Posts Tagged ‘Doo Wop’

Songwriter Jodi Phillis is perhaps best known as one of the frontwomen (with Trish Young) of early 90s power-pop sirens, The Clouds. The Clouds played six Big Day Outs, garnered three ARIAS, gained a worldwide following, sold bucketloads and were critics’ darlings –  all the time consistently producing literate, highly idiosyncratic music which seemed to draw equally from the glittering perfection of 60s pop, the fuzzbox muscle of 90s rock and European art and poetry.

Their most memorable song – Phillis’ ‘Hieronymus’ – is an ode to the 15th century religious phantastist painter Hieronymus Bosch which astounds to this day for its depth, power and pop smarts. (It is relevant that Phillis is a fine illustrator as well, as her songs seem to shimmer with highly visual imagery).

Bestowed by Rolling Stone Magazine the prickly mantle of ‘a national treasure’, Jodi Phillis has never stopped creating (what truly creative soul can?), working as a film composer as well as currently with vocal group The Glamma Rays and duo Roger Loves Betty with husband Tim Oxley.

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Her new solo album – Sonum Vitae – has nothing to do with all of that, and yet everything to do with it all. Six tracks – six improvised tone-poems – charting impressions of life from conception to adolescence, Sonum Vitae is a remarkable body of music from the mind and heart of a truly remarkable musician.

Phillis stresses that Sonum Vitae (‘The Sound of Life’) is ‘art, not pop’. The pieces are lush and evocative in a cinematic sense, shaping six surprisingly complete sound-worlds for each of the six life-stages (so far) – ‘Conception’, ‘Incubation’, ‘Birth’, ‘Infancy’, Childhood’ and ‘Adolescence’.

‘Conception’ sounds as mystical and mysterious as is the biology of that life-stage, with luminous vocal incanting before a steady rhythm begins a pumping incessance – the rhythm of sex but also reminiscent of Stravinsky‘s ‘factory of nature’ from The Rite of Spring – the rhythm of growth and life.

This regular rhythm rises again and again across Sonum Vitae – a metaphor for the hammer of time that drives us through life, as well as the pulsing pump of life that won’t – can’t – let up. ‘Birth’ takes up the rhythm with cyber cellos pushing life out into the world and then – aaaaaaahhh – massed vocal like the light of the world outside the womb, and the warm love of mother.jodi phillis 1

It may be ‘art, not pop’ but Phillis’ songwriting smarts cannot be helped – the nursery rhyme harpsichord that intros ‘Infancy’ and the Debussyesque wonky piano of ‘Childhood’ evoke these times of life where discovery is a minute-by-minute thing. ‘Childhood’ also has a spoken word conversation between Mum and Dad on the meaning of Life and love, a conversation that is perfectly placed and apt.

The final tone-poem ‘Adolescence’ is a pink-cloud 50s doo-wop vibe, mirror-ball flecked and romantic as romantic gets. The chorus ‘I’m just sitting on a cloud‘ evokes the opposite of what one would expect from a modern, angsty adolescence. But Phillis writes with such authority that we go with her vision wherever it may lead.

Sonum Vitae is a remarkable work from one of the masters of Australian music and worth a deeper listen. It is available from and can also be accessed thru


Prior to posting this review I asked Jodi Phillis a handful of questions about Sonum Vitae. Here are her responses:

TheOrangePress: Firstly, and most obviously, where did the idea and spark for Sonum Vitae come from?
Jodi Phillis: Do you want the naked truth? Ok here it is. I was going through a bit of a low period, what with being a broke, middle aged songwriter without much hope of making any money out of my songs anymore, on and off the dole with my songwriting husband for 15 years, 2 kids and insomnia, so unable to tour very much… washed up, jaded, depressed… but unable to give up the addiction to making music… completely incompatible with working a ‘real job’ or studying anything that would help with that.
I shared my frustrations and my creative desires with my therapist. He suggested I just follow my instincts and create the album that was brewing in my head, without any thought of how it would be received, or whether or not it would even be released.
What a good idea I thought. Fuck it all, just express yourself.
So I did. I didn’t actually have the idea of making a musical autobiography until I sat at the computer and ‘Conception’ came out. I knew then what was happening and just had to follow the story.

TOP: You mention that the pieces were virtually improvised from out of the blue – why did you choose this way to work?
JP: I made sure I didn’t conciously brew the songs in my head before because it instantly broke the spell. I found that if I just sat there and started with a vocal or an instrument, the music would just come out. I would just kind of go into the zone of how I felt as a toddler or child or whatever the age was. It got harder as I got older. I think the first 3 tracks were easiest and best because they came from a completely spiritual, transcendant place. People who know me have said that it’s surprising how chilled the ‘Adolescence’ track is. I was a very rebellious teenager, so I think I expected it to come out jagged and angry and loud… but it is also when I got into marijuana and acid, so the mood was definitely altered.

