Posts Tagged ‘Motown’

To pay tribute to any artist by releasing an album covering their songs is a brave step. The kicker is that any artist worth paying tribute to is usually a one-off, an utter original – in effect, uncopyable. When the artist is Etta James, the brave step veers close to kamikaze.

James was a restless, troubled and driven soul, who blazed through a wild and rocky career, bouncing from gospel to blues to rock and roll, writing the book on cap-S Soul styling along the way. To pay tribute to such a chimeric and meteoric talent in a meaningful way is a tall ask.

But, if the tribute is done with love and a sense of celebration – as Darren Percival recently did with his Ray Charles album – it can work like a charm.

alex hahn3

Sydney soul singer, Alex Hahn‘s new release The Wallflower – named for the ‘polite’ renaming of James’ sexually explicit ‘Roll With Me Henry’ (which appears here) – works. In fact it works like a fucking voodoo charm.

Hahn – one of Sydney music’s best kept secrets – has put together one hell of an album covering all of the styles that Etta James chewed up and spat out in her career of almost six decades. From the rolling blues of ‘Baby What You Want Me to Do?’ (with its growling vocalese solo) through the boppin’ rock’n’roll of ‘Tough Lover’ and minor key gospel of Randy Newman‘s ‘God’s Song’, Hahn and her band never hit a weak spot.

A mention here needs to go to the band – The Blue Riders – who easily capture the vibe of the song, be it a pumping Motown strut like opener ‘Tell Mama’ (Janis Joplin also paid tribute to Etta with her own version in the early 70s), or the evergreen (everblue?) Etta James staples, ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ or shimmering alum closer ‘At Last’ (special mention here – and across the whole record – to guitarist Charlie Meadows who reads the songs’ intent and vibe beautifully; limpid or bullying accompaniment could kill these tunes, and he shines on every track).

But of course, it is Alex Hahn who has taken the kamikaze step – it is her voice and the sincerity behind her delivery on which The Wallflower will be judged. While it would be unfair – and missing the point – to directly compare these tracks to Etta James’ versions, one rightly expects the same tough/soft, fiesty/sweet, rockin’/weepin’ complexities (the same that go for all the greats such as Bille Holliday and Joplin) to be preserved in Hahn’s interpretations.

To my ear, not only are they preserved intact, but they are built on – the band and Hahn grabbing many of the tracks by the mane and taking them higher.alex hahn2

And this is where the sense of celebration comes in and entirely vindicates The Wallflower project. It is one thing to get the music and groove right and replicate towering songs such as these – but it is merely replication, cover versions in the most base sense.

It is entirely another to generate the passion, insecurities, bruises and lionheart of a truly iconic performer such as Etta James and to let that blaze up through the blues or rock or gospel or whatever format the songs take. Alex Hahn with The Blue Riders have done it on The Wallflower, painting a bright and vivid portrait of a multi-dimensional artist in the best way possible – with their own voice.

Alex Hahn launches The Wallflower this Sunday, September 1st, at the Roxbury Glebe from 6.30pm.

Alex Hahn’s website is


Published August 2013 on

There must be something in the water lately. The last year or so has seen a welcome glut of excellent roots flavoured albums – Mia Dyson’s jagged and soulful The MomentClaude Hay’s country-blues ass-kicker I Love Hate You; and now Tombstone Bullets from Johnny Cass and his Band.

Each release is highly distinctive and a keen distillation of their sound: Dyson’s heart-ripping vocal is more harrowing than ever, Hay’s junk-shop boogie is as juicy as it will get and Johnny Cass sounds as if has really found his thing.

Johnny-Cass-2Even though Tombstone Bullets is the debut of his Band, John Cass has been bothering the higher quality end of Australian blues for years – from earlier blues-rockers Parker, through The Widowbirds with Simon Meli, right up to the current Muddy Waters Tribute shows he shares with luminaries such as Dom Turner, Kevin Bennett and Ian Collard.

As already suggested, Tombstone Bullets sounds like a culmination of Cass’s artistry and craft – not the culmination, as any true artist never stops growing. That said, the styles and playing on the album seem so right that I hope Cass stays in this zone for another, say, two or three albums at least.

Opener ‘Sun Goes Down’ sets up a warm country chug for a blues muso’s mission statement – ‘When your day is ended/Mine has just begun…’. The flawless and tricky clawhammer guitar parts set out the virtuoso’s stall for what is to come.

Yet even though are more than enough jaw-dropping moments from the album’s guitarists, shredding takes a backseat to the songs throughout the album. Which is as it should be, especially with songs this strong.

