Album review: D.I.G. – Directions In Groove/Clearlight

Posted: January 9, 2012 in Album review: jazz
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What is funk? Like ‘swing’, like love, like charisma, it is impossible to define – a thing built on and of nuance, its defining characteristics hidden deep in its grooves, invisible but completely ‘there’. Miles Davis had it, Marvin Gaye had it, even Keith Richards has it. When it comes to true funk, many have tried and most have failed.

Sydney band Dig (Directions In Groove) have had it from Day 1 – or rather from their first release, the 1994 EP Directions In Groove. Based around the Acid Jazz style of the day, but leaning on a range of styles such as rare groove, electro funk and 60’s Soul Jazz, the band was a hit right from the start. The exceptional rhythm section of Alex Hewetson on bass and firecracker drummer Terepai Richmond really made you sit up and take notice. Guitarist Tim Rollinson, saxophonist Rick Robertson and rappin’ keyboardist Scott Saunders took you new places. As a band they were a rare and beautiful thing – defying categorisation but hitting you where you live: music for the head, heart and booty all in one.

Twenty years after their formation – after a career of international highs, critical buzz, musical adventures and the blah-blahs that push every band into taking a rest – Dig are back with the old chemistry and a new album, Clearlight. I was fortunate to speak with Tim Rollinson, Dig’s guitarist and producer of Clearlight about the new album.

Rollinson is a passionate and thoughtful musician – as well as the album, we talked briefly about his guitar set-up which is in a constant state of evolution and evaluation, as is the music of the band. He explained the evolution of Dig through all of their releases, up to their last studio album Curvystrasse (1998), recorded at the time of the digital revolution (with all its tweakability) and thus their most ambitious recording to date.

The gestation and birth of the new one, Clearlight, came about entirely organically, as various planets came into alignment, bassist Alex Hewetson recently returned to the fold and one thing led to another. The album has that solidity at its root – despite the typical Dig style-hopping – of a work that has not been forced, but has come about of its own. From the sparkling, almost electro-pop opener ‘Strangers Talking’ to the dubby, trippy surrealscape of closer ‘Euphonic Depth’ it is a great trip, accessible yet artfully made.

‘Strangers Talking’ features the band’s latest collaborator, vocalist Laura Stitt, known to Sydneysiders from her funky band, Uncle Jed. Dig has had some great singers along the way – Toni Mott, Inga Liljestrom, Michelle Martinez – so the bar was set high. At first ambivalent about having yet another vocalist join up with Dig, Rollinson says he (and the rest of the band) was bowled over by how good the fit was. Tim Rollinson explained to me that on Clearlight the band was going for a greater integration of vocals into the music than on any other previous release – a fit that is evident on ‘Strangers Talking’ and the smooth-as-skin title track ‘Clearlight’.

The instrumental tracks are pure Dig – whatever that may mean with a band as hard to define as this. ‘Bassick Insync’ with its punning title and Alex Hewetson funk-bass intro sums up what we all love about this band – a skintight groove with enough blood pumping to bring to mind the greats without any slavish reference. Different feels such as ‘New Sense’s Afro-funk groove or the rock pattern of ‘Reality’ all contain the same slave-to-the-rhythm ethos that works so well. The chilled latin-flavoured ‘Juanita Nielsen’ is Rollinson’s tribute to the 70’s anti-development heroine of Kings Cross who was brutally murdered for her stance (the case is still open; Google it – it is a piece of Sydney history that should not be forgotten).

Rollinson says that the album was recorded across a range of recording environments (from pure live takes to heavily digitised layering) and yet it all sounds cut from the same rug: all bristling with life and the joy all four Diggers have grooving with each other. I checked a showcase gig they did earlier this year at Newtown’s Notes venue and that joy was evident. A few times there I truly thought Terepai Richmond would fly off his drum stool with the momentum of it all.

Clearlight will be released 17 November and Dig are touring the album nationally over November and December. Keys player Scott Saunders says of the current project and tour “It is not often that you get a second chance in life, but it look like we got lucky with Dig”. Dig fans around the country are probably thinking just that same groovy thought.

Published November 2011 on theorangepress.net

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