The first thing you'll notice on purchase of the 10" is the packaging (obviously). It must be said, it's a beautiful looking piece of vinyl (and for those of you who prefer your sound in digital formats, it comes with a copy of the EP on CD too). The second thing you'll notice, once you've placed it on you turntable, is that it sounds really good - clear yet warm and dynamic. It's not 'hi-fi' per se (ie: you're not going to mistake it for a Magoo recording, or perhaps not even a Bryce Moorhead recording), but it nails that slightly raw indie-rock sound that albums like Funeral or You Forgot It In People have popularised. I think it's the best thing I've heard from local Recording Engineer Todd Dixon.
But onto the songs (which will collectively be the third thing you'll notice). 'We Set Sail When The Wind Came' is notable in it's opening slot for not containing any of Tragic/Athletic's previous trademark guitars until 35seconds into the song - instead the band have chosen to open the EP with synths, keys and rudimentary drums. A brief four-bar guitar interlude gives way to the full band entering the song in full bombast, with multi-tracked vocals half singing, half chanting the lyrics. The song has a decided sea-shanty feel, helped along by the accordion that drones away through the majority of the song. It's certainly a strong opener, and a definite favourite in the band's discography.
'Three Months At Sea' is next up, starting with some sort of ambient sound effect and a two-chord, single strum guitar progression. Lethargic vocals enter, then bass and drums, the song gradually building in energy before falling back to how it began. Eventually the band breaks into a more rollicking section, still utilising the same two-chord progression. Once more a short breakdown featuring dissonant guitar introduces the final section of the song, where the band picks up speed and finally brings in some new chords, along with a horn section and a truly joyous, celebratory feel. The end effect is a song that is strongly reminiscent of the previously referenced Broken Social Scene, though the recording doesn't quite capture the live power of the song (see the YouTube video at the end of this review to get an idea of that).
'Make For The Hills' is probably the most straight-forward and upbeat of the tracks on Brakes, wasting no time on building up a head of steam. Instead it plunges straight into a tense riff for the first 45 second of the songs, then heads into Tragic/Athletic's version of the disco-punk thing that was ubiquitous a few years back. Another spacey, introspective middle section follows, before the band races to the end of the song with the previously introduced disco rhythm. It's *probably* my least favourite track, but that's not really much of a slight given the consistency of this release.
The final track of the EP, 'Four Decades', initially might seem more akin to the Tragic/Athletic that many may be more familiar with. With its insistently jagged bass riff and rhythm it sounds more like the noise-rock that the band was initially known for. However, even in this song they show progression, with the minimalist feel of the track sounding closer to something My Disco's Paradise album than anything else. And again, the band throws a sudden change into the song when they switch from repetitive post-punk to a woozy reverb-washed guitar 'chorus', before again faking us out by introducing a middle section featuring subdued group chanting over the top of a simplistic drum part. The EP closes out on a decidedly ambiguous note - this definitely isn't the stereotypical 'big rock finish' that most bands opt to end a release with.
I like this release, if for no other reason than it's heartening to see a band like Tragic/Athletic stick around when other bands of their era (eg: Frou Frou Foxes) petered out and died; seeing progression and maturity in a band like this is such a rare thing in Brisbane. It's also heartening to see a band like Tragic/Athletic being unafraid of introducing more 'populist' elements into their music - too often bands in Brisbane seem to think you either have to be as mainstream-courting as Yves Klein Blue or as underground-embracing as On-Oxx (not having a go at either of those bands). There IS a middle ground, which bands like I Heart Hiroshima and Iron On have shown. It also helps that Brakes is a genuinely good collection of songs, one that holds its own surprises and moods and that is as cohesive a release as you'll find in its genre (an aspect that The Rational Academy's A Heart Against Your Own could be criticised for, as much as I love it). That said, as much as the band is making admirable steps toward a more accessible sound while still retaining their original aesthetic, this is still music that requires a pre-existing disposition to raw indie-rock to enjoy. The vocals parts are certainly a lot more melodic and 'catchy' than they were previously, but your average JJJ listener will still probably find them too rough.
Then again, if MTV likes them than I don't see why Richard Kingsmill and his followers can't.
Three Months At Sea @ The Troubadour: