Review: Melanie Horsnell, The Cloud Appreciation Society

Cloud Appreciation Society
Image Courtesy of Melanie Horsnell

Melanie Horsnell opens her third album, “The Cloud Appreciation Society”, with a delightful, sweet Gershwin cover, “Oh So Nice,” inspired by the birth of her second child, Gypsy. Although Horsnell confesses to crying the first time she heard it, alone in the car, its presence on the album is far from miserable – quite the opposite, in fact. Its childlike enthusiasm and tempo sets the tone for what appears to be a very relaxed and comfortable listening experience, the kind of album that one might associate with young love and summer dresses. Most of the album is built around this sound; Subtle acoustic guitars and bass, vulnerable vocals, cello, soft and sparse drums and the occasional instance of a glockenspiel.

 However, just three tracks in, after the brilliantly poppy “Uncoordinated Conversation” (a lovely track about the awkwardness of new romance), there is a more complex and somewhat darker sentiment. Disguised by Melanie’s undeniably gentle voice, comes the reflections of a woman torn apart by the grief and loss of abandonment, in “Love You Madly”- A song rich in sorrow and heart-breaking images, a song that describes complete surrender. The words “I will love you madly” reach out and pull on your stomach in a way so familiar to anyone who has ever endured a significant separation, drawing the listener under her light sound, into her fierce lyrics. This track, followed by the equally sad and desperate “If We Can’t be Together,” leads the album far from the listener’s prior expectation, on a much more poignant journey.

While the delivery and instrumentation is not vastly different throughout, it is the seamless transition into these darker tones that strikes me most about this record. One can identify so strongly with the angst and imagery, and yet it sounds so calm, the melody crisp, with a lilting cello carrying the song forward. It is the sparse and gentle instrumentation, coupled with Horsnell’s clean vocal that could lead to some of this album’s depth being miscalculated, which makes her eye for detail and rich imagery so important. Her ability to capture her landscape, both literal and emotional is one of the things that makes this album stand out fully, within a well-explored genre.

This detail is particularly strong in “Tall Trees Arms”, wherein Melanie writes from the perspective of an older man, staring out at his rugged mountain home after the death of his wife with the “grey-green eyes.” One can almost feel the “frosty air,” almost hear his soft journey, among lonely valleys, green foothills and trilling creeks. Similarly, in “Late Afternoons and Ochre Walls” the “dappled light,” in which a young couple cuddle on the couch quietly, that Melanie describes is as easy to imagine here as the “big dolly eyes and cheeky smiles” of her two babies in “My Harmony, My Gypsy”, a song written out of pure adoration for her girls, in a very difficult time for her.

While similar in sound to many of her female contemporaries, “The Cloud Appreciation Society” has a very strong narrative to it, something Horsnell herself touched on in an interview with ABC southeast. The progression of the songs mimics the progression of her life at the time, starting with the joy of the birth of a new child, and moving to a new home in country NSW, to the pain of her separation. The mid-section of the album speaks of the potential for finding new love, bonding with her children and immersing herself in her new surrounds. This leads to the final track “My Heart just Wants to Fall in Love”, a joyful song about letting go of past grievances and moving on, which brings the album full circle, back to the quirky happiness of “Oh So Nice,” the sound that originally attracted my attention so quickly. I really enjoyed this album, short though it may be, and I look forward to the chance to see her live in the future.  

Album Review: Mama Kin, The Magician’s Daughter

Magician's Daughter
Image Courtesy of Mama Kin

Mama Kin’s second album, The Magician’s Daughter, while only 10 tracks long, is, quite simply, a fantastic album, and a huge creative leap forward for the band.

Speaking to RawInk magazine, she described it as “…a kind of broadening and deepening from Beat and Holler“. “I’m really excited that I have made an album that is so different from my last album,” she said, “because I feel like if there was going to be a box for me I’ve broken it. My theme for this album is around alchemy, energy and connection.”

