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Essendon Airport – Palimpsest (Chapter Music)

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Essendon Airport

By Tamsin Chapman

I have a confession to make. When I first talked to ET about writing for Collapse Board, he suggested I give an outsider’s view of Australian music, and directed me to the That Striped Sunlight Sound blog  as a starting point. So I spent an evening listening to different bands at random and didn’t like a single pigging one. Being too much of a wuss to face the flame orgy my views would doubtless engender, I gave up on the idea. Just what was it I didn’t like about the songs I listened to that night? I’m not entirely sure. There was perhaps a blunderbuss quality, a clomping machismo, that completely failed to speak to me and that left me feeling alienated and bored. They all reminded me of an Australian man who years ago, when I was an insecure teen, looked me up and down and said, “You’re fucking ugly” and then went on his way. He was rude, but what an unforgivable thing to do on my side too, to let one bad experience cause an xenophobic reaction to an entire nation’s cultural output (well not entirely – every Australian woman I’ve met has been cool as fuck). I’m not proud of it and in fact I was doing exactly the same thing as he did. I listened to a few Australian bands, said “you’re ugly” and walked away.

So what’s changed? I played the reissue of Melbourne post-punk duo, Essendon Airport’s 1981 album Palimpsest, that’s what. And loved it. And then in order to better understand where they were coming from and what they were referencing, I listened to some other Australian musicians, who were working with similar minimal, jazz and funk influences at the same time, like Whirlywirld and yes, The Laughing Clowns, who despite giving their name to the very website I write for, I had, shamefully, never listened to before. And they were absolutely bloody FANTASTIC.

But back to the band that sparked my initial conversion.

First track on Palimpsest, ‘Correct Pitch’ is pleasingly odd, starting with some, at first, standard funk grooves, which then start to slip and slide like dropped soap in the bath, and are chopped into slithers with seemingly random beats and spoken word samples. ‘No Quarter’, the next track, sets the scene for the duo’s main trick. Various loops of repeating keyboard motifs are overlaid with an almost-too-smooth saxophone riff, building and repeating hypnotically. And when I say smooth, I mean as smooth as Kenny G’s marble bathroom, smooth as his silk-lined dressing-gown, smooth as his newly-waxed ball sack. A musical version of an MOR saxman’s scrotum doesn’t sound too promising but a skewed, urgent quality turns the song into a dark charybdis, swirling and whirling and dragging your soul down to drown. Or at least to the nearest dancefloor to move your body in an awkward and jerky way and make everyone watching think you’ve got Parkinson’s Disease. The way shiny and recognisable elements are shredded into fragments and then reassembled slightly wrongly calls to mind modern pop tinkerers like Ariel Pink; however, there is a frenzied, tribal air to ‘Palimpsest’ that makes me wish I could have seen Essendon Airport perform live in their heyday.

In ‘I Feel a Song Coming On’, the sax is again anchored in oddness, this time by deadpan spoken vocals and the skippity, scattergun drums. “Those heavenly drums go on drumming cos I feel a song coming on.” It’s almost the sound of your brain when you’re in a good mood and you feel like humming inanely for no reason. And the album continues in this vein – repeating riffs from keyboard, guitar saxophone and even voice (such as ‘Jig’, with its Dr Who rhythm and “What have you got to show” chanted over and over), stalking and circling like some kind of jackdaws of funk, stealing shiny shards of popular music, mixing them with mouse bones and making them strange.

Other bands of the time played a similar game; they are A Certain Ratio in the Sun, possess the looping riffs of Clock DVA but without the emotional range. Perhaps their lack of bass means they miss the hardness that some of their peers had. However, it could be that very trebliness that endears them to me, that helps dispense with the machismo I mentioned earlier. It makes them seem less men and more machine. A difference engine designed for the dancefloor.

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