Songs @ Tone, Sydney, 08.09.11
By Tom Randall
Songs had been gone for a minute. Their last gig was in Newcastle last year, I think, and was billed as a farewell to everyone in the band but Ela and Max. In the meantime, their reputation for lackadaisical intensity has been left to simmer and ferment, and positive reviews from most corners (see Everett True’s here) have lingered in the ether.
I had hoped that Songs simply hadn’t simply fallen silent, left to run to an awkward halt when a couple of wheels fell off. I dreamt that they had retreated to the quiet, that absent place wherein creative reserves are replenished. Now, new collaborators have been found, rehearsals held, and songs written. And while I feverishly anticipate their return, a question wickedly demands satisfaction: after these changes, have Songs managed to regroup?
Songs seem unperturbed. How else am I to interpret their decision to play a set made up of almost all new tunes? (At least, I think this was the case; I only recognised the second song, ‘Heavy’, newly released as a single ahead of the recording of the next album, and the set closer ‘Oh No’). They’re not playing to the faithful tonight. Nor are they setting out to prove their continuing relevance. They’re just playing. Happening. Spontaneous, effortless, and immaculate. (As it turned out, they weren’t fully re-formed for this gig, as their new guitar player Cameron Emerson-Elliot had just become a new dad and been dispensed from band duties for the night.)
I was particularly drawn to the country-flecked tune in the middle of the set; ‘Ringing Bells’ or something like that. I think it started with a cool, off-kilter-sounding chord progression and smeared into a hymnal, windswept ballad of lovelorn gorgeousness (I’m not above pompous superlatives when I actually give a shit); or maybe they were two separate songs, blearing together. The wang bar on Max’s big fucking orange Gretsch got a good going over. The song before that – shit, something about a cat? – was life-affirmingly wonky. The guitar might even have been out of tune. Fuck, it was thrilling.
There is a definite sense that this next stage in Songs’ passage is distinct from the last. The drone just seems bigger, more pervasive. Of course, it’s always been there – see ‘Clouds’ from their self-titled album – but it sat in contrast to the awkward, genial jangle of ‘Keeping It Clean’ or the warm rave-up ‘Different Light’. Now I hear it constantly, its pulse enlivening everything, lending a dewey, supportive grace.
The groove is heavier, too, as though rooted deep beneath the earth. Songs’ debut EP and album were permeated with a lightness and space. Like getting out of the city and feeling the sweet air brush your skin and slip through your hair. Tonight was like taking a deep breath of that air and letting it flood every last inch of you, all the way to the tips of your fingers and toes and swimming up and around your eyes. Max would flash a cheshire smile and strum his guitar and the room would open so wide that you felt like you were at the precipice of the yawn of raw creation. Ela’s bass, sparse and melodic, carves counter-melodies that would make Naomi Yang close her eyes and smirk, ever-so imperceptibly. The new songs, impossibly, seem just as aerated as before, as though they can rise that much higher because they’re anchored so firmly.
The Popfrenzy website copy says Songs are influenced by ‘minimalist’ composer La Monte Young, and I wonder if that’s true. I’m reminded of a comment made by Dylan Carlson, who definitely is a studied acolyte of Young’s, when he said the drone, played at a slow tempo so that its many complex overtones can be slowly observed, begins to suggest the melody it wants to follow. Songs might agree. They’ve been back for a dip in the source, the single tone which divided into the 10,000 others, and which itself sprang from nothing. Each note they play drags with it in its luminescent tail the hum of a million voices.
Songs. Rejuvenated in the womb of the drone, played a deftly-composed paean to Tone, and serving to reassure us that in the twilight of this club’s role in providing a setting for underground music in Sydney, that very music continues in any event.
Photography: Justin Edwards