What's going on here? Why do these songs sound so alienating, so weird?
The Darling Downs is a collaboration between two career musicians of the Australian music scene, Kim Salmon and Ron Peno. Salmon, through his 80s indie rock groups -- most notably The Scientists and Beasts of Bourbon -- has been credited as a "father of grunge". Peno was the singer-songwriter behind indie group Died Pretty, which existed from 1984 to 2002. But The Darling Downs sound nothing like any of these groups. The M.O. is simple: Salmon's acoustic guitar and Peno's straining, high-pitched voice, turned together to a series of songs that can only be generally classified as Country.
From two musicians with such varied and full backgrounds, you have to assume the stripped-back approach is a conscious choice. So what's going on here? Why do these songs sound so alienating, so weird? It's not just the countrified yelps and vocal whoops. What becomes clear after a few listens is that these are subtle, slow-hitting songs. They're not insignificant, but they are certainly quirky. To the extent that I wondered a few times if, rather than a tribute, this was more of a mocking appreciation. On "All Fall Down", the way Peno slides at the end of the line reminded me of Tom Lehrer's Wild West parody "The Wild West Is Where I Want To Be".
However, How Can I Forget This Heart Of Mine? does remind us, from time to time, of the fragile beauty of that classic combination -- voice and acoustic guitar. It's not the melancholy, rainy day beauty of Jose Gonzalez, but an affecting one nonetheless. I'm thinking of "There's A Light" which, for the first time on the record, uses the genre-specific vocal technique as an advantage, to communicate real emotion. "Still Fall The Rain", too, with its quiet guitar arpeggios, is entirely successful in this respect. The picked guitar shows its power, too, as on "Waste My Time". The keening vocal is like a lament, a perfect accompaniment to the powerful strummed guitar, rather than the other way around.
Still, as a listener, it's difficult to relate to some of the Country mannerisms. I'm sorry, but Peno's vocals on "In That Jar" are so yelping they reminded me of a dog. "Let It Breathe" aims for Johnny Cash but falls short; it's too amateurish, with gleeful shouts and an overly derivative harmony. "And They Danced" switches harmonies so abruptly in the middle of the chorus it still feels out of place.
A tricky one on which to come down with a final judgment, this. In the end, How Can I Forget This Heart Of Mine? is a little album, with minimal impact. If you're curious, it could reward you, but not right away, and it's riddled with tics and mannerisms that are almost purposefully thrown in to turn you away. A few transcendent moments almost remind us more of Country's capacity than of the ability of The Darling Downs to express it. Ironically, in the end the most lasting thing is Ron Peno's voice -- on "Deep Deep Blue" it wavers with an all-too-human uncertainty, as if carried beyond the bounds of the melody by some deeply held musicianship.