With connection and energy at the forefront of her creative design,  Mama Kin and her band have more than delivered, especially with  the over-all dynamic of each of the tracks. Danielle Caruana’s vocal has excelled itself, showing a much richer range and reach, with a subtle control of tone and nuance that drives the album to a new sonic dimension. With the band’s intricately versatile arrangement and production seemingly built around her, (and a rhythm section worth swooning over), her vocal has many opportunities to soar and dip. Sometimes she is tremulous and gentle, sometimes sultry and powerful and always passionate, all elements melding to create a sound that is sweet, diverse, intriguing and very much alive.

While “Was it Worth it” was released as a single and displays a lot of drive and pace for the album, one of the tracks that truly stands out for me is “Bosom of our Bed”; A tale of lovers, of a woman comforting her man (I love the role reversal here) in the security and sanctity of their bed – a slightly mournful but desperately loving song. The instrumentation is paired back and lilting, a showcase for the velvet and smoke of Danielle’s voice, her vibrato filled with a late night/early morning ambience, the tidal twang of the electric guitar sitting with the piano, softly rolling along to it’s gentle end.

Each track is different and brilliant, drawing from a heady mix of the swagger and waltz of sixties balladry (complete with a Rhodes) in “Rescue,” the deliciously sharp and forthright roots sounds of  “Give me A reason”, the beauty and strength of our environment, the way nature reflects our emotions, and how we take into our emotions this wildness (“Redwood River”, “The River As she Runs”) and the bitterness of loss, in sad lament, “Cherokee Boy” – a combination that is incredibly rich in imagery, intensity and aural pleasure. I thoroughly enjoyed The Magician’s Daughter, and am very excited to see how Caruana and her band reproduce their impeccable and impressive sound in a live setting.

The Magician’s Daughter is out today, 22nd February

Review: Sal Kimber and the Rollin’ Wheel at the Workers Club, Fitzroy.

Sal Kimber and the Rollin' Wheel
Image Courtesy of Sal Kimber and the Rollin Wheel

Sal Kimber and the Rollin’ Wheel, supported by Fingerbone Bill
6th August 2011, The Workers CLub

Fingerbone Bill, dressed casually in flannel shirts and jeans, beers in hand strolled onto the stage, took their positions at one of their beautiful (and multiple) instruments and quietly introduced themselves. They opened their fantastic set with “Jerry Brown”, a typical country song. It was a powerful mix of banjo, guitar, smooth vocals and harmonica and bass that immediately grabbed everyone’s attentions, drawing them in from all of the beautiful candlelit rooms and alcoves of The Workers Club that they were hiding in. As the people gathered, the men on stage delivered gem after gem, their incredibly passion, power and musicianship clearly evident as they all swapped instruments and played with equal proficiency no matter what. At one point a member of the crowd called them “show offs” and when everyone was finally in their right positions again he, amid laughter, said “that’s more like it!”

As my first real experience with a live country set strode on with brilliant Rob Johnson cover tracks, slide guitars, and astounding originals, one vibrant couple with some obvious knowledge up their sleeves began to dance passionately, drawing claps and smiles from the surrounding crowd and some very appreciative words from the band. This was set to a piece that was a tale about a ‘”county girl”, a quintessential country song, the guys on stage with vibrant smiles on their faces. After a magnificent set they finished with what I thought was their standout song, “Blood on the Bluegrass”, a haunting and melodic track about (as “all country is”) drinking, death, and going to jail. These guys have CDs, I strongly suggest you buy them!

With the crowd already rolling in, fancy dresses and embroidered shirts amidst us all, Sal Kimber and the Rollin’ Wheel started their set up amid an appreciative roar and the excitement, already boiling, practically spilled over. Also dressed in their finest “modern ball gowns”, Sal and Beth “Buffy” Kimber, Jacob Cole, Trent Mackenzie and Cat Leahy ( all in smart shirts) opened their set with a moody, guitar and bass driven track that had everyone from the word go. Despite some technical issues that never entirely got resolved everyone was dancing, everyone was smiling and everyone had a beer. With much clapping and cheering the rich, honey tones of Sal rippled over the room and thus they began!

