Tom Iansek and Jo Syme, the duo behind Big Scary, recorded several well-received EPs in their native Australia before releasing debut album Vacation in 2011. With its trio of versatile, mercurial singles, each incomparable to its counterparts, Big Scary gradually built a reputation as a band for whom formula was anathema. From the laconic ballad “Leaving Home”, with its softly interspersed duets, to the impetuous garage-rock crunch of “Gladiator”, the Melbourne duo proved diverse and free-wheeling, uninhibited by genre or stylistic homogeneity. After touring in New York, Los Angeles, and Mumbai, Big Scary returned to Australia to record their sophomore album.
With Not Art, Big Scary continues their musical pastiche adventure, employing Iansek’s raspy falsetto, minimalist drum lines and inventive, affecting piano interludes to create a compact work of commendable ingenuity. On “Belgian Blues”, Iansek channels Jeff Buckley with his unhurried, textured delivery swelling into a gothic requiem for a stymied romance. The effect is redolent of not only Buckley but also ’90s alt rock in general, as Iansek belts with a languid hostility, “The darkness takes them away / Just a slave to its wishes / Just a slave to its ways.” It’s been awhile since we’ve heard the sort of lyrics — wounded souls, nebulous darkness, and an equally vague relationship under siege by creeping melancholy and estrangement — that were trademarks of bands like Candlebox and Bush. Now this is not to say that Big Scary in any way resembles those major rock outfits of the ’90s. It’s just one example of their unique constellation of influences.
“Luck Now”, on the other hand, is an immediate reminder of what era you’re in, with Iansek transforming his malleable pipes to a high-pitched ache to belt out the story of love evaporating and the one-sided pleading it leaves in its pitiless wake. The track probably owes a significant debt to Bon Iver‘s “Skinny Love“, without quite matching Justin Vernon’s vocal gymnastics and ingenious shifts in cadence. But the transparency of such influences isn’t really a bad thing. While Not Art might be a bit overtly referential, it’s never monotonous or formulaic, each of which are worse fates than studied mimesis.
By the time you reach “Invest”, it’s hard to believe that Big Scary is still managing to change their sound from one song to the next. This is not an album that a critic can glibly pigeonhole in fancy one-word descriptors. “Plaintive” will not do; nor will “dreamy”, “idyllic”, “bucolic”, or “introspective”. In other words, Not Art‘s tone, and consequently its emotional locus, is elusive or perhaps deliberately hazy, as if Big Scary were neutrally exploring their attitude toward relationships, love dynamics, and ennui, rather than chronicling the personal cost and effect of those experiences.
For an indie-pop two-piece trying on such a menagerie of aesthetics and emotional registers, having a reliable through-line is critical. Fortunately, Iansek’s piano passes with flying colors in this capacity, injecting gentle bursts of inner warmth into “Luck Now”, or coating Syme’s affecting performance in “Harmony Sometimes” with a mature romantic landscape that belies some of the album’s more jejune, emotional flitting moments.
Because Big Scary sticks with their intimate but limited sets, eschewing the synthesizers that give so many contemporary acts their unearthly liquid beauty, lyrics and vocal performance are paramount here. Regrettably, and Iansek himself admitted as much in an interview, said lyrics are not always the band’s strong suit. Many of them feel amorphous and apocryphal; unconvincing, one-dimensional portraits of romantic relationships. The same images and flashes of memory keep surfacing, as if Iansek and Syme never broke through to the undercurrents of personal history and psychological fixation that make the best indie acts so vermiculate in their sinewy bond of voice, lyrics, and instrument.
If you were to take out scales and put, on one side, Not Art‘s chameleon-like facility for adaptation and genre mimicry, along with its spare, stirring piano figures, and then on the other side, the album’s persistent lack of lyrical depth and novelty of form, you still end up with a solid, consistently surprising effort. It’s that brilliant but capricious sculptor, life experience, that could give Big Scary’s future albums the pangs and profundities they need to move into more powerful territory.