1997 – Black Yak Phantom
The third album from Australian soft-rock trio The Whitlams takes a much more serious turn than their previous efforts and, while their earlier playful nonsense was a lot of fun, this new direction is a true delight to hear. Starting out with the frank ballad of romantic depression that is the instant hit No Aphrodisiac this record doesn’t let up at all on the matter of fact sadness front. I mean, Freedman’s piano jangles and mournful tenor just cut the bone and give tingles in all of the right places on pretty much every cut to be found here.
This isn’t to say that Eternal Nightcap is some sort of suicidal weep-fest, however. In fact, despite the chilling lyrical matter (crafter with great skill and care) these tunes manage to work their way deep into your brain until you end up singing along with each little refrain of the Charlie tracks and miming air piano to each resounding chord. It is also nice to note that the musical form doesn’t always conform to the Nick Cave inflected notions one might have about how this sort of open melancholy should sound. I mean, the hints of funk littered throughout Love Is Everywhere and the bouncing raucousness of You Sound Like Louis Burdett work incredibly well to provide the listener with some kind of fun amidst the macabre chaos. And yes it really is fun. I don’t know how they manage to do it, but somehow this album really is just a whole heap of fun even though it’s all so serious and heavy at heart.
That, I think, is the real key to this record’s immense appeal. It provides a lot of material for the listener to come to grips with, being musically intricate and complex and lyrically a winding maze of half-concealed meanings, and at the same time it is infused with an innate sense of pop-rock saleability. I mean, it’s almost impossible for an self-respecting Australian music fan to not sing along with No Aphrodisiac, and one might think that that might make a song almost unbearable after a time, but time and time again I and others I know find ourselves coming back again and again to this record and finding something new while still being able to sing along with great precision to every well worn and eagerly anticipated line (particular fun is to be had with the Celtic styled Band On Every Corner). There’s just so much that this album has to discover about it, and once everything has finally been discovered there’s absolutely no sense of disappointment or underwhelming.
In contrast to the wonderfully complex and engaging lyrical and musical artistry that is to be found on this album, however, there are two (yes only two) tracks that fall somewhat short of grandeur. Where’s The Enemy? and the Bob Dylan cover Tangled Up In Blue really do stick out like a sore thumb in the way the stick to the straightforward conventions of rock and roll blandness. I mean, even for standard rock songs these two cuts are pretty average sounding, but in the context of this incredible album they come across as well below the line of acceptable. Now, these two tracks never go so far as to ruin the rest of the record, but they do create some definite rough patches in an otherwise highly polished piece of work. Perhaps it would have been better if guitarist Tim Hall (a replacement for founding Whitlam Stevie Plunder, if anyone wants to draw any links) had never been handed the microphone or the reins.
Despite these two minor patches of averageness, however, one still has to appreciate the brilliance and quality of the work that has gone into this album. It’s just so full of wonderfully deep material, softly sung intellectualism, and tremendously catchy piano-pop riffs that I really can’t help but put it up there as one of the great achievements of Australian music. Heck, never mind Australia, it’s one of the great albums of the world, and one which I would highly recommend to anyone who would listen.
And here’s the clip for No Aphrosdisiac, one of the many great tracks from the album.
- The Sound Of White – Missy Higgins (ljfacesthemusic.wordpress.com)
- The Boatman’s Call – Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds (ljfacesthemusic.wordpress.com)
- Shelter Me – The Waifs (ljfacesthemusic.wordpress.com)
- BigSound 2013: an upbeat celebration of Australian music? (theguardian.com)