If you’ve seen the new film I (Heart) Huckabees, you know Dustin Hoffman’s character, Bernard Jaffe, lives by the mantra “Everything is interconnected”. Damned if the mop-topped existential detective ain’t right. Not two weeks ago, I got my grubby hands on a two-disc set of Australian garage rock, covering 1975-1987, and I loved every minute of it, from the Scientists to the Hoodoo Gurus. A few days later, what should arrive in my mailbox but Tonight Alright, the stateside debut from one of Australia’s more popular garage trios, Spiderbait, and yes, it’s on par with the tunes on the anthology. Coincidences abound, no?
Needless to say, I’m digging the Aussie beat lately, and Tonight Alright confirms that the scene is going strong. Indebted to both the hard rock blooze of AC/DC and the roots rock of You Am I (to namecheck some fellow Aussies), Spiderbait—drummer/singer Mark Maher, bassist singer Janet English, and guitarist Damian Whittey—aren’t traveling uncharted sonic waters, but they know how to rock and they know how to have a good time.
Tonight Alright charges out of the gate with “Take Me Back”, all muscular drums, buzzsaw guitars, and straightforward lyrics like “take me back to the city again” (lyrical introspection is not the band’s forte). They follow that template for most of the album, pausing only for the ballad “Tonite” (which sounds like a poor man’s leftover track from You Am I’s Deliverance, for what it’s worth). Still, the cutout bins are overflowing with albums from rock bands that adopt this recipe, and yes, the description I gave of the band’s sound paints them as a AA-level band at best… so how does Spiderbait stand apart from the great garage unwashed? They turn the mic over to a girl, that’s how. Janet English sings lead on five of Tonight Alright‘s dozen tracks, and hell if they’re not the best five songs on the album (just as her vocal turns were the highlights of the band’s last album, 2000’s Grand Slam). “Fuckin’ Awesome” would sound stupid coming out of Maher’s mouth, but when English breathlessly coos “You’re fuckin’ awesome”, it’ll make your (or at least, my) neckhairs stand on end; ditto for her sexy, coquettish turn on the near-power pop tune “Cows”. She’s even got a great punk snarl on the bustling “In the City”. While there’s no weak link in Spiderbait, English is definitely the best thing going in the band—she’s like a tarted-up Holly Golightly. I only wish Maher and English would duet, a la Young Heart Attack.
Alas, none of English’s tracks are being used to introduce American audiences to the band. (Since she’s not the principal singer in the band, would using her one of her songs constitute “Spiderbait and switch”?) That responsibility falls to the band’s cover of Leadbelly’s “Black Betty” (though the Ram Jam version is the one most folks know). It’s an effective microcosm of the band’s sound, with a rootsy steel guitar trading passages with arena-ready electric guitar riffs, but it won’t make anyone forget Ram Jam’s definitive version, and having a cover tune for a first single reeks of novelty act. (It also doesn’t help that the song appears on the soundtrack to the already-forgotten film Without a Paddle, but I guess there’s no such thing as bad publicity.)
It’s a shame, too, because Spiderbait deserve a better fate. They’ll never be huge superstars in America, but among Australian bands that have made inroads in America, they’re less mercurial than the Vines and less ballad-prone than Jet, and we Aussie garage fans can’t live on You Am I alone. Expect Spiderbait to put a song or two on the next Australian garage rock anthology.