I guess I didn’t really get the Darling Downs’ previous album, How Can I Forget this Heart of Mine? For those who weren’t familiar with that 2006 release, here’s a quick recap. The Darling Downs, a collaboration between two respected Australian indie rock musicians, put out an album of unexpected, gentle country/folk music. Kim Salmon (the Scientists, Beasts of Bourbon) strummed acoustic guitar and Ron Peno (Died Pretty) sang in a strained, alienating voice songs about deep-settled loneliness and heartbreak. What was the purpose behind this strange caterwauling, which certainly wasn’t beautiful in the traditional sense? Was it a tribute? Or was it musicians having a laugh?
I have to say, after listening to their second album From One to Another I’m not much closer to a determination on that score. If the Darling Downs is an acquired taste, it’s not one I’ve had the opportunity to get to know, despite best efforts. Peno seems to have become determined to make his voice as difficult to approach as possible, often rising to a falsetto that sounds strained and, often, flat. This must be purposeful, this out-of-tune singing, but it still sounds awkward each time Peno reaches, achingly, for those high notes. The prime example on the record is “The Only Home I’ve Ever Known”, in which Peno continually drifts in and out of tune. The aim may be to communicate fragility; but that’s more difficult to appreciate as a listener than as someone engaging with the music on an intellectual level. Plus, this music doesn’t present itself as a thesis. It’s simple almost to the point of being a generic genre exercise.
The group’s flirtation with Johnny Cash-isms is made explicit on “Circa ‘65”, with its bass growl about angels and “the lonely time since 1965”. The Darling Downs occasionally share something of Tom Waits’ burlesque imagery, but in general they’re more gravel, more salt-of-earth people. There are a few instances of real, effective emotion – just as there were on How Can I Forget This Heart of Mine?. The most successful piece on the album may be “There’s A Light Part 2”, a simple major-key waltz with a sing-together chorus. You come to believe, with Peno, that “There’s a light on me here” (the religious overtones in this phrase are scattered throughout the album, which refers now and then to angels and Jesus and salvation, as well). “Something Special”, an un-ambitious, finger-picked acoustic ballad, finds a gentle sort of peace in its contemplation of love. And in contrast “Lately” is more adventurous, using the banjo-style twang of the guitar to outline a shifting tonal centre.
From One to Antoher ends on a wistful note. “I’m sad that I’ve wasted all your time,” Peno sings, finding solace in the hope that “somewhere there’s a place where I’ll be fine”. The singer needn’t worry; though this is essentially a genre exercise, it’s a pleasant and only occasionally baffling journey for the listener. You suspect that fans of Salmon and Peno, already selected post-Scientists/Died Pretty as hard core, and further selected by those who were drawn to the group’s previous album, will find something similarly rewarding in here. But the rest of us will likely remain pretty baffled by the whole enterprise.