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EG's weekly album reviews

The Drones
I See Seaweed

While polemicists of the left and right continue to fire the occasional shot in the simmering Australian history wars, The Drones' sociological narrative remains devoid of ideological pretence, and rich in its portrayal of the inherent flaws of humanity. The Drones' latest record, I See Seaweed, is equal parts brooding and cataclysmic: How to See Through Fog is the Bad Seeds of Berlin via country Victoria; the blood and guts pub rock attack of A Moat You Can Stand In could have been found lying on the floor of the Bondi Lifesaver in 1979. Singer and lyricist Gareth Liddiard is the quintessential laconic storyteller, his allegorical observations enough to make a poet laureate give the game away in resignation. In The Grey Leader Liddiard takes rhetorical aim at the cheap and nasty contemporary political discourse; Why Write a Letter That You'll Never Send is a rambling stream of consciousness that indulges every cultural reference point in the songwriter's book. I See Seaweed confirms an irrefutable proposition: The Drones have nothing left to prove.


High Highs
Open Season
(Fine Time/Sony)


HIGH Highs' two-man marriage sets the acoustic keenings of songwriter Jack Milas against the electronic palette of producer Oli Chang. Yet that billing fails to note the central element of the band's sound: echo. Chang may add washed-out synths and flickering electronics behind Milas' strummy serenades, but what he's mostly doing is piling on the reverb. On Open Season, their debut LP, every falsetto note sounds like it's bouncing around a cave, every lingering guitar line rises as if up from the bottom of a well. It's dream pop, with the emphasis on dreaminess. The duo - Sydney expats based in Brooklyn - covered Wild Nothing's Live in Dreams early in their career (their own ode to the subconscious, In a Dream, is delivered here), and they effectively take Jack Tatum's sound and strip it of its new-wave synths and jangling guitar, leaving instead a central ''space'' for their gentle sounds to echo through. All the dousing reverb makes things hazy, soft-edged and shimmering. The High Highs want their music not just to live in dreams, but to sound like them.



Black Stones


THE recent success of Australian soul music and a spread of associated home-grown acts (Saskwatch, Cactus Channel, Clairy Browne and the Bangin' Rackettes) hasn't included talented Adelaide soul-rock four-piece Lowrider. Perhaps it's because of the low-profile nature of Adelaide's music scene, or maybe because Lowrider's sound isn't of the vintage variety, but excellent efforts such as 2007's R&B-rooted album, Diamond among the Thieves, have been overlooked. The 14 tracks on the fourth album, Black Stones (recorded at Los Angeles' Red Bull Studios and produced by drummer Paul Bartlett), has the band further distancing itself from its previous R&B, soul, hip-hop and urban flavours and continuing to morph into a more straightforward rock and pop outfit. The soaring second single, Golden Sun has a Temper Trap-style, football stadium chorus, while the introspective title track finale is sweetly stunning. Mention must be made of singer Joe Braithwaite's lung-busting singing, but Black Stones lacks their previous colour and plays things too straight.


David Rex Quartet
Tour of Fate


REX is best-known for an extraordinary technical proficiency combined with a penchant for hard bop modulations and a bristling energy. Rex is young but steeped in jazz traditions. You can hear it on the first track of this album, Slap It, which works off a repeating figure with strong echoes of the Blue Note sound from the '50s. Here, he has brought in New York-based jazz pianist Aaron Goldberg, bassist Reuben Rogers, who has played with everyone from Wynton Marsalis and Roy Hargrove to Dianne Reeves, and drummer Gregory Hutchinson. There are some evocative moments, particularly on their rendition of Thelonious Monk's Ask Me Now. Another one is their take on Jimmy van Heusen's Nancy with the Laughing Face. Deeply emotional, it creates a feel that takes you back to another era. As do some of the originals. You can hear it in the logic of tracks such as Flat White that could easily have come out of the old studios. The combination of the new and traditional is what makes this album worth catching.


Various artists
Son of Rogues Gallery


HAL Willner has a fantastic contacts list and he uses it to good effect in his role as executive producer of this second compilation of musically disruptive artists performing pirate ballads and sea songs. There are 36 tracks ranging from contributions by natural pirate-like personas such as Shane MacGowan, Nick Cave, Iggy Pop, Dr John, Marianne Faithfull, Chuck E. Weiss, Tom Waits and Keith Richards through interesting choices such as Beth Orton, Ed Harcourt, Michael Stipe, Richard Thompson and Marc Almond, as well as lesser-known artists such as New Yorker Shilpa Ray, who almost steals the show with her version of Pirate Jenny, performed with Cave and Warren Ellis. Macy Gray's reggae-tinged Off to the Sea Once More is a gem, while Gavin Friday and Shannon McNally are foreboding on Tom's Gone to Hilo. The sub-genre consisting of pirate songs and sea shanties is misunderstood and under-appreciated, and this collection emphasises that there's more to this strain of folk music than rollicking tunes about rum and the high seas.


Rory Ellis
Twisted Willow


THE road is a crucible for working musicians who seek to live on the strength of their guitar strings and stories. They can break on the wheel or learn who they truly are in the nightly swirl of other people's lives. Rory Ellis has been clocking up the kilometres for more than a decade, a respected figure here and abroad, and has been burnished and made strong by the life he's chosen. Playing pubs and halls the world over, looking out at a different audience every night, the travelling man must be able to sling out a country tinged song like If the Drugs Don't Do It, easily shifting to the rocking Doggin', and the folk blues of The Woodstore. Ellis' songs are full of keen impressions and feelings, sung in a voice that is always true and expressive. The Road Is Not My Friend is a bittersweet ballad, nicely balanced by Right Hand Woman, about gaining strength from a loving partner. Apart from a little help from Dave Steel on dobro and mandolin, Ellis plays all the guitars, banjo, percussion and various other instruments on the album.