The nine originals (the album also finishes with a humidly atmospheric take on Bruce Springsteen’s noir mood-piece ‘Open All Night’) – all written or co-written by Cass – cover blues, country, soul and rock, often mixing all together into a piquant and heady-heavy gumbo.

‘Open At Sunset’ is Motown four-beat soul-stomp; ‘Rather Be Here’ is banjo-powered country jig; ‘Keep Your Lamplight Alive’ is a greasy slice of Humble Pie-flavoured fuzz rock.Johnny-Cass-1

All the songs hit the hot spot and, in ‘Holdin’ On’, Cass has penned a stone classic. A languid soul-rock trip, with heavy guitars wreathing the song in curtains of blue-black night, ‘Holdin’ On’ builds through several peaks of gospel intensity. Cass’s vocal is superb here, cracking and rasping at just the right points.

I truly believe ‘Holdin’ On’ is worthy of being up there with eternal Australian songs such as ‘Throw Your Arms Around Me’ or ‘Flame Trees’. But what do I know? I’ve been wrong before – but in this case I really do hope I’m right.

Tombstone Bullets is, all up, worthy of making a real dent in the Australian blues and roots catalogue. Its eclecticism and tougher rock edge on some songs will widen its appeal beyond the often purist roots scene, which can’t be a bad thing. Tombstone Bullets is a good thing – take a listen. Buy it. Vote for Cass.

Tombstone Bullets is out August 1 2013. Album purchase and tour details are at

Tombstone Bullets cover artist, Sindy Sin’s website is

Published July 2013 on

Ah, Fat Freddy’s Drop – more than just a band, more a force of nature.

Aotearoa’s ‘seven headed soul monster’ has grown organically over the years, eschewing much modern music-biz marketing stratagems and long-range forecasts. They just play music, man. I always loved the fact that their first full length, 2001’s Live at The Matterhorn contained four 18-minute tracks – four gorgeously open-ended deep soul/dub adventures in sound. (It was barely promoted and sold and sold and sold…)


Subsequent releases have been more song based in parts, but it is still the great strength of The Drop (named after LSD blotters carrying a pic of Zap Comix freak brother, Fat Freddy) to take us out to the further reaches of dub with an almost Jazz sensibility laying the road beneath us as we travel.

New album Blackbird holds some delicious dub as well as some beautifully stoned soul. Opener, title track ‘Blackbird’ sets up the trip with a bass line that is worth the price of admission alone. The track moves through some Latin piano, sweet soul vocal and dubby horns, coming out the other end into a big, blazing horn coda. All the FFD elements are there, better than ever to my ear – Blackbird seems to have distilled the most perfect expression of their sound yet.

‘Russia’ continues the trip, digging even deeper. ‘Clean the House’ suggests a Motown soul thing, complete with squelchy guitars and floating horns – you won’t hear another rhythm section play a straight 1/8th-beat pattern as funky as this.

You also won’t hear another band roll out a shuffle – the track ‘Silver and Gold’ – quite like The Drop. And here is where the genius of FFD and the remarkable interaction of the band lies – after playing this many gigs (innumerable European and Australian tours) each member seems to work ego-less and uncannily as a part of the ‘seven headed soul monster’, intuitively shaping the sound. Telepathy abounds! It is a very ‘black’ music consciousness – working as part of a greater community, the opposite mid-set of the ‘white’ thing of ego-battle and cult of the individual. (Pardon my glaring generalisation here – but you get my drift…).ffd

And it makes for some entirely sumptuous grooves – the soul pump of ‘Bones’, the almost surreal dubscape of ‘Soldier’, the rattling Latin clip of ‘Mother Mother’ (which contains some of the tastiest horn writing on the album). What is always remarkable about Fat Freddy’s Drop is that they can pick the eyes out of contemporary music, mixing elements of any style – blues, dub, techno, jazz (acid and acoustic), electronica, soul, R’n’B and rock – and always come up sounding like themselves. Is it magic? Blackbird certainly sounds like it is.

To their fans and to new audiences at home and around the world, Fat Freddy’s Drop can do no wrong. It is music that has an irresistibility that comes from its deep humanity and echoes of the most deeply-felt musics of the recent and deep past. And Blackbird will continue to spread the good word, in wider and wider circles.

Details of the Blackbird AlbumTour are at

Published July 2013 on

‘In a Little While’, the debut single released earlier this year by Melbourne vocalist, Maxi Vauzelle gave us a taste of what was to come. A quite irresistible piece of pop-soul, ‘In a Little While’ balanced old school and nu-soul flavours nicely with Vauzelle’s voice standing out immediately to the ear as one to watch.

