It’s as if Australian musicians just feel things differently than people in other parts of the world. From the poignant and atmospheric work of David Bridie and Lisa Gerrard, to Goanna’s topical folk-rock and the heart-melting perfection of the extended Split Enz family, right down to the offbeat peppiness and—beyond their singles—the unsettling moodiness of Men At Work (when was the last time you heard “Touching the Untouchables”?), there’s an ineffable power and beauty underlying much of the music that flows from that quadrant of the globe.
Mining a distinctly Australian vein of earnest, rootsy, and quite cordial pop is The Guild League, whose sophomore release Inner North is brimming with short, thoughtful songs about (in the band’s words) “turning points, trust, and the sky”. It’s a predominantly mellow record laced with unassuming melodies, heartfelt vocals, cello, and sunny bursts of brass.
Tali White (formerly of The Lucksmiths) fronts the band, which is currently a trio with contributions from several others. White plays a host of instruments, pens all lyrics, and sometimes shares, sometimes trades music-writing duties with guitarist/singer Rodrigo Pintos-Lopez. Cressida Griffith sings and plays cello and bass. Together they create surprisingly intimate music—earnest confessionals delivered deadpan and underscored by clear, dry, but never closed-in production.
The League often sounds a bit like My Friend the Chocolate Cake (one of David Bridie’s projects), and that’s a very nice thing indeed, as anyone who’s heard that band will tell you. But White’s moody songs aren’t as moody, on balance, as those from My Friend the Chocolate Cake, and his upbeat numbers tend to be tighter and punchier. Like Bridie, however, White is a poet with a thematic range extending well beyond the L-word.
“Animals” opens the album with a reflection on how a near-primal focus on the now often supercedes our awareness of the past. The jaunty and quite catchy “Citronella” mixes nostalgic feelings for travel and for the sea with an elation rooted in the singer’s present circumstances. “Why Wait?” is about staring down fears and taking decisive action. “Falling Ovation” depicts someone making both a memory-fraught tour of Melbourne and a clean break with the past. Themes of fear, longing, return, departure, and arrival weave in and out through the songs in a way that ties them neatly together without tying them down or seeming at all forced.
When White does tackle love it’s obliquely, as in the album-closing “Shirtless Sky”:
“I will try to capture this morning light for you in your absence. / Knowing that your idea of bliss is, days like this. The shirtless sky, the burning bricks. The quiet burden of your absence.”
“The Storm” describes an emotional outburst in an urban cloudburst. And while the outburst is ostensibly tied to a prior conversation with a romantic partner—“And though I’d probably missed my chance, / I had to tell you that we hadn’t covered everything”—the focus is squarely on the scene, the cars, the rain, the singer’s dancing and shouting, and his refusal to be ruled by fear.
“Shot in the Arm” has an 80s-like, almost Violent Femmes kind of energy. It’s unhurried, somehow, despite its frenetic pace. It says what it has to say amid a flurry of drums and acoustic and electric guitars and then closes, natural as could be, just a minute and a half after it begins, as if wanting to keep us from lingering on its final line: “It’s my past that’ll do you harm.”
White’s a marvelous singer, gliding easily from phrase to phrase and caressing his words with an intoxicating Melbourne accent. There’s a fragility, even in the upbeat numbers, that I find endearing—fragility not in the sense of weakness but in the sense of the band’s aiming for and hitting a delicate balance between word, music, and arrangement to achieve the precise tone that they do, song after song. It keeps me just enough on edge to appreciate the band’s unusual qualities a little more every time I listen.
It’s interesting to think that it’s an otherness that draws us most strongly to certain people, places, and music, just as otherness so often frightens and repels us. And in both cases, the reaction is immediate, innate. “We live enthralled, just like animals.”