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Under The Needle: Oliver Tank, Tom Rosenthal, Atlas Genius, Bowerbirds

Oliver Tank burst onto the Australian, and subsequently the international, music scene with his debut EP ‘Dreams’, which was released for free on Bandcamp. A ballsy move for sure, but one that has very clearly paid off, as illustrated by Oliver selling out three upcoming shows at the Northcote Social Club as well as the global attention and praise that ‘Dreams’ has received. It’s not hard to see why, either. ‘Dreams’ is a minimalist gem of a record, working off the likes of James Blake to produce something that is more subtle, more nuanced, and at times, better, than most that has come before it. 

Spearheaded by the beautiful Last Night I Heard Everything In Slow Motion, which was written as a university project, ‘Dreams’ takes you on a journey through a sparse and delicate sonic universe that feels like it could shatter into a thousand pieces at the lightest touch. Beneath everything however there is a deceptive sense of warmth to Oliver Tank’s music, demonstrating his uncanny ability to connect with the listener through nothing more than imagination and simplicity.

Oliver Tank may sing gently “But I just don’t know” during the record’s opener, but really there’s an inescapable sense of purpose to everything on ‘Dreams’. Not a single element is wasted: every part of every song is included only because it adds something that the track would otherwise not function without. There’s a tangible strive for perfection that creeps into this EP, but when you’re making music this meticulously crafted and this minimal I think that’s a good thing.

For that exact reason, it’s hard to find any fault in ‘Dreams’ at all. It’s certainly not as melancholic or accessible as many of Oliver Tank’s contemporaries, but upon repeated listens it reveals itself as a soaring, majestic EP that conveys so, so much whilst saying so little.

Tom Rosenthal’s debut album ‘Keep A Private Room Behind The Shop’ is my favourite album of 2011 that never was. The fact I only discovered it this year is a disappointment in that I won’t be able to heap praise on it during my end of year lists, so I’m going to compensate by doing just that now instead. Because I adore this album. I haven’t been able to stop listening to it since I discovered Tom’s music early this year thanks to his brooding single Take Care, which is an atmospheric, restrained, and powerful song, despite clocking in at just under two minutes.

But the most impressive thing about ‘Keep a Private Room…’ is that it doesn’t stick to a script. I assume Tom Rosenthal would have been able to write an album full of passionate, dark songs like Take Care, and it probably would have been fantastic, but instead the debut record he’s put together is as eclectic as it is phenomenal. From the light-hearted and whistling melodies of Karl Marx In The Bath to the light-as-air ukulele of Forgets Slowly to the sheer ridiculousness of the whimsical Away With The Fairies (which features the memorable line “I love her and she loves me and we love everybody, except Robert Mugabe”), there is everything you could possibly want here.

Despite this there is no doubting that Tom’s music is at its strongest when it is centered around his sublime voice and a piano. This is best evidenced by the closing song of the album, There Is A Dark Place, which is my favourite song on ‘Keep A Private Room…’. It’s an incredible, beautiful, heart-warming track structured around a crystalline piano riff and the refrain of “There is a dark place, but I’m not going there”, as well as sparse but stunning use of spoken word to contrast with Tom’s vocals. The song builds to an unforgettable crescendo, when time seems to stand still as the music dies away and the spoken voice gently intones one word, “Dance”, signalling the returning of the upbeat piano in what I guess would have to be described as folk music’s version of a ‘drop’.

This is a quirky and nigh-perfect record from an inspired musician, and it’s the best album I’ve heard this year.

Another debut offering comes from Adelaide band Atlas Genius who just dropped their first EP, ‘Through The Glass’. Even though it was only released today I feel in a good position to summarise my feelings towards it, given that we’ve already heard all three songs off it over the span of the last few weeks. In fact, I’ve noticed that my posts on Atlas Genius’ new tracks have been some of the most popular articles on my blog recently, which speaks volumes for just how accessible and enjoyable their music is. This is seriously easy to listen to music.

Following up their massive first single Trojans was always going to be a challenge for the guys, but thankfully they’ve done the EP’s lead single justice with its accompanying two tracks. Back Seat, which was released online a couple of weeks ago and quickly rose to Hype Machine’s Top 10 tracks, is an easy, breezy, floating song that feels like it’s designed to be played in a car full of people heading to the beach on a sunny summer day. And the fact I can identify that when it’s currently absolutely freezing cold really does say something.

Meanwhile the EP’s final track, Symptoms, compliments the rest of the release nicely, but while it’s probably my favourite song here there is no doubt that the centerpiece of ‘Through The Glass’ is its opener, Trojans. And even nearly a year after the song announced Atlas Genius’ arrival onto the music scene, it’s rather remarkable just how well it stands up. It’s still a delightful, easy-going jam that captures a sense of freedom and escape that any established band would be proud of.

Atlas Genius may not do a whole lot new, but everything they’ve done so far has been notable for just how effortless it seems. That’s the real strength of this Adelaide outfit, and, given the just how good and easy to listen to this debut offering is, I think it’s safe to say they’re one of Australia’s most promising buzz bands at the moment.

From an EP that shines because it’s such an easy listen to an album that shines because it can be rather challenging at times. Bowerbirds’ third album ‘The Clearing’ is a dark, somber, and death-obsessed record, but it can also be uplifting and breathtakingly beautiful at times. It’s Fleet Foxes gone all depressed. Kind of. Underlining everything however is a foundation of really solid folk music. The harmonising vocals between boyfriend/girlfriend duo Phil Moore and Beth Tacular create for some stunning moments, the production is crystal clear (which may come as a bit of surprise to fans of the band’s earlier work), and the instrumentation varies from simplistic to grandeoise with the occasional inclusion of instruments such as cellos, violins, and trumpets, which add some much needed punch.

It will come as no shock that, for an album that was recorded mostly at Bon Iver’s famous Wisconsin cabin, nature is a pivotal theme of ‘The Clearing’, but it always seems like a means to an end; a perpetual metaphor. ‘The Clearing’ to me is the antithesis of Midlake’s music, despite sharing many similarities with it: while nature is almost the sole focus of Midlake’s delicate music, for Bowerbirds, it seems to me as if nature it just another way of conveying the human condition; one piece in a grand puzzle. There’s so much depth to the lyrics of ‘The Clearing’, despite them appearing deceptively straightforward at times, in a way very similar to The Tallest Man On Earth’s music.

To that extent I suppose this is an unmistakably human album. It would be all to easy for a record such as this to get bogged down in symbolism and darkness, but its ultimate triumph is how easy it is to relate to the words sung by Moore and Tacular. “Yes I’m dust, and you’re dust, and we’re honest,” intones Moore on Brave World, before reasserting this sentiment in more depth on this album closer: “No you’re not alone, the valley is flushed and warm, and breath’s a lazy mist. Take your time with it, all of it, and what we miss we miss, and what we see is what we get”. The concept, expressed in the most eloquent and poetic way imaginable, appears to be simple: enjoy life for what it is, take pleasure in the little things, and above all else be happy. For Bowerbirds, the world is beautiful enough to appreciate without delusion and denial, and the best thing you can do is to see it and love it exactly as it is.

And, for an album obsessed with death, I suppose that’s a pretty positive message.

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