‘In a Little While’ sits right in the middle of Vauzelle’s new EP, MAXI – five tracks (well, four and a bit) of soul that is thankfully not too serious – drawing together elements of 70s disco, gospel and synth-pop to make a truly original whole.

Maxi Vauzelle – who goes by the hip contraction of Maxi – has teamed with producer Joel Witenberg to hone these tunes, written in her parent’s attic over the summer of 2011/12, into what we hear on MAXI. Using a core of smart musos (check guitarist Adam Starr’s Earth-Wind-&-Fire horn arrangements on ‘For Me’) and some nice production imagination (the thinned out percussion under the lush vocal harmony on ‘In a Little While’ is sharp and effective), Witenberg has framed Maxi’s songs and stand-out voice perfectly.
The informal opener, aptly called ‘Intro’ weaves gospel voices over a finger-popping background, intertwining and blending into church harmony before the jungle drums of ‘From The Start’ take us to Motown. Perfect groove, Stax-soul horns, neat hook.

The single, ‘In a Little While’ keeps the standard up, warmed up this time with the smoulder of vintage synths. Disco mover, ‘For Me’ (with those tasty horns) has a mirror-ball vibe that should earmark it for the next single (or my next party).

EP closer, the moody ‘Heaven Helped You Down’, a minor key torch anthem with cinematic thunder drums shows Maxi’s flawless vocal harmonies – used richly throughout the five tracks – to great effect; stacked four or five voices high, they create a wall, a curtain, a river of sound wherever Witenberg uses them. It is a mark of Witenberg’s taste (and soul-smarts) that ‘Heaven Helped You Down’ never boils over but aches through to the end.

Very nice – I am taken with that balance of production, as we heard recently on Adele’s omnipresent world-beater 21, of a lush treatment that still manages to have the immediacy of a band playing for you in a room. Maxi’s vocal is also reminiscent of Adele’s – not the sometimes too-pushed power of the British singer, but the warmth and nuance that goes back to soul’s golden period. What Maxi adds is the sass of disco-divas such as Alicia Bridges and Gloria Gaynor. As I said, one to watch.

Maxi’s website is here.


Published September 2012 on





At the very end of the liner-note thank-yous of his new LP Mantown, Northern Beaches singer Luke Escombe adds the names of Keith Richards and the Rev. Gary Davis. If he hadn’t thanked them, I would have – the music here takes so much snake-hipped groove from the former and more than a little pulpit-shakin’ drama from the latter.

And did I call Escombe a mere ‘singer’? He describes himself as a ‘musician, comedian, MC, pimp, chronic illness ambassador and “Sydney’s sexiest man voice”’. I stand corrected.

After spending most of 2009 at home on his couch recovering from a serious chronic illness, Escombe returned with two live EPs in Chronic Illness and Live in the Studio. His renewed style of music mixed funk, pop, comedy and hip-hop into something called “Flip flop”.

His “flip flop” musical comedy show “Chronic” played at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in April 2011, with The Melbourne Herald Sun describing him as “a stick insect dressed like a pimp”.

Are we expected to take all this (or Luke Escombe himself) seriously?

Yes, and no. I was won over from the first song ‘I Drop Tha Bomb’ and the immortal couplet “Bad dog drop tha bomb on the lawn/The word bomb means dog turd in this song”. Those more grown-up might also enjoy the song’s menacing Peter Gunn groove and the muscle of Escombe’s band on Mantown, The Corporation.

The Corporation is Aaron Flower on guitar, Kevin Hailey on bass and Jamie Cameron on drums – jazz heavy hitters to a man, yet they rock-and-soul as if they were bred for it. Flower is well known as a jaw-dropping player with progressive country leanings and he particularly sizzles throughout – providing slithering Motown whispers on ‘iMan’, Telecaster sparkle on ‘Confidence’ and blues howls throughout.

Heavy friends such as Hammond go-to guy Lachy Doley and singer Chris E Thomas help round out Escombe’s clean and direct self-production. With the almost obscene amount of talent lying around the studio he wisely has not let anything get in the way of the songs.

As it should be – they are such strong, idiosyncratic songs: Escombe’s heavy-lidded, sometimes blues-barked delivery reminds me of the late Warren Zevon’s sardonic baritone. Like Zevon’s rendering of his own left-of-centre lyrics, Escombe’s often hilarious and bizarre word-images are sung by him with great drama and, yes, a wink.

