[7 February 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
The Lucksmiths broke up more than four years ago, yet nary a week has gone by that I haven’t had one of their albums near to my grasp: in the car, on my iPod, near my home stereo. It speaks to the connection fans like me felt to their music. The comfortability of the Lucksmiths’ music was such that the songs, and by relation, the band, felt like next-door-neighbors even though they came from across the globe, in Melbourne, Australia.
For devoted fans, Cartography for Beginners presents 35 of those familiar songs in reconfigured form – a chronological revisiting/remembrance of their career, from “Cat in Sunshine”, the second song on their First Tape, through to the last song they recorded, “Get-to-Bed Birds”.
For fans who came and went during their 16 years – early fans who grew uninterested and moved on, later fans who never went back to the early stuff – this double-disc release is the perfect opportunity to go back and see what they missed. And to complete newcomers, it’s just the right introduction: a tour through their career, with the emphasis on their best-known or most-admired songs. Twenty-four of these 36 songs were played at their final concert, as presented on the 2011 DVD Unfamiliar Stars, which says something about the focus.
Yet the two-disc size and the comprehensiveness of the collection’s reach means it isn’t just about “hits”. Each album is duly represented, as are their most significant EPs and seven-inch singles. This is a case where the chronological order helps reveal how much the group evolved over the years, in songwriting and sound, while also preserving what was special about each period.
The earliest songs, which kick off the first disc, are primitive, with the musicians (especially bassist Mark Monnone) playing more exuberantly than they later would. But if the elements of their sound hadn’t fully coalesced yet, the specialness of their brand of songwriting is intact. The hallmarks of a Lucksmiths song – a melancholy tone, a clever focus on how words fit together, an awareness of the overall mood of the song, often entwined with the mood of the characters or their setting – are present in a less smooth but quite vivid way in a song like “Wallboard”, a first-person short story about a brief failed relationship.
By “Shine on Me”, three years later, they’d perfected that sort of tender, person-, place- and emotion-focused song. It’s one of their more enduring love songs, if also one of their most sentimental. In a Lucksmiths song, even an expression of absolute love and joy has a tinge of sadness to it – “when she’s here I’m always happy / when she’s not I’m happy-ish.” That blend of the sad and sentimental is key to the Lucksmiths, as is that song’s attention to geography/place and to the sensations of touch and smell. A long-distance love song from a year later, “Guess How Much I Love You”, accentuates the way emotions and places are tied together – the protagonist chronicles his longing across visits to the post office, the Laundromat, bookstores. That song is also where the compilation’s title comes from. The song’s mini-cartography lesson is that maps lie. On a map she’s just three fingers away, but in reality? “It’s more than that.”
That song has a line which demonstrates guitarist/songwriter Marty Donald’s love for taking familiar phrases and twisting them, embracing and attaching them at the same time – “your voice sounded so small / the loneliness of a long-distance phone call.” Drummer/singer Tali White has a knack for making this upturning of clichés not sound corny or like a hollow trick.
Across these two discs they take familiar phrases and rephrase them for their purposes – “it’s an unread letter day”; “the strangeness of kind friends”—or sync up words and phrases in playful ways (“got yourself some nicotine / in the nick of time”; “the sky was swimming pool blue / and the swimming pool was too”). The Lucksmiths often seem engaged in an extended word game, or wrapped up within reference books like thesauruses and crossword players’ dictionaries. That these word exercises don’t cut against the emotions in their songs, but are used to accentuate them, is part of the wonder of the Lucksmiths.
They also are keen chroniclers of weather, geography and time, and how they relate to our emotional lives. Some of their most beautiful, melancholy songs find them contemplating stretches of time or place, and how the changing seasons represent them – “The Great Dividing Range”, “Southernmost”, “The Year of Driving Languorously”. Other songs tap into the more joyous side of weather, like their classic (at least in some circles) spring-time anthem “T-Shirt Weather”.
The second disc gets into the 2003-2008 period where their music is continually progressing, as they end a fourth member (Louis Richter) and get also more likely to bring strings, horns and tiny stylistic detours into their sound. These songs still have the spare, directed emotional power of their earlier songs, but musically they’re using a deeper array of tools to build the atmosphere.
Lyrically the songs are less overtly “clever”, while tapping into the same resources. Those two aspects together – a stronger approach to music and the refining of their lyrical approach – is how you end up with gems like “Fiction” and “The Chapter in Your Life Entitled San Francisco”. Both are from 2005’s Warmer Corners, which is quite probably their overall best album, though the albums directly before and after it, Naturaliste and First Frost, share many of its best qualities.
Cartography for Beginners is a showcase for Lucksmiths classics, by which I largely mean personal favorites or fanbase favorites. Yet it’s also a chance to rediscover or rehear other great songs from their repertoire: “Frisbee”, “The Cassingle Revival”, “Stayaway Stars”, “California in Popular Song”… the list goes on.
On this tour back through the Lucksmiths’ music, I’ve found myself especially rehearing “The Cassingle Revial”, from a 2000 single and the 2002 compilation Where Were We?. Before I found myself focusing on the basic melody, the pleasant midtempo pace and the joke of the song title, where his departed lover promises she’ll return when cassingles come back into fashion. (Of course, the joke now may be on her; one of the last major-label albums I reviewed for this site had an accompanying pre-release cassingle.) This time around, though, I’ve been captivated by the song’s earlier images, of time slipping past while our protagonist waits. “I watched my shadow shorten / ankle-deep in autumn” is just one of several gorgeous passages. In a way it ends up feeling like the quintessential melancholy Lucksmiths song. That I could easily say the same about a handful of other songs from across Cartography for Beginners speaks to the overall success of the collection, and of the band.