APPARITION - Astrid Munday (Laughing Outlaw Records)
This album is actually a couple of years old now, but since Laughing Outlaw keep coming up with such great new releases, I thought I'd better take a trawl through their catalogue and see if there was anything major that might have slipped under the radar before I was paying proper attention. Turns out there was; what a surprise.

The '80s were certainly a golden period for Oz rock, particularly in Sydney, as recent compilations like "Do The Pop" and "Born Out Of Time" make clear, but it doesn't seem that the '90s had anywhere near as much to offer. On the other hand, I'm starting to think that the oh ohs (by which I mean the period from 2000 to 2009; some have suggested calling this period the "naughties", but I think that's taking familiarity a little too far) could well turn out to be the decade of the "Melbourne sound".

When I reviewed Penny Ikinger's "Songs From The Deep" EP last year, I remarked on the broad range of the music coming out of Melbourne (which seems to centre largely round former members of the Birthday Party, Beasts of Bourbon, Moodists and to a lesser extent God and Bored!, in constant collaborations, cross-overs and assisted solo projects). Like the Sydney sound of the '80s, this music has been characterised as much by its diversity as by anything else and this album is nothing if not diverse, while Astrid Munday states a strong case for being "the last female singer you'll ever need", encompassing everyone from Blondie to Bjork and Kate Bush (and that's just a few "B"s who spring to mind right now as I sit here typing this).

I don't know very much about Ms Munday and that is clearly a lot less than I ought to know. I do know that you can find her name on the cover of Died Pretty's "Lost" (she's credited with singing backing vocals on one of the tracks, but her contribution is closer to being a duet with Brett Myers) and in her interview here at the Bar last year, Penny Ikinger mentioned having been in a band (Blush) with Astrid some time ago. I believe Astrid also has done some work with both Nick Cave and Paul Kelly (now, how's that for diversity?).

For this album, Ms Munday has surrounded herself with a core trio of musicians, consisting of guitarist James Paull (respected session musician and long rumoured to be the face under the balaclava of Tokin Blackman in TISM), bassist Adele Pickvance (Dave Graney Show, Far Our Corporation, Go-Betweens) and drummer Ian Kitney (about whom I have to admit that I know bugger all). However several songs (three of the 15) feature drummer Craig Williamson and either Rod Bustos or Rosie Westbrook (another Blush alumni, amongst other endeavors) on bass, while the virtually instrumental "Hi Tide" features Kitney and Westbrook and "Speed Of Light" was recorded by an entirely different line up (and I believe might be lifted from her first, self-titled album).

There are also a couple of guest appearances from Charlie Owen on guitar (and bass recorder on "Hi Tide"; is there no end to this man's musical accomplishments?) and a passing parade of keyboard players including sometime Bad Seed Conway Savage, Kiernan Box (late of the Blackeyed Susans and more recently the Disappointments), Matt Heydon (currently working with Spencer P. Jones), "Apparition" producer Tony Cohen and Chris Copping. I'd seen the name Chris Copping on a few Aussie records over the last couple of years and I'd always thought it a strange coincidence that there were two Chris Coppings who both happened to play keyboards, but it turns out there's only one after all - this is indeed the same Chris Copping who alternated between bass and organ in Procol Harum from the fourth album, "Home", all the way through to "Something Magic", the band's final hurrah in 1977 (except for three or four reunions over the last decade).

If I had to catagorise this album (and since I'm trying to review it, I guess I have to at least take a stab at it), I'd describe it as pensive requiem-pop, with an occasional unleashed, outdoors/open air feel that mercifully stops short of turning completely country; melodic, measured and multi-faceted; a series of guitar-based tunes, at once relaxed and tightly constructed, occasionally cracking like a whip though without quite the crunch of power pop (or the indolent strumming of your stock indie band either).

The album opens with the upbeat, vaguely countryish "We Can Make It Happen", which makes its pop agenda immediately apparent. It's a real joyous foot tapper that puts me in mind of a sophisticated Saturday night barn dance. No Kylie, no gold hot pants, but heaps of cheerful, unsullied pop.