Another fun line from ‘I Drop Tha Bomb’ says “There’s a sign on the wall for all to see/It says WE TAKE JOKES SERIOUSLY”. Luke Escombe and The Corporation take these jokes and songs very seriously indeed and have produced a cracker.

Luke Escombe’s website is here.

Published September 2012 on


After years of over-processed, effects-laden shred guitar, the voice of the unadorned electric guitar is a refreshingly direct and emotive one. The originators of blues and rock didn’t have much choice – they had to wring all the feeling they could out of that neck because all they had was a guitar, a wire and an amp (often a converted radio or primitive PA). Guitarists such as Howlin’ Wolf’s hotwire virtuoso, Hubert Sumlin, invented an entire repetoire of bends, double-stops and slides to transcend the wiry tone of their instruments (most of which are still used today, from country to metal).

Many current players still go for that un-effected sound in order to allow nothing to come between them and the listener’s heart and vitals (and ass). Much of the late Stevie Ray Vaughan’s best work was just wood, wire and fingers. Sydney guitarist/drummer Matt ‘The Rumble’ Morrison adopts the same steely, ‘vocal’ tone on his recent LP, Gemini.

Called Gemini because of Morrison’s double-threat skills – he is as much in demand on guitar and drums (check his tasty snake-hipped shuffle on album cut ‘Polarised’) – the LP has a warm and laidback party vibe which frames this music perfectly.

Produced in collaboration with keys-whiz Clayton Doley (The Hands, The Mighty Reapers and recently Harry Manx)Gemini moves from soul to blues to reverb-heavy rock (Morrison’s sly take on the classic ‘Sleepwalk’, called ‘Spacewalk’) and surf (the gorgeous cover of Link Wray’s ‘Mustang’) guitar instrumentals.

The soul cuts feature vocals from the surprising (and wonderfully named) Snooks La Vie as well as Morrison himself. Doley has arranged some tough horns as well and dropped them perfectly in place. Not surprisingly, the rhythm section of Morrison and bassman Rowan Lane is as tight as loose can be – beautiful!

Gemini is a roots-real delight from go to whoa. I cannot wait to check this material live.

Matt’s website is here.


Prior to posting this review, The OrangePress asked Matt Morrison a handful of questions. Here are his responses:

The OrangePress: Where does Matt Morrison come from, musically and spiritually?

Matt Morrison: I guess musically I started listening to my three older brothers playing around the house a lot. We grew up with the similar musical starting point of the early electric blues men, ie Elmore James, Hound Dog Taylor, Muddy Waters, BB King. But its not exclusively blues either, It was not a big leap for me to get into the Beatles, Elvis, Surf guitar, guitar pop (modern and old) Motown, Chess soul etc. I suppose the common thread is guitar, organ and great rhythm sections, which is enough for me. It all seems like an extension of the same thing, same ingredients slightly different flavors. The tunes / songs of these styles of music, and importantly the delivery, all tug at your emotions, the full gamut, one way or another.

TOP: I hear Booker T-style Steve Cropper in your sound and approach very strongly on ‘Gemini’ – who else shapes your guitar playing?

MM: Booker T is always a touchstone for me, and when it comes time to record a song, I always try and consider how those blokes would have gone about it. Because it was so direct and deceptively simple, it is very effective and ultimately cool. We did this a lot with Gemini. Other guitar guys include BB King, the unknown soul twangers in James Brown’s bands of the 60’s, Denny Freeman from Austin Texas that I’ve toured with a few times, the Texas strat guys like Jimmie Vaughan etc. Local guys like Dave Brewer and Jack Housden really knock my socks off too!  At the other end of the spectrum I enjoy learning from Grant Green, early George Benson, Kenny Burrell .

TOP: Hammond-hero Clayton Doley co-produced ‘Gemini’, played on the album and supplied horn arrangements. What did Clayton bring to the sessions?

MM: Clayton and I grew up in Adelaide and are old friends. When I needed someone to help me with the album, he was the only choice really. Because we really didn’t need to talk about much musically or artistically, let alone disagree, as we just inately understand what each other likes, dislikes, and is capable of. It’s not that common for someone to be such a great all round musician like he is, and have all the technical skills and ear required to complete the recording process from beginning to end like he has. His concentration is unparalleled. After a few hours I’m done, he can go all day! We both seem to be able to use practical skills as well as artistic ones to complete the job with the original vision unhindered by extraneous influences. Though sometimes, other input is exactly what is required, but on this occasion, I had fairly grounded ideas about what I wanted, and it was easy to go about it together.

