Although I’ve never been in a world-famous rock band, I have to think the first element in doing so is having great influences. After all, it only makes sense that if you were raised on a balanced diet of Bob Dylan and the Flaming Lips, your chances of being in an influential band are much better than someone raised on, say, Europe and Kajagoogoo (although I’d love to see the Lips collaborate with those Europe guys on a remake of “The Final Countdown”. Come on—it’s a space song!). Indeed, once you have the indisputable influences behind you, all you have to do is be blessed with some natural talent, learn an instrument, and find two or three similar folks. Alright, so being in a world-famous rock band isn’t so easy, but it does start with a working knowledge of rock history.
The Rumours, who hail from Melbourne, Australia, have impeccable influences and want everyone to know it. “Inside Outside”, the first song on the group’s debut album We Are Happy, sounds like a lost song from the Smiths’ catalogue. Lead singer and guitarist James Ratsasane has the Johnny Marr impression down solid, his style a hybrid of jangly chords and chiming lead notes. With drummer Robert Mayson playing a jaunty backbeat, “Inside Outside” sounds curiously similar to “This Charming Man”. Even the lyrics evoke the Smiths: “I’m just so in love with you / I’ve got my mind made up / But what am I gonna do?” An enamored narrator who is both determined and brutally insecure? My, that does sound familiar.
The A-list influences don’t stop here, though. Track two, “Katherine”, is also peculiarly reminiscent of another legendary band, this time Wilco. Combining the electric guitar of “Outtasite (Outta Mind)” with the slowed-down tempo of “Outta Mind (Outta Sight)”, the opening riff of “Katherine” treads dangerously close to musical plagiarism. That is, until it segues into a classic Smiths break of repetitive ringing chords. This isn’t to say the song is a simple sewing together of other songs; “Katherine” does feature some unique elements, such as a wheezing farfisa and cooing backup vocals. Despite the shamelessly derivative opening, it’s a catchy, well-written pop tune.
That’s just what you get on We Are Happy—catchy, well-written pop tunes. Like most young bands, the Rumours stand a bit too close to their influences, but this is easy to forgive when you realize the quality of their songs. While the first two tracks are consciously fashioned after other bands—the similarities are too great for them not to be—the rest of the album is an assured collection of songs that display a thorough knowledge of rock’s past, from the aforementioned Smiths and Wilco to the Beatles and New Order. And while the Rumours have a long, long way to go reach the greatness of any of these groups, they do know how to write infectious melodies and classic guitar parts.
“Dim Lit Avenue”, for example, is a song about taking a stroll on a Saturday evening, and it sounds, well, like taking a stroll on a Saturday evening. Ratsasane’s guitar notes capture the relaxed, measured cadence of a mid-tempo stroll, and his boyish voice sounds both sunny and coy. In “Keep Me Searching”, Mayson lays down a chugging locomotive beat while Ratsasane unleashes a country and western solo full of stinging high notes and stylish slides. And, in “Channel Vision”, Mayson and bass player Peter Mclean push the song into a crazed frenzy of fills and breaks while Ratsasane’s falsetto hovers over the chaos. To be sure, the musical vocabulary of the Rumours is impressive, especially considering their youth and the fact that they’re only a trio.
We Are Happy, however, is not without its flaws. Some of the songs, such as “The Time of Your Life”, sound so loosely constructed they risk falling apart; in other songs, the farfisa often sounds like an afterthought rather than an integral element. Still, the Rumours are blessed with an innate knack for melody and three solid musicians. What’s more, they know their Marr and Tweedy, McCartney and Sumner. Put three skilled musicians with superb taste in music together in a band, and you’ve got the beginnings of something great. Here’s betting the second Rumours’ album is nothing short of genius; for now, we’ve got a damn good promise.