One of the things that I found the most engaging was not only the raw and absolute power in Sal’s voice, but the musicianship itself and the beauty of each instrument. I was particularly taken with bassist Trent Mackenzie, who had not only a stunning blonde wood instrument but also held everything together through their whole set with extraordinary ease and excellence and the obvious experience of a well-seasoned player. Likewise their drummer, Cat Leahy, also had a striking set and delivered some delicious drum lines and small solos throughout, keeping the crowd on its toes. Sal spoke joyfully of her new banjo, named Kathleen, amid friendly banter happening both between the large crowd, (who Sal suggested only came and cheered because they were “all my friends”) and the band itself. She spoke about being grumpy and tired and apologised to her lovely band for snapping at them, which prompted her to write a song for them aptly called “Rolling Wheel”, a fantastic piece of music featuring her on banjo, a piano accordion played by Buffy and lead guitarist and housemate, Jacob “Jakey” Cole.

As the end of the night approached, the playing of “Beat Gets Louder”, an amusing introduction called forwards all dancers, and, the whole room erupted, the small space a mass of swaying and writhing bodies. Just as impressive on stage as in studio, the reaction from the crowd was really great to see, and if at all a measure of the albums imminent reception, exceptionally promising. Stay on the lookout for the clip for this song due for release early this week. The set was full of new tracks inspiring great amounts of excitement for the album release, (expected October 14th), and true to the ballroom with a twist theme everyone was dancing. This is something I’m greatly looking forward to listening to, and looks to contain some really strong and moving pieces, scattered among a lot of songs with incredibly catchy beats. They are a truly spectacular vision of modern, alternative country rock, with just enough quirkiness (think xylophones) mixed in with their strong feel to keep everyone happy. However despite their full sound and booming charm, my favourite song of the night was a relatively simple one, with just Sal and Jake on slide guitar, her rich voice and his gentle playing absolutely enough. Definitely stay tuned for more from this great Melbourne band!

Review: Boy & Bear at The Corner Hotel, Melbourne

Boy & Bear
Image Courtesy of Boy & Bear

Boy & Bear supported by Jinja Safari and Emma Louise
25 May 2011, The Corner Hotel

The Corner Hotel in Richmond has to be one of my favourite venues in all of Melbourne. With neither the room (nor inclination) for a fancy setting, it is so incredibly versatile, simply buzzing with energy and vibrancy, its faded carpet whispering and roaring about all the amazing shows it has seen. And tonight’s was no exception.

A far cry from the energy of either of her successors, Emma Louise calmly walked to the middle of the stage, picked up her beautiful acoustic guitar and shyly introduced herself, opening her set with “No Response”, a song that brought the room to a standstill. The chatter fell away, leaving only her rich voice and soft guitar picking as she sung about her brother’s leaving (to the mines up north) and the aching loneliness that followed. This was my first experience of her, and I was very pleasantly surprised.  With beautiful harmonies, intricate guitar lines and gentle drum and bass she was full of instant appeal. Sadly however, her set was a little too laid back for the rearing crowd. Although it was full of standout songs like “Sun and Moon” (about a bad relationship) and “Morning Eyes”, written just before cyclone Yasi hit, their attention wandered, the chatter and laughter rose and she became background music. Gradually, with the addition of her fantastically casual and unique drummer she rounded them all up again, finishing solidly on her debut single “Jungle”.

Next came the indescribable and beautifully manic Jinja Safari. Again, a first experience, I had no idea what I was in for but, my goodness was I amazed! The stage had been redressed to look like the forest, complete with strings of leaves, smoke machines, red lighting and a colossal sitar. There was much speculation as to what this “over grown banjo” actually was, along with loads of excited murmuring as various band members popped on and off stage, doing their own set-up. It was at this point that I had my first encounter with percussionist Alister Pattern, who accidentally brushed against me while searching for leads. (There was to be a repeat performance at the end of their set when he nearly hit me with a piece of his kit as it lurched forward, amid many apologies and a good laugh – “great set, terrible end.”)