TOP: The sound and vibe is full of old-school flavours. With The Dap-Kings and neo-soul this style seems more popular that ever. What is it in roots-soul-blues that keeps it fresh and evergreen?

MM: I’m hopeful that this “neo-soul” vibe will blossom and continue to provide guys like me with an outlet, cause its not always easy to find one. One thing that keeps this material going in my view is simply the music. Great songs, or fantastic emotive grooves, moving bridges, nice arrangements always have a way of connecting with people, even if they don’t know it. There is a fashion element to all things like this, and if it can be marketed correctly, ie in a way that makes it palatable for people, and make is available to them, then the music will do the rest. I find it is the business and marketing side of things that is the most challenging for most self-made musicians.

TOP: What are you thoughts on current music?

MM: On some levels the big media hits are nothing more than fashionable dross, that I find more difficult to listen to than a team of workmen fixing the bitumen on the street. At least the council blokes are doing something useful! Just trying to buy a pair of new jeans is an effort of self control when dealing with the music in the shop…
On the other hand, there are so many current cool things on you tube, the net in general by artists that have taken roots music to a different level, and give me great encouragement that people are still creating cool stuff and getting some recognition for it. Though, it is sometimes overwhelming to cut though the massive amounts of product out there now to find it. Musicians never fail to surprise me how pro-active they are at finding and passing on interesting modern acts from around the globe.

TOP: Where does Matt Morrison go next, musically and spiritually?

MM: I plan to keep playing drums AND guitar. In fact I just bought a new ’63 orange sparkle round badge Gretsch kit from New York, that has inspired me a little to practise and create on the drums a bit more. And a while ago just finished building the f-hole tele (on the cd cover) to play with too.
In the short term, I have been playing guitar more with Clayton lately, and we will be going up to the big festival in Caloundra in Queensland at the end of Sept. Mid Sept I have the vocalist on my cd – Snooks La Vie coming over from Adelaide to do a run of gigs with the Rumble’ators. Full seven piece band with the horns and Hammond etc.
The positive feedback I’ve been getting about Gemini from everyone has been very heartening. It’s given me confidence to pursue my ideas, and I intend to keep implementing them as best I can, in what ever gig I do. These days, as I get a little older, I prefer to spend more time at home learning the gig that I’m booked for, as opposed to winging it, so that I can give a show my best shot. I remind myself constantly that I’m lucky to have the opportunity to perform at all, let alone next to some of the talented people I work with, and that at the end of the day, its all about doing your best.


Published July 2012 on

What is Style? Style is a spectre, a ghostly sheen that is impossible to describe and pretty much impossible to buy, steal or fake. In short, you either got it or you don’t.

Today’s styles tumble over each other with such rapidity that the more style conscious among us are almost perpetually dizzy with Style’s glittering spin. The truly stylish – whether in fashion, music, food, even politics – seem to have an enviable ability to cherry-pick what they want from this or that and make it their own.

Sydney singer-songwriter Vanessa Raspa has all the Style she needs and more. Her look and vibe are an impeccable and captivating combination of much of the best of the 20th century – 40’s chic, 50’s sass, even a splash of 70s and 80s pop smarts -– while being entirely of today. The same goes for her music.

La Raspa’s recent launch of her single Movin’ took place at Newtown’s Vanguard. She could not have selected a better venue – part Paris bordello, part über-urban jazz bar, The Vanguard’s décor was a perfect fit for an entirely stylish night of music.

Opener, Tether (singer Cat Robinson) chilled the room with her intimate tunes including a hushed and lush version of The Church’s ‘Under The Milky Way’. The Conscious Pilots’ brand of extroverted rap-funk-with-horns woke us out of our revery and prepared us for La Raspa and her band.

Strutting out with Motown belter ‘Like Candi Says’, Raspa’s band – the wonderfully named Zombie Cats – pricked our ears up. These are some of Sydney’s sharpest young jazz players but they don’t mind putting their foot down as the music commands. Cameron Henderson’s SRV-style solo spat some sparks during the opener. Yet for ‘Real Deal’ the Cats laid back, evoking the smoothest of smooth jazz – with a wonderful Chick Corea-like solo from Emma Stephenson adding a pearlescent lustre.

