As members of The Cat’s Miaow, Kerrie Bolton and Andrew Withycombe help create pretty, smart pop music. With their other band Hydroplane, they do the same, but use an expanded palette of styles and sounds. The key difference is electronics over conventional instruments, with Wythcombe using an apparent assortment of unspecified electronic devices to build a deep array of unique, layered musical arrangements to support Bolton’s elegant and intimate crooner’s voice. Hydroplane’s first two albums, one self-titled and one called Hope Against Hope, introduced their sound as ambient pop: catchy but relaxed melodic tunes set in carefully crafted dreamy atmospheres. With their third album The Sound of Changing Places, the duo pushes their sound in all sorts of new directions, emphasizing playful experimentation while still giving appropriate attention to pop songcraft.
The electronic soundscapes on The Sound of Changing Places take all sorts of forms. “Merry-go-round” opens the album in a dreamy swirl, yet that sound is dressed up, down and in every other direction before the album closes. The second track, “Farmer’s boys flexi disc” is similar in tone to the first track but adds funky beats and some subtle touches, like phonograph fuzz that echoes the title’s reference to a flexi disc. “We make all the rules, and we’re the ones who break them / Tonight I know it’s only up to us,” Bolton sings, giving voice to the anything-goes, DIY air that the group has. Free creation is what’s going on here, and at every step it works brilliantly, making the album a treasure filled with many types of aural pleasures.
The variety and sheer inventiveness of the music gives the album an otherworldly feel at times. That theme of transcending the normal is touched on lyrically as well, as on “Bouncing Ball”, with the chorus “We’re going to miss you / How is the air up there?” Movement and boundary-crossing is in a sense what the whole album centers on. From the album title and its cover art — a photo of a kite flying high above a city park, with a skyline of skyscrapers in the background — to the Quicktime video included as a bonus, chronicling a train trip through Melbourne (to a song that’s not otherwise included on the CD, “Little Star Shine on Us Tonight”, transportation is everywhere. That theme is captured in romantic, poetic terms on the ballad “Kangaroo and Map”, where Bolton sings, “Someday I will call and lead you far away / Over hills and mountain ranges / Maybe follow the sun.”
Hydroplane’s electronic pop creations at times travel into funky territory that would make them dance-floor-ready, especially on “Embassy Café”, an energetic pop tour through a night on the town. That track also has affairs of the heart at its core. Love, loneliness, infatuation — these themes pop up on just about every great pop record ever made, and The Sound of Changing Places is no exception. The last two songs, “Cry My Heart” and “World Without You,” are especially touching portraits of love, giving the album a sweetness to match its musical dexterity. By the album’s end, Hydoplane have traveled through myriad musical worlds, but they haven’t forgotten to map the human heart, either.