TOP: Sonum Vitae is ‘art, not pop’ but as a writer and performer who obviously relishes Pop, the sensibility must be a background radiation to everything you do.
JP: Of course, you can’t help where you come from and you can’t ignore all the music you have made, heard and loved over the years. It was very nice though to have a break from having to come up with something that I would be proud of… melodic, wise, original, soulful… give me a break!

TOP: Sonum Vitae is six tracks from ‘Conception’ through to ‘Adolescence’. It has left me (and I am sure almost everyone else who listens to the album) with a painful case of ‘vitae interruptus’. When can we expect Part 2?
JP: I agree it is a little bit short. I was going to sit on it and finish my whole life, with a funeral at the end but I have recently bought a new computer, so I have all these new sounds to use so it would sound too different.
I really just felt that those 6 songs were a complete unit. I will revisit and complete the journey for sure but it won’t be for a while.
I am so busy becoming a film composer and playing with my groups The Glamma Rays and Roger Loves Betty and going to my kid’s dance concerts, it’ll have to wait. But I am so glad that I did it.

TOP: And finally, what are your thoughts on current music – of your own genre/s and others?
JP: Current music is awesome… anything goes, it’s changing every second it seems. The possibilities are endless. It seems that art is all there is to do in this world now that there aren’t many jobs for people. It’s an incredibly exciting time for us humans. Create, it’s great!! Now I gotta make that t-shirt!.


Published November 2013 on


The 1972 Sunbury Pop Festival was in many ways Australia’s Woodstock. Though more boozy, more wildly colonial and less peaced-out, Sunbury had similar results to the iconic American ur-Festival: both showed the wider, ‘straight’ world around them the cultural power of rock music (not to mention the potential big bucks that could be made from the revolution) and launched the careers of myriad bands.

Melbourne’s Madder Lake were the opening act of the inaugural 1972 festival and their highly original yet quirkily accessible take on the sometimes po-faced progressive rock of the time made them an instant hit. Unlike Billy Thorpe‘s barnstorming Aztecs (whose boozy Sunbury mantra was “suck more piss“) or many of their contemporaries – pub-blues bands like the Coloured Balls who honed a rusty edge to their music in merciless beer barns – Madder Lake had a spacier, more colourful approach.

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Their debut album Stillpoint worked through a range of styles from doo-wop to funk to rock’n’roll yet it all came from the same slightly skewed world where goggled-eyed singer Mick Fettes was KIng. It was telling in the music that most members came from an art school background (Madder Lake is a crimson pigment dye) – check out band roadie Drak‘s beautiful cover art of Stillpoint, too – and that the songs were worked up out of stoned jams in their bolt-hole. Creative, wide-eyed, joyful – much of it a psychedelic delight.

Stillpoint was followed by the less focussed Butterfly Farm in 1974 and then Madder Lake’s history hit various snarls, traps and forks in the road. The band never split up, as such, but slipped under that cruel radar that bands tend to slip under.

But, as they say, Ars Longa, Vita Brevis. Thirty-six years after Butterfly Farm the band set out to record their third album, spurred by bassist Kerry McKenna‘s title track, ‘World’. During the tortuous (and torturous) recording process there were catastophes, lineup changes and various trials and tribulations – not the least being Mick Fettes suffering two (two!) heart attacks. Recording continued in fragmented groups whenever the band members could manage it. madder lake3

So it is a wonder than the new album World, sounds as cohesive, jungle-colourful and ‘Madder Lake’ as ever. Refreshingly short – eight tracks at 30 minutes – the album spans the same panoramic fun-show of styles. The creativity, arty colour and quick wit are intact (I am so glad to say…)

Vocals are spread around the band – Mick Fettes lends his unmistakeable goblin growl to the sunny ‘Dreaming’ and (the ironically titled, considering Fettes’ health issues) ‘Hospital of Love’. Other members, keysman John McKinnon notably, contribute vocals throughout World.

Opening title track ‘World’ is heavy-psych, worldly wise (“In this world we all get good advice/And don’t take it…”), driven by Brenden Mason‘s tooth-and-claw guitar. ‘Badlands’ is rock’n’roll, booted along by guest vocalist Neale Johns (Blackfeather) and a scything harp solo from Mike Rudd (Spectrum/Murtceps) – yes, it’s rock’n’roll but it wouldn’t be Madder Lake without a jarring/jangling PinkFloydesque breakdown at 2:07.

