FREE DIRT (Re-issue) - Died Pretty (Aztec Music)
The deluxe treatment is deserving of one of the '80s and '90s' greatest and undervalued Australian acts. Died Pretty transcended genres like few of their country's bands before or since, and for that reason alone fell into the "too hard" basket once they made the major leagues.
Whatever the tribulations of their career path and their eventual wash up on the shores of indifference, Died Pretty began as a cross between the brutality and beauty of the Velvets with lashings of country rock, psychedelia and pop. "Free Dirt" was their album debut and all of the above are stridently on display. Died Pretty would have more commercially successful (and accessible) albums but never again would they be so forthright.
Consider the times (1986) when "Free Dirt" lurched into the record bins: Melbourne was in the grip of dark, art rock with a nursery of more straight-ahead bands just surfacing. Perth and Brisbane were exporting their best. Adelaide was active and very diverse. Sydney was still kicking itself for missing the first rush of so-called Detroit Rock and was playing catch-up with a wave of more identifiably '60s-derived acts. "Free Dirt" sounded like all of them but none of them - and like nothing else released that year.
From the opening"Life To Go (Landsakes)" with its snap-to-attention drum beat, soaring guitar and rise-and-fall chorus to the closing country-inflected, optimism of "Through Another Door", it was apparent that something very special was going on.
Of course it was no surprise if you'd been listening. The heady psych of the debut single "Out of the Unknown" b/w "World Without" was notice enough but the "Next To Nothing" EP really laid out the band's credentials in a way (at least back then) that its live shows could not.
The songs were textured (cello!) with melodic basslines that became a trademark. Ron Peno's quirky vocals were an extra instrumental component as they were borderline unintelligible, and the simple but effective keyboard lines of Frank Brunetti and alternatively savage and beguiling guitar of Brett Myers marked Died Pretty as a band that knew how and where to leave spaces.
You get both the single and "Next To Nothing" on this 2CD package, as well as the "Stoneage Cinderella" single and its flip "Yesterday's Letters", plus a quartet of album demos. Half-a-dozen live tracks fill out the bonus disc (two of them previously booted, the rest from a Bosdton radio show that's done the rounds of collectors). Even if most of the bonus material is familiar, old fans will appreciate the slightly-enhanced-for-CD sound plus the packaging.
Newcomers will probably go straight to the album and you don't have to be a fan of "Doughboy Hollow" or the later stuff to appreciate "Free Dirt". "Blue Sky Day" is pure pop (albeit delivered with Ronnie's distinctive off-kilter vocal skew) while "Just Skin" is the best example of Brett Myers' murderous guitar attack, with ear-melting sustain searing out of the speakers.
Just how different Died Pretty were is evident in the choice of covers on the liver stuff. "Wild Child" betrays Myers' admiration for Lou Reed, while "Final Solution" identifies Pere Ubu as stylistic soulmates, to a point.
Died Pretty's early music didn't have the finesse or melodic hooks of "Doughboy" and beyond and was a world away from the electronica of their final albums, but it had a near indefinable majesty that wasn't matched by any of their contemporaries. They just don't make music like this anymore. - The Barman
DOUGHBOY HOLLOW (Re-issue) - Died Pretty (Citadel)
How do you improve on one of the greatest Australian albums of the 1990s? Re-package it in re-mastered form with an extra disc of rare and unreleased bonuses. I'm a sucker for these makeovers - when done right. The redux edition of "Doughboy Hollow" passes muster on all fronts and is a fitting way of marking the band's brief return to Australian stages for the Don't Look Back festival in February 2008.
"Doughboy" was a landmark for Died Pretty. 1991 had found them on the cusp of recording Album Number Four after rising to underground darling status in their home country without cracking the mainstream and doing brisk business overseas. The "Next To Nothing" EP and debut album "Free Dirt" had shown them to be something more than a straight-up rock band. "Lost" was their first taste of life on the lower rung offshoot label of a major. "Every Brilliant Eye" was a stab at the American market that unfortunately washed out some of the special elements that made the band unique. So the next release was make-or-break, commercially and creatively.
History shows that "Doughboy Hollow" neither made Died Pretty household names or banished them to oblivion. It charted, scored airplay and exposed them to a new audience, making them a five-night-a-week working act on the treadmill that was then the Aussie live circuit. Given smarter treatment by their major label masters, it could have done much more. C'est la vie.
Most importantly to fans if not band members' bank managers, "Doughboy" showed off guitarist Brett Myers' songwriting and singer Ron Peno's dark lyricism to a wider audience, without pissing off all but a handful of the faithful. That's no mean feat when an Australian bands steps up from underground fandom. Remember, this is a country where cutting down tall poppies has nothing to do with Tasmania's opium production.