Next track, "Speed Of Light", is a major change of pace. Stretched out, hypnotic vocals and cosmic synthesizer noises over multi-tracked guitars (and sitting in on keyboards with us this evening... Dr Who!); very spacey, though leaning more towards the Carpenters' "Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft" than anything by Pink Floyd or Hawkwind. Now where did I park my Tardis?

"Closer" is a real showpiece for Astrid's vocals, giving her a chance to display some spectacular range and control. The Church of Pop ministers to a broad parish and Sister Munday has packed everyone into the cathedral for this one.

"On Fire" is just that; not a bush fire raging out of control, but a would be high flying party girl plunging out of the sky in flames; time to crash and burn, baby (pity though about the glaring typos on the lyric sheet - obviously no one in the proof reading department ever learnt to distinguish between the usage of "your" and "you're").

"Photographic Eye" is perfect girl pop, about a girl who's "a specialist in the finishing touch", "an exhibitionist" forever "focusing in and zooming out". Suddenly I can just picture Astrid arm wrestling Jenny Morris for a spot on the last ever Countdown show (and like Big Kev, "I'm excited!").

"Makeup" is another soaring pop vocal showpiece, underpinned by some very tasteful work on the piano from Kiernan Box, which deconstructs itself toward the end of the song in a manner reminiscent of the finale to the "Real Thing", though without overbalancing into the accompanying bluster.

Coming immediately after "Makeup", the title track is like a morose reflection of the previous sentiments, as seen in some distorting emotional mirror, with the bouncy bravado of the former ("I wouldn't suffer for love/ fall in deep/ lose myself") giving way to more melancholic despair ("Each time I try to forget/ I find/ the memory of you/ haunts my mind"), buttressed by some more tasteful piano work, this time from Conway Savage.

"Hi Tide" is like the evil twin of the theme from "Seachange". A musical evocation of Pearl Bay drowned beneath the rising waves of global warming, with Diver Dan swimming for his life and the rest left to hold their collective breath and rue the depletion of the rain forest.

"Blaze" wouldn't sound out of place on Penny Ikinger's "Songs From The Deep" EP. Basically folk, but with a suggestion of flamenco (a la the Doors' "Spanish Caravan") behind an urgent, slightly breathless vocal that hints at unseemly urges being awakened and surrendered to ("it flickered as it caught the breeze/ burnt your fingers, set alight the trees/ in a blaze...)

"Sleepless Nights" is a doleful lament, with a touch of the Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde about it (part "I Go To Sleep", part "I'll Stand By You"), though the vocal is sharper and cleaner; an electric carving knife through the heart compared with Ms Hynde's hacking at the jugular with a pocketknife lifted from the backpack of a dissolute but extremely willing boy scout.

"Distant Memory" starts off like another lament before hitting the chorus, where it blossoms into a full and fat pop anthem. It's a solid sonic edifice and getting from the beginning of the chorus to the end is like scaling Notre Dame from the outside, only to get your shorts caught on one of the gargoyles when you're almost at the top.

"Curse" opens with a slight under taste of "I Am The Walrus"; nothing as pastiche as, say, Al Stewart's "Terminal Eyes", but still it has a definite echo of Mr Lennon's egg and spoon race with sanity about it, before burgeoning into an anguished anthem of betrayal endured, love unrequited and revenge far from fully savoured.

Following on from "Curse", the moody demands of the slow burning "I Want Everything" ("I want riches and fame/ my own jet plane/ that bares[sic] my name") make for another striking counterpoint between consecutive songs: more funeral pop than requiem pop, with the rising vibrato in the vocals (worthy of Pavlov's Dog on serious quantities of coke) serving to emphasise the obsessive nature of the escalating demands for payment of the emotional bills now being rendered. No broken promises going unpunished this time around.

"Reason To Believe" sounds like the Working Class Ringos backing a less jaded Tori Amos attempting an obscure Maria Muldaur cover, while the closing song "Always" is another countryish ramble that recalls the style of Ralph McTell, while James Paull wraps some ultra tasteful slide guitar around it.

At a shade over sixty minutes, it's a very long release for an album that is (almost entirely) new material, but at no time does the standard slip, nor did I ever get the feeling that I was having too much of a good thing. In fact, as soon as it finished, I played it again...- John McPharlin