Redux: What Rhymes With Cars And Girls
As Tim Rogers gets the band back together to perform his 1999 debut solo album 'What Rhymes With Cars And Girls', DARREN LEVIN revisits the unheralded classic with co-producer Jen Anderson.
“And it’s an age-old tune/You only know where you are when you move.”
At the time of recording What Rhymes With Cars And Girls – his first solo disc, 10 full years after founding You Am I – Tim Rogers was a man in transit. He was moving out and moving on. The disintegration of a long-term relationship had prompted a relocation to Melbourne and, in turn, a batch of new songs.
“I had some time alone and I found myself writing some songs,” Rogers told youami.net at the time. “I just thought, ‘Well it looks like You Am I's not going to be recording for a while, while we're waiting for albums to come out overseas, so I wanna make a record.’”
Melbourne musician, composer and producer Jen Anderson was Rogers’ first port of call. The pair had met through Anderson’s band at the time – Mick Thomas’ folk-punk collective Weddings Parties Anything – and arranged to record some demos at her home studio in Fitzroy. When Rogers arrived in the winter of 1998 he had a collection of songs, fully realised but not fully formed.
“I thought immediately that they [the songs] were really strong,” says Anderson. “I think Tim’s a very strong songwriter, a great lyricist and he’s got a great command of chords as well. I’ve done an OK amount of producing and he’s one person that didn’t need guidance at all. It was more a case of bouncing ideas off each other.
“It was a very organic record in the way that it developed,” she continues. “Once the guitar and vocals were down and he’d made the decision he wanted to make it into a record, it was then a case of deciding what other instruments would be good. He already had the arrangements down pat.”
It was Anderson’s task to round up the musicians that would eventually appear on the album as The Twin Set. Drummer Ian Kitney, Stuart Speed on upright bass and Anderson herself on violin and viola formed the group’s core (You Am I guitarist Davey Lane augmented the quartet live, but didn’t appear on the record). There were also notable contributions from Mark Wallace (accordion), Jeff Burstin (mandolin), Ed Bates (pedal steel), Peter Somerville (banjo), Andy Reid (clarinet and washboard) and Ben Gillespie from The Hoodangers, whose improvised trombone solo on ‘Happy Anniversary’ lends the track a smoky 2am feel.
“It wasn’t planned in the way a normal record is,” Anderson explains. “The drums and bass weren’t put down first, they were put down last. It started off really with Tim putting down his acoustic parts and singing. They were all kept. Then we started layering up with other things.”
What Rhymes With Cars And Girls was recorded over a three-week period on Anderson’s eight-track digital recorder. Rogers approached the sessions like a banker would a nine to five.
“Tim’s a very punctual man,” says Anderson. “He’d be there in the morning at 9am with a coffee and croissant and away we’d go. We’d finish around four or five – and we’d just chomp through it really quickly.”
Despite her best intentions, Anderson was limited by her recording space – a “tiny little cellar” in inner-city Melbourne, which may account for the album’s enveloping, almost claustrophobic sound. But if the reverb-drenched vocals on ‘Arse Kickin’ Lady From The Northwest’ – a titular play on Dylan’s ‘Sad Eyed Lady of The Lowlands’ – sound as if they were recorded in somebody’s bathroom, it wasn’t the case. Those effects were added at the mixing stage by Paul McKercher, who had worked with Rogers on You Am I’s suburban masterpiece Hourly Daily (1996).
“For a low budget record, we were in Sing Sing, which was a very expensive studio, with Paul McKercher, who’s a pretty expensive engineer,” Anderson jokes. “But he was well worth it. He really helped make that record. We had put it down pretty straight-up and he added a lot to it in the way of effects.”
The players’ contributions were just as significant. Wallace’s accordion on ‘You’ve Been So Good To Me So Far’, Reid’s washboard on ‘You Just Don’t Do It For Me Friend’ and Somerville’s banjo on ‘Arse Kickin’ Lady’ are much more than colourful afterthoughts. The musicians were given freedom to put their stamp on the songs and McKercher’s sympathetic mix really brought them to the fore.
“I had a few good mics and used them well. But we had good players – that really makes a difference,” Anderson says.
“It just fell together. There was no dramas with it. It was just meant to be. It was the right timing, the right place, Tim was in the right frame of mind and we worked really well together. The stars just aligned.”