Hindsight makes most 17-year-old CD mastering jobs sound like they could have been done better. In the case of "Doughboy", the bottom end is crisper and better defined and the stereo soundscape sounds appreciably wider. If that doesn't compel you to upgrade, then the bonus cuts will.
Four of the 15 bonuses have been issued as B sides (or in the case of "Time", as a live show giveaway) but the balance are unheard "Doughboy" demos. One of them, "Let Me Be", never made the final cut as an album track or B side. It sounds like a work in progress but nevertheless stands up well.
"Out In The Rain" has different backing vocals (living up to Ron's description of it as a lighter, Francois Hardy-type pop song.) "Godbless" and "DC" have less prominent piano and different middle eights. The vocals are less burred, giving a second shot at listener interpretation.
Most of the songs are rendered in slower tempos but it's a measure of their quality that the basic structure didn't require much tampering at the recording sessions-proper. The sound quality is also top notch, belying the fact they were mastered from a back-up cassette found in a shit hoarder's garage.
For the obsessives, there are insights into the trimmings and re-arrangements that producer Hugh Jones and the band used to bring out the songs' melodic strengths. Even in its embryonic form, "Doughboy" was never short on those.
Lastly, the whole package comes in a chunky fold-out digi-pack with a booklet of recollections by Brett Myers and Ron Peno.
A revelation and undeniably essential addition to the collection of anyone who's into what we at the Bar dish up. - The Barman
MY GENERATION LANDSLIDE - Died Pretty (Citadel Records)
It seems that this is all we're ever going to hear of Died Pretty's last album, although a full album's worth of songs apparently reached the demo stage before the band decided to pull the plug. If that is indeed the case, then at least they'll be going out with their heads held high because this single is as good as any they've ever produced, sounding fresh and new while at the same time acknowledging the not quite two decades worth of innovation and musical development that the band went through during its lengthy journey from the darker corners of the Trade Union Club in the early eighties to the stage of Metro where it will all end in a couple of week's time.
Aside from a brief flirtation with Sony, who apparently threw so much at the band in the way of money and promises that John Needham, the band's manager, had no alternative except to twist the arm of John Needham, Citadel Records' owner, to let them go to the much larger label, they remained staunchly independent and dismissive of the constraints of commercial music.
The band did get a shitload of studio time out of the Sony deal, but ultimately the mighty multi-national failed to capitalize on the extensive ground work that Citadel Records had already done on the band's behalf, didn't seem to have a clue about how to work with the band (as opposed to packaging clichÈd and compliant pop acts) and it all ended abruptly with Sony shrugging its corporate shoulders, deciding to cut its losses and ditching the band by the side of the road, like a child's unwanted pet a few days after Christmas (the two Sony albums, "Trace" and "Sold", were quickly deleted from the catalogue and are now long out of print).
However, none of that stopped the band then and I for one thought that nothing ever could, but... well, here we are. "I know what it's like to feel old/I know what it's like to be told", Ron Peno sings bluntly in the chorus of the title track, not wallowing in nostalgia or regret, but just realistically autobiographical.
Aside from some synthesised strings, "My Generation Landslide" could almost be an old outtake from "Free Dirt", with everyone sticking to their "traditional" instruments and Brett Myers double tracked on guitar, playing both acoustic rhythm and over the top of it a broader, but sparse, electric country style, dare I say leaning toward rockabilly (albeit restrained and tasteful, as you'd expect from Mr Meyers)?
"I'll play that song about the rain", Ron also sings later in the song, which I take to be a direct reference to Doughboy Hollow's "Out In The Rain" and there's a bit of that in here too, in the exultant coda to the song. Sometimes when I play it (and I've been playing it a lot since it lobbed into the post box yesterday, a sure sign that Citadel's mail order service is still working as efficiently as ever), I even hear traces of "Godbless" resonating through the piano part.
I can't help wondering what this song might have sounded like if the band had simply been proceeding as expected with a new album, instead of finding itself in the position of preparing its final statement to the world and summing up an entire career in the process. "I know the time has come for change", Ron sings. Well maybe, but in my experience, growing up hasn't turned out to be half what it was cracked up to be.
Next track, "Angels Before", sounds closer to the style of "Using My Gills As A Roadmap", though drummer Simon Cox adopts almost a garage/punk beat (on a real drum kit - no drum machines on this track). "Gills..." apparently didn't garner much favour with a sizeable proportion of the band's older fans, who rapidly deemed it their most "difficult" album and shied away from it. I can well understand that, as I also was a bit taken aback by "Gills...", at least at first, but boy did it ever turn out to be a grower!
