Australian indie-pop legends The Cannanes have been around a long time and garnered a large following of true believers. At first glance, it’s hard to tell why; they play a relatively common brand of mellow pop. But as the course of an album runs by, you understand completely; they exude beauty, and capture hidden emotions with both a sense of humor and a touching sensitivity. All in all, their music captures real-life, genuine feelings, and it’s pretty to listen to, two qualities that can propel a simple pop song to greatness. All of that is part of what makes Communicating At an Unknown Rate such a treat. Another is the presence of Steward, aka Stewart Anderson formerly of Boyracer, who lends his vocals and melodic sense to a few songs and is credited with co-writing the whole album. The album opens with one of his vocal contributions, a beautiful ballad that includes a well-placed horn section and builds in emotion until the final, aching words, “There’s just nothing left to say”. Another of the songs he sings, “Sharpie”, is just as haunting and moving, making this release as essential for Steward/Boyracer fans as it no doubt is for Cannanes fans.
Most of the album’s vocals are handled by Cannanes lead singer Frances Gibson, who has a graceful, stately voice that’s also filled with subtlety and power. A quieter ballad like “Not Quite Right”, an encapsulation of fears and worries regarding a lover, gets all of those qualities across plus more, like the way she can blend biting humor into a truly sad thought.
The Cannanes, here a trio (their lineup shifts from release to release), have crafted a sound that weds pretty melodies to often-melancholy, almost-hushed vocals. The mood is generally that of quiet longing, but that doesn’t mean the songs are all slow, or that the Cannanes and Steward ever fall into a monotonous pattern. Songs like “Fragments” and “Kurrajong Hotel” have a real edge to them, while “Oh yeah!” is a mostly instrumental, synthesizer-driven, funky dreamscape.
For me, two of the album’s highpoints, in terms of emotional impact, are the last two tracks. The first, “Astra”, is a gorgeous, poetic goodbye to a lover, over a drum machine bed. While Gibson nearly whispers some of the album’s tracks, here she straight-out sings, beautifully expressing fear and sadness (“I’m looking straight ahead, scared”). The last track, “Savage”, is a shift in focus from the sadness of life to the hope and joy buried underneath (“Get up and dance, and take a chance, just for once this is a chosen moment / You know it’s gonna be all right when you’re with me / You can relax and don’t destroy it”). The two juxtaposed together tell an eternal human story. It’s the story about accepting sadness and learning to be happy, one that in a pop song can sound forced or inauthentic, but given the right words, the right melody and the right musical accompaniment, hits you right in the heart. It’s an ending that makes you understand why both the Cannanes and Steward have such devoted fans, and makes you think maybe you should join their ranks.