More ponce and thuggery from Australia's favorite alternative rock band that, though a welcome return from a band that looked on the outs, may not inspire a stampede of new fans.
Regardless what you think of his songwriting talents, Tim Rogers is a true rock star -- the real deal. At a recent concert in NYC with Tex Perkins for his T'N'T side project, he came on stage in a borrowed shirt with the words "What a fucking c--- of a travel day", lamented about the weariness you feel post-LSD in the middle of America, and invited everyone to a BBQ performance the next day that he couldn't be bothered coming through on. He's a star in the Kurt Cobain mould, emaciated but intensely vital. A large tattoo on his chest shows a pair of praying hands; more tabloid-worthy, a couple years ago he got into a punch-up at an airport terminal with the host of Australian Idol. Would you have your prototypical rock star any other way?
A much more important argument for You Am I's relevance than Rogers's offstage antics is the fact that he's proven he can communicate an immediately recognizable, extremely Aussie sensibility in his songs. It's part larrikin, part unstable insecurity, part punk stomp -- all cut through with a blue-collar bar rock fist-pump. Kind of like a rawer, less sophisticated Hold Steady. Rogers's language encompasses both local and universal rock imagery, finding an unexpected beauty in everything from explaining cricket to Americans (a task too complicated for a song) to disappointment. On the band's classic pop song, "Heavy Heart" from 1998's #4 Record, the self-pity in this one verse still sends an entire nation into quiet reflection over a solitary beer:
Been watching so much TV
I'm thinner than I should be
I'm like a water-logged ball
That no-one wants to kick around any more.
Though Rogers is undoubtedly the backbone of You Am I, it's no longer enough to paint the band as a Tim Rogers vehicle. Second guitarist Davey Lane's other group, the Pictures, really came into their own with their 2005 CD Pieces of Eight, and Lane himself has been a big figure on the Aussie rock scene, performing with supergroup the Wrights for the 2004 ARIAs, and generally being around the place. Drummer Rusty Hopkinson's been drumming for Radio Birdman, and bassist Andy Kent played on the latest Vines album. Rogers himself has recorded two CDs with side-project the Temperance Union, a vehicle for the songwriter's country leanings, as well as a recent, acoustic collaboration with Tex Perkins which allowed the songwriters, perhaps for the first time, an opportunity to pen an ode to cunnilingus (Rogers's wit usually runs slightly higher than this, but he revels in being never too far from the gutter).
Having said all this, I have to admit, You Am I's widespread and continuing idolization in Oz has always been something of a mystery to me. The band had three consecutive albums debut at number one in the charts in Australia in the '90s, and still enjoys a fiercely loyal following that cuts across the spectrum of Australian society. Part of the appeal is Rogers's authenticity, which is undeniable. Another part is the bar rock masculinity of his beer-soaked songs. But what's still a little puzzling is the fact that there's precious little melody to Rogers's songs. Attitude? Sure. Rhythmic intensity? Absolutely. But what you think of when you hear "bar rock" in America -- anthemic choruses a la Bon Jovi -- has always been deliberately absent from You Am I's work. Maybe this is why the band's had such difficulty translating its at-home success across the Pacific; since Rogers's attitude is so authentically Aussie, and attitude is such a large part of You Am I's appeal, this music still feels somewhat inscrutable to foreign ears. One American friend commented, "sounds like an unhinged mess". There's more to You Am I than that; trouble is, Convicts makes it difficult for naïve listeners to get there.
Specifically, the album brings with it an agenda: to re-establish the band (in Australia) to the rocking reputation its first albums justifiably earned. 2002's Deliverance saw the band at its most poppy, but with that side of Rogers's songwriting shifted to other projects, You Am I wants to show us with this album that they're back to their bad old selves. The old You Am I trademarks are all over this disc, from the handclaps in "I'm a Mess", to the staccato rhythms at the end of the refrain in "Friends Like You" and "Gunslingers", to the dueling guitar dissonances of opener "Thank God I've Hit the Bottom". But the album's front-loaded with venom, so by the time we get to the more varied material of Convicts' second half, many unfamiliar listeners may have already switched off.
That first half is uncompromising stuff, material that could be inspired by Sonic Youth and could have inspired the Drones in its turn. "Friends Like You" resists melody at every turn, and still comes out feeling like a bar anthem: despite being purposefully, endlessly flat, the vocals somehow trace the semblance of a catchy melody: "With friends like you it's no wonder a guy gets bent". Nice turn of phrase. Rogers's shout of "Let's Go!" at the beginning of "It Ain't Funny How We Don't Talk Any More" is supremely ironic: Rogers is a tired human, but an unstoppable musical presence, driving forward with pumping, staccato rhythms.
And the album doesn’t slow down, it barely pauses to catch its breath; though the beginning of "Secrets" is more mellow, it's just a second before the tuneless guitar fuzz, tuneless high tenor vocals return. Actually, at the beginning the stripped back vocal-guitar is eerie and strange -- as if the heartfelt vocals were wrenched out of the singer against his will. There is a more varied section in the middle of the record, where the songwriter brings in some acoustic and country elements, but they never really take hold. Old listeners will appreciate the drunken, disillusioned undeniability of "By My Own Hand"; new ones may find "Gunslingers" more palatable: switching the riff into the guitar's midrange, allowing Rogers to thrust forward with a little more pep. Yeah, you can imagine him "the last gunslinger in town".
Then again, maybe it's Rogers's vulnerability that keeps us coming back. Album closer, he's "a mess and it's losing its spark". Either way, the thuggery or the emptiness, You Am I's got something, has had something for fifteen years. It's an open question whether that's enough for a wider American audience, and in a way it's a shame that Convicts is hardly the band's best work. On the other hand, the album's refusal to compromise is true to the band all the way. Get past the ferocity and you might just see Rogers's appeal, too.