While reminding me of that, this track has more of an instant attraction, perhaps due to the echoes of "classic" Died Pretty, particularly in the bass lines, that run pervasively though the song, similar to the way "Lonesome Bull" ran through "Misunderstood" on the last album ("Everydaydream"). Sure, if you're going to sample something, you might as well make it a good 'un, but I think it's also a further indication that Died Pretty have never sought to repudiate their past, even if they steadfastly refused to let themselves be shackled by it either.
"Angels Before" also has a touch of the autobiographical about it. "It's time to move/time to leave this town", Ron tells us matter of factly. Sure Ron, everybody moves... away, but that doesn't make the parting any easier.
The final track is "Pleased To Meet You", which I immediately assumed was a sly reference to the Stones' "Sympathy For The Devil" - a song for which the band has shown affection over recent years (wasn't it also the song that the Stones were starting to play when the girl screams out "Paint It Black You Devils" on that track's sample, at least the version on the "Radio" single, or was that "Under My Thumb"... or am I just old and confused?).
It's a beguiling combination of lightly tranced influences (it sounds like there's a bit of early Velvet Underground in there as well, as an influence, not a sample), with Ron doing his white soul thing over the top in the chorus. "Put your little voice inside..." indeed.
I can't help thinking that this is one that the band did at least as much for their own enjoyment as for any other reason. I hear several samples that I'm sure I should recognize (is that a snippet of "Buffalo Girls" in the first few seconds?), but they are buried deep enough that I just can't get a decent grip on them. If they were thinking of their listening audience at all as they did this one, I guess they probably smiled at the thought that they were leaving us these little mementos, to pick at and worry over in the many, empty days to come...
To recap and summarise then: this record is great. The only criticism I can think of and the only complaint I've got is that it is only an EP and not a full album. I know the reality is that in the last year most of their airplay has probably come from the sound bite of "Whitlam Square" that keeps turning up around the commercial breaks on "Sports Tonight", but I'm still going to miss them. - John McPharlin
Died Pretty long ago eschewed the monolithic noisescapes of "Ambergris" and Just Skin" for an altogether more textured approach. The majesty of the Velvets is still there, but in recent years the bands moved into less sure territory, exploring the likes of R n B-tinged psyche and Suicide-style repetition with falsettos and samplers permeating their work. No matter their direction, every release is unmistakably Died Pretty. And this is no exception.
If their growth into new musical areas has confounded some older fans, Died Prettys a band that's long since stopped worrying about that sort of thing. The twin axis of vocalist Ron Peno and guitarist Brett Myers remains the constant, but the latter takes an aural backseat most of the time while the singer has extended his control and range. "My Generation Landslide" is their farewell CD single and goes lots of places - old and new - to show a band going out at the top of its game.
These three tracks are the wash up of demo sessions for a hoped-for swansong album thats now unlikely to ever see the light of day. Pity, because the signs are it would have covered all the bases and brought some of the older fans back. The title track is at least a partial return to the roots, with an organic feel largely bereft of electonica, and a soaring chorus the likes of which no other band in this country has an ear for. Ronnies vocals are mixed right up front, too. Correct me if Im wrong but is there a touch of irony about lyrics like "I know what its like to be old/I know what its like to be told" from a veteran band in an increasingly fake industry? Its probably another song about personal politics but long may the ambiguity run it keeps music interesting.
The spacey "Angels Before" is all buzzy electronics and shards of acidic keyboard noise that dissolve into a spoken lyric, propelled by an underbelly of Myers guitar. Of these cuts, the closing "Pleased to Meet You" recalls the last album the most with an electro-rhythm track and John Hoey keyboard embellishments counterpoints to an over-dubbed falsetto that follows the melody line.
Past their use by date? Dont think so. - The Barman
EVERYDAYDREAM - Died Pretty (Citadel)
There was a story about Died Pretty singer Ron Peno, printed in an Australian music newspaper, not long after the days when he was a Stooges-infatuated singer using the names "Ronnie Pop" and "Riggy", fronting Radio Birdman faves The Hellcats, back in the late '70s. Our Ron rocked up to famed Sydney import music outlet The Record Plant to grab Iggy's newie, "The Idiot", the day it hit the racks. One listen to the leaden, proto-industrial dirge put him into a near catatonic state, and all he could do was shake his head over and over, chanting: "It's disco...the idiot...it's disco..."