Raspa’s songs demand this level of switched-on musicianship – her fashion sense is smart and eclectic, and so is her music: there are flavours of soul (not Nu-, but the Detroit stuff, the real stuff), pure pop, finger-popping jazz and more than a nod to cabaret. The torchy ‘Broken’ or the hip-swinging ‘Superman’ put out velvet textures that hung perfectly among The Vanguard’s rich, deep drapes. ‘Sometimes Silence’ had the band flamenco-clapping to a Spanish 6/8 with drummer Oli Nelson kicking up some Andalusian dust under it all. Elsen Price, on electric upright, began the tune ‘Carousel’ with complete authority over the groove. 

But it was Vanessa Raspa’s night – she was chanteuse, diva, blues lady, jazz baby. Like all the most truly musical singers, she worked with the band – over it, within it, around it – a synergy all too rare in this age of counterfeit Stardom, but always a startling thing to experience. By the time Raspa and her Zombie Cats hit us with the single Movin’ – its launch was the reason we were here – the Vanguard was hers. A sharp slice of Motown soul-funk – with horn man Jack Shanley working and sweating like a whole section – Movin’ raised everyone’s temperature on this chill late Autumn night.

We wouldn’t let her go, but her impromptu encore of The Beatles’ ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ (by way of SRV’s ‘Pride and Joy’) left us all smiling. As does La Raspa’s music and pin-sharp style – which she gets just so right.

Photos by Lily So. Check the full gallery here.

Published May 2012 on

Sometimes the best things in life (and music) come from wrong turns. The Beatles trying to replicate Motown hits and getting it so gloriously wrong. The Ramones‘ attempt at being a bubblegum band, botched but ultimately birthing a new direction for rock. It is said the ‘blue’ (or flattened) notes in early blues – the basis for so much in the vernacular of popular music – came from slaves’ inaccurate hearing of distantly played Western classical music. Who knows?

Joe Camilleri set out to make a Hank Williams-inspired record in Nashville. Instead, he ended up making a triple-album set, holding 24 new songs, with almost everyone who ever played in his band The Black Sorrows, and housing it in an art book with original paintings by Sydney artist, Victor Rubin. This wrong turn (or series of wrong turns), led to Crooked Little Thoughts. All hail the wrong turn, summed up neatly in Camilleri’s lyric, “The world’s a sea of stories and nothing goes to plan…”

Camilleri says of his beloved Black Sorrows “On a good night we’re a great band… On a bad night, we’re a train wreck. And I reckon that’s the way bands should be… I’d rather fall on my face than be the same every night.” It is this mission statement that not only gives Crooked Little Thoughts its restless ecleticism (covering rock’n’roll, reggae, country, blues, gospel etc), but also its rollicking and blood-pumping live feeling across all 24 tracks.

From horn-and-string-laden funk opener ‘Money Talkin’ – with great blues-guitar from Claude Carranza – the ‘family’ vibe is evident. The lead vocal is shared by Camilleri and Sorrows newcomer (and quite a find!), the wonderfully named Atlanta May Coogan, with big bad backing vocal from the Wolfgramm sisters, Eliza, Kelly and Talei. There are 14 people on this track, yet they are all driving the same bus, all working towards making the song live its own life for 4:36.

This ‘family’ vibe is all over Crooked Little Thoughts – some tunes are sparser of course: the Tex-Mex ‘Our Town’, the Nashville ballad ‘The Spell is Broken’, the Bakersfield boogie ‘Dustbowl Blues’ – but every tune has just what it needs; the gumbo cooked up from the amazingly rich pantry of the Sorrows wonderful instrumentalists: Rockwiz’s James Black, jazz guitarist James Sherlock, tenor man Wilbur Wilde, drummer David Jones.

And they can rock too: ‘Shelley’ cooks with Stonesy guitars, ‘I’m the One’ takes us back to the humid Melbourne days of Camilleri’s hit band, Jo Jo Zep and The Falcons, ‘Waitin for the Hammer’ bristles with Stax soul excitement. Unlike too many double- or triple-album sets (of which it is often said that they would have made one great single album), every song here counts; the riches on Crooked Little Thoughts are many and varied. The moods, colours and stories here are tied together by something as simple as ‘heart’ – all the characters, streets, towns, kisses and sads are real, and very human.

Mention needs to be made of two huge talents, apart from the raggedly glorious Mr Joe Camilleri, that contribute indelibly to the album: that of vocalist Atlanta Coogan and artist Victor Rubin. Atlanta May Coogan (her name could come from a Camilleri tune!) is a great voice; her stamp is all over the music here, whether sharing lead vocal with Joe (‘Its Only Xmas’ is standout), or taking the lead on her own on the torchy blues ‘Lovin You’, one can hear why she made Mr Camilleri’s ears prick up when he first heard her on the Fogg album he produced in 2003.

