The Drones are older, more bitter, and better than ever on their latest album.
I was living in New York the year the Drones’ breakout album, Wait Long by the River and the Bodies of Your Enemies Will Float By, came out. That tumultuous summer, full of reports from home of race riots on the beaches of south Sydney, the Drones’ sodden mixture of blues and hard-drinking, hard-living wisdom seemed like a bitter but on-point take on life. I gave my copy of the album to my college roommate. It was in his computer when his apartment in Williamsburg was broken into and ransacked.
We went to see the Drones play at the Knitting Factory later that year. It was their first concert of the tour, and they had just disembarked the flight from Australia. I think Gareth Liddiard opened the set saying, “We’re fucking jet lagged”. Rui Pereira, the band’s guitarist at the time (he’s since been replaced by Dan Luscombe), polished off a handle of vodka straight while the band proceeded to rip out our eardrums. It was the loudest, rawest, messiest concert I’ve ever seen. It impressed on me, and my roommate with the stolen computer, the messy hardness -- the obtuse adherence to this rock-star ideal -- that the band seemed to emanate. So, it was a way of life for these guys.
After a small flurry of critical acclaim in 2005, the Drones quickly slipped off the radar, and their fine third album, Gala Mill, barely got a mention around the web. Friends who wrote for blogs asked me, “Should we care about these guys?” then moved on to Yellow House and newer, easier stuff. A cadre of Australian bloggers continues to laud the group. A Reminder's annual poll of Aussie music bloggers picked Havilah as their top Aussie album of 2008, but this small minority unfortunately hasn't been able to raise general awareness of the band to the level many believe they deserve.
In December of 2007 the Drones put out a 7-inch vinyl for ATP in the Custom Made series, where the label asks its artists to pick something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue. Cute, huh? Not when the Drones are curating. Their borrowed song was perhaps the closest the group’s come to manifesto: a version of Charles Aznavour’s “I Drink”. The song’s Buchowski style (“I give you a toast to the lies and confusions that have swallowed my life”) suits the group. Gloom. Depression. Caustic acrimony.
That acrimony’s all over Havilah, but it's taking a slightly different form here than on the previous albums. As the group has matured, they've become less afraid of quieter arrangements and sparser tonality. They let their guitars chime and even, a few times, let major tonalities ring out without twisting them into distortion. This more relaxed style allows a somewhat more forthright exploration of the defeat/desolation that runs through much of Liddiard's material. In fact, the structure of the album as a whole reflects this neatly, even the fire of the aggressive, distortion-laden opening of "Nail It Down" and "The Minotaur" is used up by disc's end.
In its place are an ever-widening musical landscape and, of course, Gareth Liddiard's words. Like the most compelling acts, like Augie March’s Glenn Richards, Liddiard has come to be regarded as one of those lyricists whose words have the weight of poetry. For someone with such classic themes this new material is dressed up in a surprising, modern vocabulary. There's talk of iPods, and this glorious description from "The Minotaur":
He does not talk, he does not move
He spends all day looking at porn
Or playing fucking Halo 2.
I have many friends who feel the same way about that video game. But it's not all jokes. Making his voice obtusely nasal, Liddiard tackles modern life with the Buchowski's same stained sense of loss. There's a line about the emptiness of "a laptop and caffeine" in "Careful As You Go" that's particularly cutting.
But so we go on. We buy new computers. The forms and context of our loneliness shifts with different tragedies out in the world and different drinks to make them go away. Despite the changes, you get the feeling Liddiard’s band will continue, through it all, their nuanced representations of defeated life. Though it’s a bit devastating, we should be thankful for that.