Apocryphal or not, it sums up the relationship between artists who've established a identity and want to move on, and the True Believers. I count myself in the latter category and the first spin of this, Died Pretty's new disc, had me wondering just what was going on. Sequencers everywhere, synthetic rhythm, many tracks bereft of guitars and an absence of soaring vocal harmonies had this sounding like anything BUT your typical Died Pretty album. There were echoes of Kraftwerk and the first (mistaken) impression was that this is a stab at the dance floor market (though it was quickly apparent that there are far too few beats-per-minute to excite the eccy crowd.) All things considered, "Doughboy Hollow" it was not.
What it is, it should be said, is a band paying absolutely no attention to external expectations to come up with well-crafted, adventurous psychedelic pop. The opening cut, "Misunderstood", is a gentle introduction with its uplifting melody and chiming, surf-tinged Brett Myers lead break that wouldn't be out of place on any of their latter-day discs. Similarity, "Brighter Ideas" moves along on a wave of acoustic guitar with Mr Peno singing better than ever, reaching for the high notes and enunciating so clearly you can make out the lyrics (!). From that point on, the sequencers and keyboard effects assume a prominence that will have many Trade Union Club veterans shaking their heads.
Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't."Special Way" has a keyboard bridge that's trite, to these ears. For it's soulless rhythms "Here Comes the Night" (when you have a drummer as good as Simon Cox, replacing him with a machine goes against my grain) is an amazing psychedelic rave up with keyboards or guitar (it's hard to tell which) spraying the room. The electronics are a little to intrusive on the otherwise nice but low-key closer "The Evening Shadows".Once the Zappa-esque xylophone-style introduction of "Burning Mad" subsides, Robbie Warren's insistent bass springs to life and the guitar and keyboards start driving forward, it's distinctively a Died Pretty song. "That Look Before" - with a melody line that Bar regular John McPharlin instantly pegged as 100 percent Burt Bacharach - might just be the sweetest thing DP have done. Ronnie's vocals are a million miles from his first recorded effort, the single "Out of the Unknown" (where Brett had to lend assistance lest his frazzled and wired singer walk out the studio door.)
Look, bottom line is the songs are undeniably Died Pretty, despite any amount of accessorising and electronic trimmings. "Everydaydream" continues a progression - you can hear it in "Trace" and "Sold" - that could well have seen them give the game away years ago it hadn't occurred. I still yearn for the day Brett Myers would tear me a near earhole with soaring lead guitar that would drive the music to unmatched highs, before it crashed to earth. Live, they're probably still going to do that, and let's hope it's not the end of the line (as is rumoured.)
Died Pretty have been pricking the balloon of expectation for as long as I've been seeing or listening to them. I still remember the reaction others around me qhwen they had a cello - A CELLO, FOR FUCKSSAKE! - turning up on their "Next to Nothing" EP, back in the days when, in inner Sydney, black wasn't a colour but a way of life.
It wasn't love on first listen with "Everydaydream" - not for someone whose first notion, in most cases, is that music should stay as organic and human as possible to have any real resonance. In fact, unlike, say, Wayne Kramer's foray into sequencers, "Citizen Wayne", it was heavy going until listen number five, at which point it started to make sense. A re-evaluation may be in order once I've heard these songs live. This is an album that's going to sharply divide people but ultimately reward those who dig deeper and give it a go. - The Barman
OUT OF THE UNKNOWN - Died Pretty (Citadel)
First of all, let me say that this is written from the perspective of an Uninitiate. Living in the U.S.A., I was totally unaware of these guys until I heard Radio on Squire Needham's great sampler earlier this year. Now I'm hooked.
Messrs. Peno, Myers, et. al. appear to be the Oz equivalent of their Brit (OK, Irish)/Yank contemporaries U2 and REM, without the former's pious self-righteousness or the latter's self-conscious artiness -- plus they rock harder, a definite plus in my estimation.
Discernable influences include the Velvets, Dylan (whose From a Buick 6 they cover on the bonus CD -- kudos BTW to Citadel for their inclusion of these as a bonus disc, not only here but with the New Christs, Hard-Ons, Kim Salmon, etc., which ups their value for money and lessens the sting of those hefty import prices!) and what used to be known as "folk-rock," with guitars that alternately chatter, jangle, and soar on cushions of keyboards and a tight, punchy rhythm section.
But the real story here is the gorgeously melodic pop-rock songwriting -- I'd forgotten how pleasurable this kind of music can be. - Ken Shimamoto
BACK TO THE REVIEWS PAGE
BACK TO THE BAR