Lastly, the other creative personality who undoubtedly makes Crooked Little Thoughts really something is painter Victor Rubin. The artworks he has created for each of the 24 tracks – they each face the song’s lyrics on double-page spreads – are timelessly modern, brilliantly original and full of a passionate lunge of feeling in their execution; in this they fit with the Black Sorrows’ music so well: nothing clever-clever, nothing too clean, slick or pointlessly polished. They are just right, and help to elevate this remarkable package of song- stories, story-songs and song-pictures into one of the great artifacts of Australian music.

The Black Sorrows website is here.

Victor Rubin’s website is here.

Crooked Little Thoughts is out on Head Records.

Published April 2012 on

I was dodging the flailing arms and hair of the wildly dancing girl in front of me, as well as trying to balance my red wine (plastic) glass here stuck between all the heaving grooving bodies, when it suddenly struck me: I was in the presence of the anti-Elvis Costello for the New Shiny Age. But I will get to that…

Who do you get to support such a self-assured, yacht-rock-pop-Motown übercool überGeek such as Mayer Hawthorne? Both supports – the big voiced Fantine and the astonishing Electric Empire seemed too grown up and too serious for this silly, fun party.

Fantine, supported by her lone guitarist (well, as lone as a guitarist with a loop-box of tricks at his feet can be) was perhaps the most truly original artist of the night, or at least the one who buried her influences deeper than E.E. or M.H. Her voice was huge, her songs cool yet accessible – keep a weather eye on Fantine; she should be big.

Electric Empire of course thrilled as ever – with three knockout vocalists and strong strong material, we always gladly overlook the too-close Stevie and Marvin 70s capital-‘s’-Soul references and grooves. Their Soul was from Motown (Wonder, GayeInnervisions, ‘Inner City Blues’) as was Mayer Hawthorne’s (Supremes, Temptations, ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’, ‘Ain’t Too Proud To Beg’) but like the gulf between 60s and 70s Motown, their musics were a galaxy apart.

Heralded by his band, The County’s funk groove (his bass player gets the award for best hair of the nite – Afro d’Excellence), Mayer Hawthorne bounced onto the stage in a swirl of hyper-energy and fun. The small fact that his vocal mic wasn’t in the mix for the first few seconds was overshadowed by his perfect Yacht Rock styling: white jacket, white Bermudas, stripey socks and white trainers (he would later team this ensemble with a white Epiphone Les Paul – ahh, I could almost hear Hall & Oates sighing with envy from a sunny marina far in the distance). I guess it was at this point that the niggling thought entered my head for the first time tonight: Is Mayer Hawthorne serious or is this all some (albeit-beautifully-constructed) post-modern gag?

The music is great: three songs in ‘The Walk’ – the single from his new LP How Do You Do? – put the party into drive. A perfect groove, a perfect hook, delivered to an audience that Hawthorne could point his mic at at any time and they would sing back the next line – it was all too good to be true. A little like Mayer Hawthorne himself.

He welcomed us to the ‘Mayer Hawthorne SHOW’, emphasising that this was not a ‘concert’, or an ‘orchestra’ (sic) but a Show – directing all the Party People down to the front and shoo’ing the party poopers up the back where they belonged. This of course was pure 60’s Motown – pure entertainment for the people (he says his favourite show as a child was the after school dance show ‘The New Dance Show’ – perfectly recreated for the clip to his song ‘A Long Time’). Pure entertainment for the people – or is it?

Hawthorne bends to give a female audience member his guitar plectrum. He takes a picture of all of us for Twitter. He lets us take a picture of him holding a bouquet of flowers like an Academy Award winner. He tells us to now put our cameras away and ‘pretend’ we are at a Show enjoying it in ‘real time’. A friend said Hawthorne reminded her of a pop music Jeff Koons – the US artist who replicates cheesy ads starring himself that walk the thinnest possible edge of irony.

The girl dancer flailed, the audience heaved around me, my red wine spilled. It flashed on me that Hawthorne was the anti-Elvis Costello for the New Shiny Age. All the parallels and opposites were there: both Elvis Costello and Mayer Hawthorne draw upon 60s pop music as the base template for their songs – E.C. used 60s British Pop, M.H. the sweeter Motown equivalent. Both affect a speccy-nerd style, with ill-judged/perfectly-judged clothes to match – with E.C. it accentuated the bitterness of his songs, with M.H. it charms us into his (supposedly) irony-free world of party party party.

