Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Sweeter Than The Radio

My recent change of transportation from bus to car has meant – as I noted in the post on the topic – that I'm now listening to whole albums again. And this he led to me digging through my boxes of cds to find suitable listening material, since I'd pretty much transferred the majority of my music to my pc (both for listening and for transferring to my mp3 player) a few years back, leaving only a few of the 'favourites' on hand to listen to on the system in my lounge room.

One album that I happened across and have played in the car a couple of times since I started at Kidman Park is Sweeter Than the Radio, the 1999 album by Australian band Icecream Hands.

Despite having been around for a while, I'd never heard of them – or heard any of their songs – until Triple J started playing tracks from Sweeter than the Radio. But it didn't take me hearing too many songs before I realised how much I liked their stuff. But I didn't buy the album for a few years because my flatmate Andrew had it so I had access to it pretty much whenever I wanted it. When we stopped sharing a house, though, I bought a copy for myself.

I got to see them live a few times: they played at the first Big Day Out I went to in 2000 – they were on quite early so there weren't too many other people there; some months later I saw them at Governor Hindmarsh maybe twice (definitely once); and once at what was then Bar 107 and is now Swish.

But back to the album itself. In terms of genre, Icecream Hands mix it up a little, fusing guitar-driven pop-rock1 and just a touch of country2. There are three regular members – Charles 'Chuck' Jenkins (guitar, vocals), Derek G. Smiley (drums, vocals) and Douglas Lee Robertson (bass, vocals). Writing and lead vocals are mostly by Jenkins, but there are a couple by Robertson (on which he sings lead), one by Robertson and Jenkins (on which Jenkins sings lead), and one by all three with Jenkins on lead again.

I'm a sucker for well-crafted pop-rock, and some of the songs on this album are amongst the best of that particular style that I've ever heard. I just can't help but smile at the combination of that sound, along with great harmonies, catchy guitar solos and clever, funny lyrics.

The standout tracks are many. Spiritlevel Windowsill is a pop/rock/country gem; it's followed by Dodgy, which replaces the twang with more intricate harmonies and some wickedly clever lyrics3. Nipple – an odd title, I'll grant you, but it makes sense in context – slows things down and gives it a sentimental(but genuine) twist. Yellow & Blue is pure guitar pop/rock, written and sung by bassist Doug Robertson – very much the sound of the early 60s; so much so that ex-flatmate Andrew (quite justifiably) compared it to That Thing You Do (the song from the film of the same name).

Picture disk from the Benelux – the one written by all three – is a another with country influence; the lyrics refers to a Gram Parsons4 album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which the protagonist is loath to return to his now ex-girlfriend because of the memories he associates with it. Bassist Robertson's second solo composition and lead vocal effort, Giving It All Away, isn't quite as strong as Yellow & Blue – but it does feature some superb guitar work. The last of the truly excellent tracks is The Obvious Boy, a much slower song but a powerful one nonetheless.

Probably the only complaint I have is that the songs I like are mostly in the first half of the album, meaning it doesn't finish anywhere near as strongly as it begins. But that's really a minor issue with an album this good.

Unfortunately, Icecream Hands were never able to produce another record as good as Sweeter than the Radio. The follow-up, Broken UFO, had some decent songs on it, but just doesn't compare. I don't think they're even together any more, which is a shame because I'd definitely like to see them play again.

At some point I came across an ad for a gig from a few years back that had Icecream Hands and Lazy Susan – my favourite Australian band; I'll write about them soon – doing a show together. Now that would have been a gig. Two of the best exponents of guitar-driven pop rock this country has ever seen – it's entirely possible that my head would have exploded.

For now, at least, I've got the album – and it's going to get a lot of plays in my car.

1Think early Beatles, like I Wanna Hold Your Hand.
2Yes, that's right – I like a bit of country, in moderation; examples would be The Eagles (unless, of course, it's been a rough night), Ben Kweller and The Lemonheads, to name a few.
3'You could use your literary first to try and cover up this third-rate verse' – brilliant.
4A pioneer of country/rock; read about him here.

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