The late Stuart Speed’s contribution to What Rhymes cannot be underestimated. An upright bass player in the true sense of the word – I recall him being imposingly tall at the Twin Set’s performance at the Continental in 1999 – Speed’s unique note selection was key to the record’s intrigue. His bass notes drone ominously in ‘Under The Flight Path’, mimicking those big old “birds of the inner-west” that the song’s protagonist laments.
“The notes that he chose to play on the record really twisted a lot of the chords around and made it very interesting,” Anderson says of Speed, who died in 2006, aged 41.
But for all its pastoral flourishes – washboard, banjo, mandolin, violin and pedal steel – Rogers never considered What Rhymes a country record. “I think real country music tends to have a bit of melodrama and melancholy,” he said in typically dismissive style back in ’99. “You know, suicide, death, bestiality, and I don't hear that.”
Anderson has a different view. Indeed it’s her fiddle-playing that’s at the heart of the record’s more countrified moments: instrumental opener ‘Bushell And A Peck’ (a co-write with Rogers), ‘You Just Don’t Do It For Me Friend’ and the rollicking ‘Hi, We’re The Support Band’. “It’s got a lot of country in it and obviously me playing the violin on it really pushes it in that direction,” she says.
Other tracks are just pop songs dressed in country clothes. Heard in a different context – on Saturday Night, ‘Round Ten, You Am I’s 1999 live album – ‘Arse Kickin’ Lady’ is another indie-pop nugget in the vein of ‘Cathy’s Clown’. It’s the banjo and pedal steel that push it in a country direction.
“Tim plays some really interesting chords, they’re not straight-up country chords,” Anderson explains. “Straight country is pretty well straightforward, but he has a lot of augmented minor sevenths and this and that in there that make the chords juicy.”
“There’s the times that I remember/And there’s the things that I forget/Like the colour of your eyes/And the time that we first met.”
Though it deals with the dissolution of a serious relationship, What Rhymes With Cars And Girls is not a break-up album in the vein of Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker or Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love. It doesn’t mope around the house in unwashed trackies like Beck’s Sea Change, nor does it snarl and scowl like Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks. Those albums wallow in the aftermath – What Rhymes is still clinging on. “We hardly even talk no more/But to you I'll be true,” Rogers sings on the album’s emotional centerpiece ‘Twenty Eight’.
The couple at the heart of ‘Twenty Eight’ find themselves in pre-30 stasis; the romance and danger is gone only to be replaced by the mundanity of real life. “Art-house movies and flat renovations,” Rogers sighs, “newspaper politics and dinner reservations, oh.” The end never eventuates on ‘Twenty Night’, but it’s nigh.
"Writing songs is just a way of romanticising a dull or a bad situation so you can swallow it,” Rogers said at the time. “‘Hmm, jeez, I don't know why we couldn't really get on ... I know, I'll write a song about it!’ It's a bit of a gutless thing, but that song sums up your relationship with that person so it's like [clicks fingers], ‘It's not that complicated, it's all in D.’”
For Rogers, What Rhymes was a therapeutic, as much as a musical exercise. But whatever he was going through at the time, explains Anderson, it was left at her studio door.
“Moving to Melbourne for him was a fresh start. He didn’t choose to talk about it [the relationship] and I didn’t bring it up. It was a healing, moving on process for him. And it was best to leave it at that – let him work through what was going on in his life and introduce him to some new musical buddies in Melbourne.”
Some of those friends will reunite this week to play the album in full at shows in Melbourne and Sydney. So 10 years on, how does Anderson feel the album has stood up?
“I don’t listen to it all that often,” she says, laughing. “But so many people over the years have told me that it’s their favourite record or that they really love it. To me that says that it’s stood up over the years, that people hold it dear to their hearts. It speaks to people I think.”
What’s more it’s a timeless record, she says, written without a particular market or purpose in mind.
“It just fell together,” Anderson says. “There was no dramas with it. It was just meant to be. It was the right timing, the right place, Tim was in the right frame of mind and we worked really well together. The stars just aligned.”
‘WHAT RHYMES WITH CARS AND GIRLS’ LIVE
Thursday, April 23
The Northcote Social Club, Melbourne, VIC
Friday, April 24
The Annandale Hotel, Sydney, NSW
Saturday, April 25
Manly Fishos, Sydney, NSW