Elvis Costello was a razor-sharp signifier of his place and time, Britain in the late 1970’s – the intelligent, sensitive loner in a bleaker and bleaker world of Government thuggery and societal fragmentation. Mayer Hawthorne is equally a spot-on signifier of his own place and time, 2012 USA. The breeziness of his delivery, the uncrackable smile, the tan, the summer-weight clothes suggest an American Dream free of cares or thoughts or woes. His is the music of a youthful affluence that America and the world cling to against all signs to the contrary. And it’s great to dance to.

Check out Katja Liebing’s pics of the show here

Published February 2012 on

Retro-based music, even when it is as lovingly created and truly heartfelt as the rash of nu-soul releases of the past ten or so years, is nonetheless a tightrope walk. The balance of ‘nu’ to old school is a fine one –Amy Winehouse could do it beautifully (especially under the style-eye of Mark Ronson), Adele can do it just fine with her great big heart – but too often, the old school looms too big in the mix, and the thing falls flat, sliding into nostalgic pastiche. Why is this? One theory is that it is easy to cherry-pick from the extant past which lies below one’s fingertips in racks upon racks of Motown and Stax vinyl, but much harder to create ‘nu’ ideas.

Andrew Mayer Cohen’s second album How Do You Do? under the nom-du-Soul ofMayer Hawthorne (a portmanteau of his middle name and the Michigan street of his childhood) is a release that has got me thinking on this nu/old school thing again. The album sails so close to the wind most of the time – pureTemptations here, spot-onSmokey Robinson there, a little too Isaac Hayes here again – that it is all too easy to sniff and go back to the ‘real stuff’, the original Soul sides that echo endlessly on this record.

But – and this is a big BUT – How Do You Do? is so damn good that it knocks my over-thought critique flat on its tweedy ass. Impeccably constructed, smartly arranged and played with real juicy groove (the Funk Brothers smile down from the golden-brown Motown sunset upon these righteous tracks), it is irresistible.

Yet it is the vocal that makes one really sit up (it is always the vocal that makes one sit up!). Hawthorne’s voice can stand up to anything these twelve neat tracks (12 x 3min tracks – just like they used to do on 70s vinyl) ask of it. From smoky Smokey Robinson falsetto to David Ruffin-style urgency to Teddy Pendergrasslove-man come-on, the vocals are a treat. Even the mirrorball dappled spoken-word intro (“So here we are, at the end of the night… “) to opener ‘Get To Know You’ is cool, not corn.

They call it blue-eyed soul, but like so many odd loops in popular music, it is the music of white artists emulating the black artists who emulated white artists – indeed, mighty Motown aimed directly for the 60s white teen market under the banner ‘The Sound of Young America’ with cool, stylish acts such as theMiracles and the Supremes. This Groovy sound was heavy on the pop, hardly breaking a sweat (that was left to the hardcore soul labels such as Stax and Atlantic) as it chewed up the charts, turning on bands like the Beatles and the Beach Boys.

Much of How Do You Do? harks back to that Motown sound – ‘The Walk’ and the driving ‘Hooked’ are pure Detroit pop-soul gems – with much of it also reminding me of the slick Hall & Oates 70s take on soul. But even more than that, tracks like ‘Dreaming’ or the finger-popping ‘Stick Around’ bring to mind the almost forgotten 1967 Beach Boys ‘soul album’ Wild Honey. Perfect sunkissed harmonies and an innocence in the lyrics make this all very pretty music – even a guest spot on ‘Can’t Stop’ by the wry Snoop Dogg doesn’t dent its white-gleam sheen. Nothing wrong with pretty; pretty never did the Supremes or Muhammed Aliany harm.

Mayer Hawthorne is undoubtedly one of the real kool kidz – his talent and cool is beyond doubt; to realise this grew out of a side project encouraged into the studio by his label boss, Peanut Butter Wolf (yep, that’s what it says) indicates how easy it all is for former-rapper Hawthorne. 

Is it all an ironic pose? Doesn’t seem to be, even though Hawthorne’s hipster credentials had me forensically searching How Do You Do? for signs of post-modern fuck-off. When he says “I have found my own unique sound on this album” I think he must be kidding – beautifully rendered, yes; unique, no. This is the man who issued his debut single (‘Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out’) on a red, heartshaped 7” vinyl single.

Whatever. How Do You Do? is a groovelicious, party-starting, gooey-romantic gas. I am going to spin it again now – I am getting to quite enjoy being knocked flat on my tweedy critic’s ass.

Published February 2012 on