With a delicious fusion of Afro-pop beats, Indie guitars and vocals and generous lashings of world music, the sound these guys produce is somewhat reminiscent of Vampire Weekend, only with a far more organic twist.  Stand out tracks for me were definitely “Hiccups”, “Peter Pan” (here the sitar emerged) and “Forest eyes”, all littered with frantic beats, smooth vocals and just enough bubbly synth instrumentation. Evident not just in these 3, but their whole set, was the sheer passion, excitement and contagious energy they project, something the crowd thrived on. Everyone, even the shyest among us, danced and clapped, laughing as the band did their famous “ugly dancing,” shooting witticisms and smiles at one another. The interaction between them was just incredible. They were the perfect lead up to Boy & Bear, gathering us together, winding us up and gracing us with such a fantastic, welcoming vibe. I really was sad to see them go.

Boy & Bear opened their set with a significant change of pace in the form of “Lordy May”, a reflective and slightly melancholic track from their forthcoming album. Though initially sparse it built with incredible grace and strength into a sublime vocal, and key/ drum driven finish.

It seems that this may be something to be expected from their debut – a quietly wise and intense sound, complete with their steady drums, trademark harmonies and epic guitar lines. That’s not to say it was all slow paced, certainly not. Some of their newies positively leaped with energy. It’s more the lyrical content that sees Hosking on an introspective and contemplative journey, with striking imagery and a certain mournful quality.

Nowhere is this more evident than in “Big Man”, a song about “having perspective,” heavy with the heart of a young man slightly lost, so awed by what he’s seen, so “terrified of having achieved nothing at all”. This was one of my favourite tracks despite its sad nature, the poignancy in its delivery and slow build entirely unavoidable. And the expression on Dave’s face as he sung this last refrain was all the explanation needed.

Scattered among other apologetically new songs (Hosking thought it necessary to check we were “ok with new stuff”), were of course their crowd favourites such as “Mexican Mavis”, a fantastic if not slightly surprising transition from their opener, and “Rabbit Song”, played quite late into their set. To each of their well- known songs the crowd reacted accordingly, clapping and cheering, singing along and laughing where appropriate. Naturally, “Fall at Your Feet” was played with impeccable precision drawing both a roar and then hush as the crowd recognised the familiar banjo lines and the drums, played in this case by bassist Jake Tarasenko. The band was clearly really happy to be on stage, their musical intuition and knowledge shining through, their grins evident despite Hosking’s obvious sickness. During a break in which he apologised for coughing and elaborated on some of the new material, sinking back a Coopers’ Ale he and Tim Hart (Drums, Vocals) politely but contentedly informed us of the bands “no encore” policy, telling an amusing anecdote of a gig in Byron Bay where the crowd really didn’t get the message.

While the whole of their set was making me very excited for the release of their album, another outstanding new track was the haunting yet beautiful “My Only One”, full of their superb harmonies and a crescendo which lead to some highly impressive guitar work from Killian Gavin. In another radical change of pace, “Milk and Sticks” burst into life, a wonderful guitar and drum driven track which moved like a Mumford and Sons song, with a brilliant transition on the mandolin by Jon Hart into “Blood to Gold”, another crowd epic. Probably the most lively pace wise was the self-confessed seventies throw back “Part Time Believer” with a very Dan Kelly and Glenn Richards sound, and “Golden Jubilee”, an almost Paul Simon like vibe filtering through its lyrics and guitar, and of course “Feeding Line”. I was surprised, pleasantly, by the crowds immediate and hearty reaction to this, but perhaps my favourite of all was the humble, gentle and achingly honest “Beach”, a song it seemed, about writing songs, being on tour, longing for places and people and things, a song about bearing oneself to the masses. It was sad and sweet, and built to an incredible climax, leaving us so entirely happy and grateful that they do what they do, simply so we can see it.

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