Sometimes appearances can be deceptive. Sometimes, they really aren’t. If you took one look at the artwork of this album from Gavin Bowles & The Distractions and thought it looked like an early 80s power pop record – aside from the copious facial hair – you wouldn’t be far wrong. Despite being geographically distant from bands like The Nerves, The Look and The Romantics, this Aussie band are totally indebted to a similarly retro sound, and ‘Phoning It In’ is a top grade musical love letter to the much-loved genre.
It takes all of one listen to the spiky ‘Working Class Stiff’ to fall in love. The track comes absolutely loaded with tongue in cheek lyrics placed confidently against a 1980s new wave riff, and the combo of melody and sneer could easily match an on form Nick Lowe. It isn’t just about the hard edged jangle and punch, though; there’s room here for an unexpected middle eight where the sharpness gives way to a light, almost psychedelic feel, and also introduces a tautly played lead guitar adding an old school rock ‘n’ roll twist. In under three minutes, The Distractions telegraph their love of classic power pop in genuine style.
The prioritising of hooks over flamboyance is typical of the bulk of the album too, with the material showing the band’s love of great choruses throughout. ‘Here Comes The Heartache’, in particular, shares a fuss free blend of new wave punch and brilliant pop melodies. The verses occasionally sound like a distant cousin of an old XTC number overlaid with shimmering guitars, with their sharp edges balanced brilliantly via a great pop vocal. That’s great, but when the chorus takes a full shift into old school power pop, with Bowles stretching his voice over an early 80s inspired, radio friendly melody, the band really hit their stride. A middle eight suggests something a little more Joe Jackson-like, before a jubilant lead guitar adds a touch more grit without taking anything away from the number’s melodic core. The album features a few numbers that could be easily termed “more fun”, but in terms of playing and arrangement, this is a highlight.
‘Dance Your Heart Out’ occasionally sounds like something culled from Kurt Baker’s back catalogue, redressed with extra harmonies and given a fuzzy rock ‘n’ roll guitar break. That alone will be enough to attract a huge audience of power pop buffs, but the use of heavy rhythms joined by massive handclaps during the instrumental parts and a repetitive vocal quirk will more than help the tune to stick. Taking more of those punchy rock ‘n’ roll elements, the brilliant ‘Kids Are All High’ occasionally sounds like a ‘Tim’ era Replacements take on the classic power pop sound, but The Distractions’ own talents shine through a busy arrangement that’s absolutely dripping with smart harmonies and heavily twanged guitars, with walking basslines bringing an extra retro flair. The way a power pop mood has been fused with a touch of trashy rock and roll and garage rock grit shows how malleable the band’s sounds can be, without losing too much of their typical sound, and the vocals here sound especially sharp. Equally enjoyable in a different way, ‘On The Telephone (I Used To Call You)’ isn’t shy in flaunting a massive love for classic power pop via a curly lead vocal and some well arranged harmonies, but scratch below the Flamin’ Groovies and Romantics sheen and you’ll discover more from a band with their own pool of talents. Although quite low in the mix, bassist Cameron Hill anchors a great groove throughout, and there’s something very satisfying about drummer Simon Bowles’s approach to a solid rhythm. If you want the purest Distractions take on a sound from the MTV of 1981, then this is pretty much perfect.
‘Break My Heart’ actually feels slightly more assured, thanks to increased use of harmonies and a very mid 60s melody coming through in massive waves during the main hook, but if anything stands out on first listen, it’s the rhythm guitar work. Throughout the verses, Gavin offers a world of chopping riffs, very much of the early Pretenders school of new wave, and via these, he powers the track forward with a real energy. Sure, you’ll have heard it all before, but that never stops the end result being massively enjoyable, especially with drummer Simon adding a brilliantly crashy rhythm throughout a great chorus. In time, this joins ‘Working Class Stiff’ and ‘On The Telephone’ as one of the album’s highlights.
Even when the music takes an occasional curve ball, as with ‘I Get Bored’ – a tune that dispenses with the obvious power pop tropes and ventures into a world of post punk riffs crossed with a couple of bluesier tones – The Distractions still sound great. On this particular tune, guitarist Michael gets an opportunity to stretch out and explore more of a 70s rock tone which suits his playing very well. It’s interesting, but given that this arrangement could well have sprung from late night listens to Iggy Pop’s ‘I’m Bored’, the band take a couple of familiar riffs and make them their own, and even though this tune sticks out half a mile among the traditional power pop fare, it’s gratifying to know that these guys can turn their collective hand to other styles with ease. Similarly, the closing number ‘On My Own’ finds them branching out into hazy, 70s inspired Americana, on a tune that shares guitar lines from an Allman Brothers via The Black Crowes-ish arrangement, making them sound like a slightly tougher version of The Matinee. It could be a different band to that which gave the world ‘I Used To Call You’ half an hour earlier, but at the same time, it shows off great playing throughout, and it’s nice to hear Bowles tapping into a more melodic vocal, too. There are definitely more instantly enjoyable tracks on this album, but in providing the listener with a mellow way to wind down, it’s a perfect choice to close a superb record.
For those still hopped up on old Nerves records, Scruffs discs, and newer fare from Little Steven’s Wicked Cool label, this debut will be an instant hit. Bowles and his gang clearly know their way around sizeable hooks, and this record is absolutely packed with great choruses and pleasingly familiar riffs. The album’s title might well show a self-depreciating humour, but ‘Phoning It In’ is anything but lazy. Overly familiar, almost certainly, but always in the best possible way. It’s safe to say that power pop fans will be anything but disappointed.