I don’t know about you, but I’ve been finding the recent glut of lush, insanely catchy, guitar-oriented pop music a very nice departure from the boring garage rock revival of the past couple years. 2003 has seen a modest little flurry of stalwart releases that show us all that there are at least a few bands out there that seem to remember what it’s like to write a song with a memorable melody. America has given us new albums by Grandaddy and Yo La Tengo, Canada has yielded fine new releases by the New Pornographers and Broken Social Scene, and the UK is never short of quality pop rock, evidenced as of late by recent albums by Super Furry Animals and the Coral. But what about our friends down in Australia? It seems they always pop in after everyone else has had a go: Silverchair just as grunge was dying, The Vines just as nu-garage (or whatever you want to call it) was just starting to sound tired. Now it’s the Sleepy Jackson’s turn to try to earn some notoriety, this time, in a Flaming Lips-ish kind of way.
So is the Sleepy Jackson too late? Not really. You can never have too much indie pop (so far, anyway), and these folks seem to know what they’re doing. By “folks”, I mean basically one guy. One guy bent on world domination, and a bunch of hired hands. His name is Luke Steel; that’s him there on the cover holding what looks like a bichon frise dog, and the fact that he’s stuck a photo of himself on the cover of his band’s big debut album Lovers tells you all that you need to know. Either you’ll be instantly annoyed by his putting himself above the rest of the band, or you’ll just let it slide and listen to the music. And believe me, given a chance, the music isn’t bad at all.
Catchy? Yes. Blatantly derivative? Hell, yeah. When someone describes a band as being “schizophrenic,” it often brings to mind someone like the Dandy Warhols, who like to do a Stones rip-off, then a Kinks rip-off, then a country song. But the genius in Luke Steel’s master plan is how he incorporates myriad influences all on the same song. So what do you hear when you listen to this record? There’s the happy, choral rock of the Polyphonic Spree, the blissed-out psychedelic rock of the Flaming Lips, the sloppy DIY aesthetic of ‘60s garage heroes the Fugs, as well as the Velvet Underground, Mercury Rev, Gram Parsons, George Harrison, the Stones, Joy Division, the New York Dolls, Fountains of Wayne ... and that’s only on the first five songs.
Those five tracks get Lovers off to a spectacular start. Whereas the best the Dandy Warhols could do was steal the riffs from George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord”, Steel’s homage to Harrison on the sunny “Good Dancers” is a bit more subtle, as the song begins instantly with a great, Harrisonesque slide guitar solo, as layers of falsetto voices sing to the heavens. “Vampire Racecourse” is a brilliant single, beginning with a thumping Velvet Underground beat (think “I’m Waiting for the Man”), but then breaking into a coda in its second half, morphing smoothly into a raunchy, early ‘70s glam song, as the guitars abandon the hard strumming for some great, bluesy licks, before slickly combining both elements of the song at the end. “Rain Falls for Wind” has a definite post-punk feel to it, as Steel sings with a darker tone in his voice, but as you’re thinking it’s going to be a dark dirge of a song, the soaring chorus bursts in, sounding as if a balloon-wielding, confetti-tossing Wayne Coyne suddenly burst in on Ian Curtis’s performance. “This Day” is nothing more than some fabulously upbeat West Coast pop, sounding similar to Grandaddy’s fine songs on Sumday, complete with a euphoric “na-na-na” chorus that you can’t help but sing along to, while “Acid in My Heart” is a good mid-tempo ballad, laced with strains of country rock and a lilting chorus of, “I, I, I need you”.
The rest of Lovers struggles to match those great tracks, as Steele and company seem to lose their focus. The spoken word interlude “Fill Me with Apples” is a complete waste of time, and while having an eight year-old girl sing on the piano ballad “Morning Bird” is a novel idea, it’s nothing we haven’t heard before (The Langley Schools Music Project took care of our cute kids singing fix two years ago). “Tell the Girls” sounds like U2’s techno adventures on Pop, and sounds too out of place, but the shimmering, Wilco-style “Don’t You Know” brings things back to the guitar rock, as Steel utilizes some more Harrison solo licks. “Old Dirt Farmer” and “Mourning Rain” sound like limp attempts at traditional country, but the band nails it on “Miniskirt”, a great little tune that would make Ryan Adams envious.
Even though it wavers near the end, the good greatly outweighs the bad on Lovers. With a guy as talented as Luke Steel at the helm, the Sleepy Jackson show they have some great potential, but as always, they should follow the “less is more” school of thought. Yes, they’re an exceptionally talented, versatile band. They’ve proven that with this record. Now it’s time to show some focus; if they do that, they’ll turn from a very good band to a great one.