Mum Smokes make the magnificent out of the mundane on their new double LP 'Easy/House Music', writes SHAUN PRESCOTT. Cover art by MARK RODDA.
In a world full of excuses to be angry and demonstrative, it’s a feat to pull off one album like Mum Smokes have here – let alone two. Rather than make blatant coruscating statements, this music provides a meditation on the day-to-day, rarely resorting to confrontation or bombast. Domestic set pieces riddle both of these albums, and along with that tact comes the idle sunburst philosophising and 20-something minutiae that has dominated this form for most of its history.
It’s a subtle craft, moulding the mundane into something faintly exotic. Those who fail at it do so miserably, purveying a desperate sense of privileged self-entitlement, the type of naval-gazing that sets all but the participants’ teeth on edge. Far from that, Mum Smokes render the smallest, most petulant trials, such as cleaning your house for a visiting lover, or fending off schoolyard bullies, into heartrendingly touching pop songs that prefer to show rather than tell.
It’s there in the album titles really: Easy and House Music. Easy is the standout of the two, recorded between January 2006 and March 2007. It best showcases the distinct nuances that each member brings to the table, and Mum Smokes is at a clear advantage when it comes to adept songwriters: founder Jonathan Michell, also of The Ancients, stands alongside Karl Scullin of KES fame, Julian Patterson of Minimum Chips and JK Fuller of ZOND. It’s amazing - considering the apparently disjunct parameters involved - how precisely these songwriters fit together. They don’t so much blend in together – because who could blend into Scullin’s voice, for example – but each personal touch compliments whatever follows.
Take Scullin’s ‘These Fish’, for example: an upbeat jaunt complaining of (or perhaps dryly celebrating) the baffling distance between polar opposites. Michell takes the reign thereafter, delivering two of my favourite songs. ‘Cheese on Toast’ is a funereally-paced piano ballad, vividly evoking dusty corners and overgrown backyards in inner-city share houses. It contains a melancholy that threatens to flood into depressiveness with its pining for days of meagre food budgets and plenty of time spent grappling with ideas and ambition. Patterson elaborates on this theme with the following title track, a gorgeously warm low-key diary entry, drawn out by a precise bass line and lilting sonorous guitar touches. When Patterson admits that all he has is “waiting for you”, the ensemble marches inexorably onwards for minutes into an exhausted end. Indeed, in the world of Mum Smokes there’s always plenty of time, nothing is ever rushed, and Easy seems haunted by the falsity that anything will come in time - that comfort and a happy ending is something one is entitled to.
There is a wealth of material on Easy that resonates on this universal level, but there are moments of lyrical inscrutability that tie the theme together, that buoy the heavy blows with a suitably plangent respite. Take JK Fuller’s ‘1949’ for example, a wry and sardonic rocker replete with dryly distorted guitars, coloured with choral keyboard chimes. It’s jaded and aloof like Sonic Youth circa Goo. Elsewhere, Michell offers a figurative and malleable love song in the form of ‘Cathy’.
Easy is the type of album that could provide months of aural stimulus, so full it is with tiny hidden epiphanies, so it’s rather excessive that another fully-fleshed album should be packaged with it. House Music is much looser, more musically effusive and, in some cases, determinably upbeat. It’s as if sometime between these albums, Mum Smokes came to terms with whatever they were grappling with on Easy and decided to lay down a more spontaneous set of tunes. House Music is let down by a fairly perfunctory beginning: after a short droning instrumental, ‘Jazz Tiger’ veers into jam band territory filtered through a lethargic indie-rock backbeat. By the time Michell begins singing it already feels as if they’re stranded between ideas. A soaring keyboard coloured finale saves it from becoming tiring.
The album improves from there and peaks at ‘Gypsy Joker’, returning to the themes explored on Easy but delivered here as a wisened anecdote. ‘Health and Girls’ is the highlight, and perhaps most exemplary, exhibiting a side of Scullin’s persona that his own project has rarely – if ever – revealed. It’s an ominously drifting soundscape walled by airy keyboard drones and Scullin’s magically individual voice. Overall, House Music is the more experimental album: it does drift, weaving strange psychedelic textures through partially-formed pop songs. It’s head music peppered with pop respite. Basically, the inverse of Easy.
Both albums are remarkable though, and this is a very generous and outstanding offering from a band whose constituents already dominate over their peers elsewhere. At a time when indie rock seems to be burrowing deeper into the crevices of its own tiring, white, middle class psyche, Mum Smokes has retrieved some of the facets that made this avenue so appealing to begin with: a precarious middle ground between prettiness and confrontation, shyness and calm confidence.
It’s music for youths who are growing irreversibly older. It’s also an album that is unlikely to be bettered in 2009.
Easy/*House Music* is out now on Sensory Projects.