The Sydney Conservatorium of Music is a sandstone building that looks like a castle, perched on a ridge above the Botanical Gardens, overlooking the curve of Circular Quay and the Opera House. Inside, there are the usual things you find in a Conservatorium: a concert hall, practice rooms with small windows, and a courtyard with stone benches and some withered plants. When I went there each year to take my Australian Music Examinations Board exams for violin, I hated the place’s musty institutionalism and, of course, its tyranny to prevent me from progressing to the next grade.
It seems the Presets, who studied composition there, didn’t find it too inspiring, either. In fact, their songs stand as the direct antithesis to Classical conservatism. Unsophisticated, promiscuous, filthy, and hedonistic, the Presets make dance music so fun it’s impossible to resist.
I’ve been listening to the Presets since 2003, when they first hit the airwaves in Australia with the smooth summer-groove “Girl and the Sea”. The group’s debut came leisurely, just six months ago back home. But now that it’s here, Beams doesn’t disappoint. Here in America they are bound to be this year’s LCD Soundsystem, the group that introduces indie rock kids to dancing (again). The difference is, Presets are a step closer to real DJs. Their music is built up from the basic tenets of commercial dance music, from Green Velvet to Felix da Housecat to the Chemical Brothers to Prodigy, and into that base they inject dirty guitars, sleaziness, and unadulterated energy.
You know from the first “Billie Jean”-beat of “Steamworks” that this is a bloody cool record. Julian Hamilton starts breathing into the microphone, “ooh”, “aah”, echoing like a steamship, or rather, like a steamship having sex. In fact, the first four songs are almost perfect. All dirty, adults-only fun and irresistible hooks, “Steamworks”, “Are You the One?”, “Down Down Down”, and “Girl and the Sea” are a masterclass in style and substance. Imagine yourself walking around, headphones on, to “Are You the One?”: the beat is a semitone-rumble of distorted fuzz, the vocals, thrown off with the yelp of Green Velvet in “La La Land”, and the chorus is anthemic, defiant, addictive. Trust me, you feel damn cool. “Down Down Down” keeps the dirty beat, but it’s turned more synthetic, the beat given more echo. I can see my friend Will strutting around with his butt out like a robot to “Down Down Down” — it’s not just that he doesn’t like dance music, he’s a classic rock guy — which is why I mention him at all. Finally, in a demonstration of remarkable versatility, “Girl and the Sea” is all silk-smooth and introspective; registers switched, the vocals are all bottom-of-the-range, the music is all treble synths.
Though it would be unthinkable that a disc could keep up such excellence for its full length, you can’t help but feel a little disappointment that the next few tracks dip a bit in quality. “Black Background” is little more than filler, and “Worms”, though it opens with an interesting Middle-Eastern flourish, slowly morphs into spaced-out psych jam that is take-it-or-leave-it. Things pick up again, though, with “Kitty in the Middle”, with Hamilton moaning meaningless come-ons in a voice so sex-laden it’s positively pornographic. “Hill Stuck” is more ominous, with booming tuba and tom taps that echo in space; a faint Caribbean-sounding voice shouts something in the background. We’re back on familiar ground with “Girl You Chew My Mind Up” — the bass line is basically the same as “Down Down Down” — but the beat stutters and stumbles through the chorus, tripping over itself like a garage rhythm. “I Go Hard, I Go Home” and “Bad Up Your Betterness” continue in this same vein — by now you get the idea.
The Presets have one more surprise in store for us, though. The finale and title track “Beams” is entirely different from the rest of the disc. Hushed, like a lullaby made of dripping electronics — it’s either soothing or deeply unsettling depending on your mood. Starting with the simple melody of a music-box, the texture gradually thickens and is taken over by strings, acoustic guitar (played by Silverchair’s Daniel Johns), and brass. They trickle off into the upper atmosphere and you’re left with the thought, ‘That was nice’.
The obvious criticism of Beams is its variety — you could call it lack of focus — but for me that’s a strength, since listening to the disc is never boring in the way that some electronic albums with a few choice cuts can be. That’s a supremely modern attitude, and it’s basically an admission that Presets are pop music aimed sturdily at the mainstream; but it doesn’t detract in any way from the disc’s likeability.
Seeing the band’s first ever New York concert reinforced everything positive I felt about the band from their album. For my friends who had never heard the band before, and who basically only listen to indie rock, it was an exercise in enjoyment extracted almost against their will; they commented that, knowing the guys were playing most of the guitar and bass lines straight off their iPod, and seeing how ridiculous they looked (over-size, goofy t-shirts, inexplicably tight black jeans), they shouldn’t have respected these guys in any way. But it was just too much fun. As if in total agreement, the rest of the lower east side crowd went off like a firecracker.
The Sydney Conservatorium still sits just so, looking disapprovingly out over a stunning harbour. I like to imagine that now, the composition students are listening to something else on their iPods inside.