Love or the Lucksmiths; or indeed that band called the Sugargliders. But ultimately, you're *guaranteed* to like it if you're a fan - as you should be by now - of Castlemaine’s finest, the Steinbecks themselves.

The boys make no great claims for their art - "Beat my little drum, please / if you don’t, no-one will", they sing on “At Arkaroo Rock” – yet we’re not sure it’s right for us to make grand claims for them, lest that betray the way the often-understated glories within these grooves speak so eloquently for themselves.

Suffice to say that we just really, really, love this record.