Their name may sound like a community choir, but Australian band The John Steel Singers aren’t named after a man. John Steel, in this case, refers to a small toy horse named by frontman Tim Morrissey. Since their choice of name leans towards the surreal, you would perhaps expect their debut full-length release to be quirky, and it many ways it is. But make no mistake, quirky in this case doesn’t usually mean humorous or novelty; ‘Tangalooma’ blends various 60s influences and serves them up with a hint of 90s alternative rock, sometimes achieving interesting results.
‘Evolution’ presents The John Steel Singers in one of their most accessible moods. There’s a solid bassline, banjos and occasional reverbed guitar fills, served up with a choir of voices. If that wasn’t enough to convey a certain kind of sunshine pop, there’s also a bit of brass thrown in for good measure. With the bouncing, almost march-along nature of this number, a reasonable reference point for this would be Mercury Rev during one of their more throwaway experiments meeting Small Faces on one of their cockney walkabouts (or perhaps ‘Care of Cell 44’ by The Zombies, albeit with none of the sparkle which makes that tune so endearing). If they were going for feel-good, they’ve had a good stab at it hit here; it’s worth remembering how difficult it is to convey this kind of mildly eccentric groove without venturing into annoying territory (which is something The John Steel Singers fall foul of elsewhere on the album, with a relative regularity). Far more interesting – though still accessible – ‘Toes & Fingers’ uses lots of 60s influences during its opening verse. A hushed vocal sits atop a slightly haunting arrangement of bass and piano, punctuated by simple glockenspiel notes. The vocal harmonies – although slightly dark – are spot on; and then, just as you think you know what’s in store for the rest of the number, the band change tack completely. Things then move into a more upbeat arrangement, driven by Dion Ford’s bass; a choir of vocals chip in, as the glockenspiel takes on a busier role – and it’s hard not to think of Norway’s Team Me. As the vocals take a stap back, muted trumpets fill the space, while other passages are dominated by retro twanging guitars. Being two or three musical ideas glued together, it shouldn’t work, yet somehow it does… It’s definitely the album’s stand-out track – and by some distance.
‘Cause of Self’ has a darker vibe, thanks to a great reverbed guitar part and unexpected piano accompaniment. Vocally, the slightly hushed tones add to a relative unease, and upon first listen it’s impossible to second guess how the number will end. While The John Steel Singers are clearly in experimental mode here, lots of the track’s subtler elements are crushed by a ringing rhythm guitar which drowns out half the track. If the band wanted to unsettle their listeners, they’ve succeeded. It’s a reasonable number in all, but one which would definitely have been better without the noisy guitars. ‘Once I’ has an unavoidable 60s influence, but delivered with the band’s own style. Here, over a four-four time signature which often sounds as if it’s desperately trying to break into something more interesting, there’s a selection of banjos, trombones and retro keyboards. Its gentle air could have been soothing, but as with much of The John Steel Singers’ material, the idea it could break into an unknown quantity at any moment takes away any idea of comfort. ‘You’ve Got Nothing To Be Proud Of’ showcases more sunny grooves – the electric pianos and upfront basses add nice flourishes throughout, while a multi-layered arrangement shows a great understanding of a band’s ability to really get the most out of their studio environment. The music often much better here and, as such, the slightly discordant vocal can be overlooked – after all, being slightly out of tune never hurt Stephen Malkmus.
A slight Beach Boys vocal style permeates ‘Dying Tree’, a number with a very dark edge. Plenty of reverb a plenty unsettles what could have easily been an otherwise easy to like sixties pastiche. Looking beyond the reverb, though, there are some decent harmonies on show and an interesting – albeit sinister – musical base. It’s not a number which stands out at first, but perseverance could uncover what is potentially one of ‘Tangalooma’s best offerings.
Beyond those numbers, this album is a mixed bag of potentially failed experiments. With another marching beat, ‘Overpass’ should have been a bedfellow for ‘Evolution’, but the band take their Zombies-ish marching pace to extremes – almost to the point of absolute annoyance. Yes, the bass line is solid and harmonies are fairly tight, but the end product is best described as grating. The only respite comes from a couple of brief sections which hint at psychedelia, but these are duly stomped over by the rumpty-tumpty marching band. Possessing a tune which rarely changes from its original three or four opening bars, ‘Rainbow Kraut’ – aside from having a really awful title – treads a fine line between trashy and mildly eccentric. At first, the staccato guitar riff sounds like its building up to something more interesting, but it never goes anywhere. The mariachi horns provide a small amount of interest during the closing section, but no matter how good, these are really no substitute for a chorus (sadly missed). Parts of this track sound like something the band found among Frank Black’s pile of rejects. After a few plays, it sounds better than it did on first hearing, but then again, a few spins after that, it’s somewhat of an irritant once again – and barely recognisable as being the work of the same band capable of something as good as ‘Toes & Fingers’. During the short acoustic number ‘Great Divided Self’ the band sound like they’ve stopped trying altogether. The vocals and guitar sound like a busker, which could be excused if the material was of a better quality, but sadly it sounds like something which was tossed off in ten minutes.
Despite their off-days, this band has something. It’s not always obvious what that something is, but whatever it may be, it was enough to entice ex-Go Betweens man Robert Forster and Animal Collective’s Nicolas Vernhes on board this project (the pair take on producing and mixing duties respectively). As such, the production is always great, even when the band’s material doesn’t quite work. And when the material works, The John Steel Singers have a fair amount of potential. ‘Tangalooma’ presents a handful of attention-grabbing ideas; ‘Toes & Fingers’ in particular sounds like the work of a very interesting band. If they could have been a little less reliant on marching beats and move farther towards the dark psychedelic elements they’d hinted at on a couple of tracks, it certainly would have been a step in a better direction.