Every track has its silver linings and golden eggs – the 50’s favoured doo-wop of ‘Please Please’ is darkened with jazz chords; ‘Heavy Weather”s storm clouds drift from St Kilda to rain on Moorish castles and back again; closing space-boogie ‘Calling’ shifts gears briefly to dislocate its rhythm before skidding back onto the rails.

The creativity is intact, Madder Lake is back and – despite the Big Miracle that it was made at all – World is a small miracle in itself.

Published October 2013 on



Is the alien boy with the lightning bolt makeup on the cover of this 1973 David Bowie album actually Ziggy Stardust? Many think of this iconic image when they think of Ziggy. Such is the fuzzy-edged mish-mash of pop-culture that many inaccuracies, misreadings and plain mistakes become icons for the ages, true or not – and this is one of them. Or is it?

The album is called Aladdin Sane but the character seems to be an extension of the ever-morphing Bowie phantasy persona of the 70s. Bowie himself referred to Aladdin Sane musically as “Ziggy goes to America”, so the Ziggy character logically got the U-S-of-A buff, shine and chrome-plating as well.David-Bowie-Aladdin-Sane

And that same buff, shine and chrome-plating was mirrored in the sound and subject of this new album. Whereas its predecessor, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars, told a dystopian tale of rock’n’roll stardom, totalitarianism and suicide, Aladdin Sane seemed to be a celebration of America, freedom and the excesses of the flesh. Where Ziggy seemed very Old World, wrapped in the rain of a bleak future England, Aladdin was all New World, New York, Marilyn Monroe and doo-wop – its vibe distilled into the lyric from ‘Jean Genie’: “New York’s a go-go, where everything tastes nice”.

Which doesn’t mean to imply the music was in any way shallower than Ziggy. Bowie produced these two albums (and arguably, their predecessor, the sci-fi-Gothic Hunky Dory) on a blindingly creative roll. His art was, like the Beatles before him, outstripping all around him in great leaps forward. In many ways Aladdin Sane is a deeper and more creative album than even Ziggy.

One reason was that Bowie seemed utterly unfettered by any limits in his songwriting and lyrics. His established starpower allowed him to now bring in all of his influences from the avant-garde that only were on the periphery of the songs on Hunky Dory and Ziggy. Unlike today where many stars eschew any growth in creativity to consolidate their career positions, Bowie (once more, as the Beatles had done) used his star power to propel his music into some dangerous areas.

Remembering that this was a UK Number One album, check out piano-player Mike Garson’s solo on the title track ‘Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)’ – Garson rakes and smashes the piano like the uncontrollable bastard child of Jerry Lee Lewis and Cecil TaylorElton John it ain’t.

david-bowie-ziggy-stardust-costumeThen there’s Mick Ronson’s volcanic Les Paul intro to ‘Cracked Actor’ and the cartoon Berlin cabaret of ‘Time’ – ‘Time/He flexes like a whore/Falls wanking to the floor…’, the fuck-off arrogant cover of the Stones ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’ and the nightmare doo-wop of ‘Drive In Saturday’. Bowie tested his fans with some wild creative lunges, and yet, batting at the top of his game, rarely misfired.

Lyrically, Bowie also pushed it. Always a challenging and incisively-intelligent lyricist, on Aladdin he gave us some surreal treasures. ‘Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)’s ‘Motor sensational/Paris or maybe hell/I’m waiting/Clutches of sad remains/Waits for Aladdin Sane/You’ll make it…’ or lines that owed more to pulp science fiction than to T.S. Eliot such as ‘Cursing at the Astronette/Who stands in steel by his cabinet/He’s crashing out with Sylvian/Bureau Supply for ageing men’ from ‘Drive In Saturday’.

Produced by Bowie and Ken Scott, the soundscapes are perfect – they ride the line between Velvet Underground menace and 50’s rock on the rockers (almost burying the vocals under the spitting phalanx of guitars on opener ‘Watch That Man’), and sci-fi soundtracks and art music on the moodier pieces such as closer ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ (‘Cologne she’ll wear/Silver and AmeriCard’ – Bowie’s lovesong to the seduction of moneyed America).

This reissue is timely as Bowie has just released his finest work in decades – the album The Next Day. Even though Aladdin Sane is of another time and another planet, the cord of Bowie’s art ties the two together unmistakeably, linking the wild alien boy with the lightning-bolt makeup to the current pensive wizard with the faintly sad eyes.

(Parlophone will be releasing the 40th Anniversary Edition of Aladdin Sane on April 12. This 40th anniversary edition has been remastered by Ray Staff at London’s AIR Studios. Ray cut the original LP during his time at Trident Studios and has received plaudits for his remastering of the Ziggy Stardust 40th anniversary edition last year.)

Published April 2013 on