A bit of âDomboâ Journalism
Tuesday, July 20, 2004
Nearly a decade ago now, I cut my teeth writing about music in the student paper at my university. A year later I was employed as staff editor of that universityâs union. To allay boredom and balance out the less fun work (that is, the bits that werenât about cinema, comedy, music or other forms of popular culture) I found myself writing the odd review or conducting the odd interview for that yearâs editors of the student paper. The routine was usually as follows: dinner and a smoke late in the evening, a listen, and then a bit of âgonzoâ journalism (which I was in the process of re-naming âDomboâ journalism; I even adapted the âgonzoâ dagger-cum-letter opener that would appear in the front pages of Hunter S. Thompson tomesâ¦ sick, huh! But itâs crazier than that â before I took to signing everything with the slightly tilted âDomboâ logo, I used to use the pseudonym â[Secret] Nigel di Weirdâ. The explanation would take far too long so either lie awake at night if you have to or just forget about it.)
Morphine and silverchair were both hip, indie, three-piece bands. The former, from North America, were getting ever so slightly long-in-the-tooth as they were finally reaching the audiences they deserved. The latter were a bunch of school kids from Newcastle who were fulfilling most school boysâ dream of being in a rock band.
I read these now and donât cringe as much as I thought I would, but I canât help noticing how the recurring themes appear to be youth, rutting and alliteration. Life was so much simpler then!
Morphine is essentially a rhythm section, but more testosterone-laden than most, for the saxophone is not just a saxophone, it is a baritone sax. And the bass is no mere bass, but a two-stringed slide bass. Remember what Zappa had to say about bass and sax? âBass is balls and a sax plays sleazeâ¦â, so multiply that one to the power of however many youâd think John Laws must have to make his voice that low, and you have the basic essence of Morphine.
Opening track âHoney Whiteâ is frantic and urgent, beginning with saxophone trills and then a relentless sax riff, often with squealing overtones squeezed out to accentuate the frenetic nature of this track. The sort of urban American fables with a moral,, the likes of which Dylan, Petty or Springsteen could only construct with a lot more words. Morphine create the mise-en-scene with minimal arrangement and laconic lyrics. The understatement works to excellent effect.
The tension in the opening motif âWhisperâ is produced by sliding very close intervals on the two-string bass. The sax breathes unlaboured passion throughout. The only problem encountered, really, is the lack of melodic invention; some tracks are too minimalist for their own good. âYesâ the song, for example, invokes a resounding ânoâ. Not enough words, or enough good ones, at any rate (and letâs face it, ârateâ is what this is all about) to counter monotony in the melody. Thatâs not to say there arenât some real gems. âJuryâ, with its breathy narration, a la Robbie Robertsonâs âSomewhere Down the Crazy Riverâ. âSharksâ with the saxophonic squawking and rapid bass twanging, and âSuper Sexâ, with its stream of consciousness lyrics building and building until its release, are ones that youâll need a cigarette after.
But if you want to grab the metaphor by the short ânâ curlies, âFree Loveâ is the act; the baritone sax has never been more Laws-like, the bass squeals its glissandos not caring that it is caught in flagrante delicto. And the cigarette after is âGone For Goodâ. Its theme is departure and resilience after the fact. The only âballadâ on the album, it features an acoustic guitar.
Sexy? Yeah, in that depraved, musk-scented moose-rutting-until-there-ainât-no-energy-left sort of way. A âbeer ânâ mull before foreplay and keepinâ yer boots on while yer doinâ itâ sort of album if ever there was one.
A Froggy would a-wooing goâ¦
Silverchair are at that difficult age: too old to be cute and too young to be sexy. Decked out in big dacks and backwards caps, image is everything; isnât that why an amphibian gazes out at us from the cover of Frogstomp? The frog: cute, in the traditional sense of âugly but interestingâ, is that testosterone-laden deep-voiced creature so symbolic of adolescence.
And fittingly, from the first fabulously fulsome flatulence of the distorted âugg-uggâ ugly bass guitar riff that launches opening track âIsraeliâs Sonâ, the listener is thrust headlong into the throng of surging, lunging grunge. The tightness of this trio belies their short time together; Daniel Johnsâs voice is mature beyond its age. What gives the band away as pit-faced precocious pretenders whose pitiful posturings are the equivalent of perpetrating pub-entry under false pretenses with pilfered proof-of-age is the lyrically lacking songs such as âSuicidal Dreamâ and âMad Menâ. Pure juvenilia.
âPure Massacreâ lives up to its name, though: an aural assault whose lyric-to-noise ratio favours the less listener-friendly side of the equation. The use of devices such as a false ending on âLeave Me Outâ, like the tempo change on âFaultlineâ, are false sophistication, but the band pulls it off. On the other hand, âShadeâ painfully consists of barely more than one note. Johnsâs habit of âmooingâ suspended fourths and ninths from previous or subsequent chords enables all the songs to be liked or disliked virtually as one. After all, every frog looks pretty much like any other.
And yet, the frog as metaphor is priceless: silverchair embody that place in adolescence where going down to the stream to gather tadpoles with boys abruptly gives way to going down to the stream to disseminate tadpoles with girls. This album is one that many adolescents will try to âlose itâ to, and many post-adolescents will attempt to recapture it with.