Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Review: BigStrongBrute - We Can Sleep Under Trees In The Morning

Paul Donoughue (aka the man behind indie-folk 'band' BigStrongBrute) is a son of a bitch. He makes things look so easy. First off, he was part of the great band Tragic/Athletic, a band that started out as a snot-nosed noise-punk band seemingly highly indebted to Turnpike (no bad thing) before maturing into something much more 'adult' and yet somehow just as - if not more - interesting. Now he's continued that musical growth even without the help of his old band. BigStrongBrute has existed in some form for many years now, but its original incarnation as a mid-naughties electro-clash performance piece has now been completely replaced by exquisite folk-pop songcraft. Donoughue takes the same simple song structures and basic open guitar chords that thousands of people have used to create a million songs, and yet manages to create songs that are not only memorable, but somehow unique and individual. Paul Donoghue is a son of a bitch.

I suppose a large part of the reason for the success of We Can Sleep Under Trees In The Morning is the maturation of Donoughue's voice. It's always been a rough instrument, straining for pitch and range, but these days it's managed to strike that wonderful balance between roughness and musicality. The notes might be slightly off, but it's always in a way that makes things sound better, not worse. Donoughue's voice is full and rich and warm and contains a weariness beyond his years. It's the same kind of perfectly flawed voice that makes people fall in love with singers like Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum or Okkervil River's Will Sheff, acts that BigStrongBrute are often compared to. Those are comparisons that are understandable: all three bands feature strong frontmen with 'rough' voices surrounded by a slightly tweaked and modernised version of traditional folk instrumentation. The passing similarity is just that though, there's no simple aping of a somewhat popular sound. Even if there was, there are worse musical ideas to steal; thank God that Donoughue didn't attempt to create yet another over-rehearsed, bloodless 'folk' act like the Mumford & Sons of the world (as an aside, I must have heard that band's hit song - whatever it was called - a bunch of times, and each time it's ended I've been completely unable to remember a single thing about it). We already have too many dudes who thought it would be a cool idea to grow a beard, strap on an acoustic guitar and get half-a-dozen other musicians to fill out the sound with a bunch of 'obscure' instruments. I'm sick of supposed 'folk' bands who are all slick, filled with multi-part harmonies and super fast finger-picking. Be raw! Be out of tune! Stop trying to be Grizzly Bear or Fleet Foxes! Anyway...

Of course, the songs are what make any record. My personal favourite here is the closing title track, a 3-minute song that feels as though it's a 1-and-a-half-minute song. When it finishes I find myself wishing it were a 6-minute song that felt as though it were a 3-minute song. The final wordless refrain leaves me completely devastated in a way that few local acts can manage (the dearly missed Ambitious Lovers being the only other that immediately springs to mind). 'Supply & Demand' is the obvious radio single (well, obvious to me. My friend thinks that the upbeat penultimate track 'You Were Always Right' holds that title), but even it can create a lump in the throat in its final, solo bridge before the band kicks back in for the rocking outro. Then there's the beautiful build of opener 'Hands', the minimal 'In My Own Mind' and the epic centrepiece 'Industrial Town'. As you'd hope from a 6-song record, there's not much fat on here.

Engineer Todd Dixon has given the record a somewhat timeless quality, doing a commendable job of mixing together the wide array of instrumentation; flute, trumpet, piano, organs, guitars ranging from nylon stringed through to distorted electrics, all manner of vocals. Some might call it lo-fi. It's not, but neither is it a modern, polished stitch-job. Like many things with this record, it's wonderfully balanced but not hyped. I wonder if this balance might actually end up being to its detriment, as the record's lack of immediacy in both sonics and songwriting gimmicks might mean that it doesn't grab ears in the same way that, say, The Middle East did last year. BigStrongBrute just don't have that show-off element that the more hyped 'folk' acts do (which isn't to say that they lack a sense of drama). It's a shame, because Donoughue's songs are as good (I'd say better, in fact) than those of that band; they're just simpler, rougher and more subtle. Hopefully this means that they'll have more staying power.

I want to say something vaguely negative about the record so that this isn't a glowing puff piece, but I can't really think of much. It's the best local record I've heard in some time, certainly the best folk record to come out of Brisbane for a while (right up there with McKisko's debut and the previously mentioned Ambitious Lovers' farewell EP, Winter Got Warmer). It's not perfect, but anything I can think of to criticise sounds exceptionally petty (eg: sometimes the backing vocals are mixed higher than Donoghue's lead vocals). I know it's a cliche to say this when reviewing an EP, but I really hope we don't have to wait too long for a full-length. Actually screw the rest of you, I just hope *I* don't have to wait too long for a full-length.

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