SHELL COLLECTION – Dom Mariani (Off the Hip)
Working out what makes Dom Mariani’s music so worthy in a crowded field of people plying powerful pop is like untying a musical Gordian knot. Far better to leave that one to the pointyheads, navel gazers or academics like Robert Christgau and enjoy it for what it is: damn fine rock and roll with both a tough streak and an acute pop sensibility.
Armed with a guitar, a melodic voice, a sympathetic band and a songbook full of hooks, Mariani makes it all sound so effortlessly easy that you have to wonder why most of the other people mining the same turf don’t just jack it in and go and flip burgers. Not that anyone (Dom included) is getting rich making music that’s too real to play on most radio.
“Shell Collection” is a bits ‘n’ pieces lot of a dozen hard-to-find songs, plus two that haven’t troubled the official who runs the interchange bench in rock and roll’s football game, but you’d hardly pick it as patchwork. You’d more likely peg it as a close cousin of the two similarly excellent outtake/B side “Garage Sale” collections, issued by Citadel under the DM3 moniker in the 1990s – which is to say it’s consistent and well-tracked..
Citadel has, of course, been Mariani’s long-term home, but he and Off the Hip have moved into each other’s orbits through Dom and label honcho, Mickster Baty, working together in the Stoneage Hearts. There’s a new Stems recording coming down the turnpike as well, so the relationship shapes as fruitful.
More immediately, there are compelling reasons for any Mariani/DM3 fan to have this one in their racks. The songwriting is (as usual) top shelf and most, if not all, of the tracks are up to the mark of past efforts. Mariani’s guitar-playing also remains an under-rated asset and there’s plenty of it in evidence.
The overall feel is more subdued than, say, DM3’s best albums (they’d be “Rippled Soul” and “Road to Rome”, in my book). “When It Ends”, for example, is an acoustic version of the song that graced “Homespun Blues and Greens” (the only official solo Mariani album, prior to this), and “The Golden Ones” is a remixed Majestic Kelp (lounge-surf) song that came out on a Freshwater single (and probably isn’t essential in this context). The cover of the Manikins’ “I Never Thought I’d Find”, on the other hand, is a keeper, with “Always Wrong” (a shared write with that band’s Neil Fernandes) and its Creedence-gets-tough riff not far behind.
It takes a skilled pop exponent to tackle Brian Wilson with any dexterity and Mariani’s “Caroline, No” is a candidate for one of the best Beach Boys covers ever. Not that the shells are all pristine pop in this collection – “Snapshot” (another Freshwater seven-inch) is muscular rock-pop magic and “Real Friend”, a Sweet Jane-ish intro capped by a rise-and-fall melody, ups the ante in the grittiness stakes.
There was a sense that Dom Mariani was swimming against the tide in the grunge era of the ‘90s and might be doing something similar in these days of diversity and downloads, but more strength to him. It’d be a boring existence if he had to swim between the flags.
– The Barman
POPSIDED GUITAR - Dom Mariani (Citadel Records)
Dom Mariaini's claim to '60s-derived powerpop sainthood has been so often-discussed to be a cliche. Tracing a path through the garage grandeur of The Stems out of Perth, Western Australia, in the early 1980s, through the unabashed pop studio confection of the Someloves, the guitar-driven DM3, the surf-instro Stonefish and Majestic Kelp to the back-to-basics grit of The Stoneage Hearts and the broad range of his one and only solo album, it's been a ridiculously satisfying ride for fans of any of the aforementioned genres. Pockets of fans abound in the US, Europe and his home country Australia, so the arrival of this double-disc compilation on the redoubtable Citadel label might just stir up the rest of the planet.
The strength of this collection is not so much in its diversity but its consistency. With the exception of the mostly instrumental Stonefish and Majestic Kelp tracks (plus a non-vocal DM3 song "Rome"), Mariani's distinctive voice is as compelling as his underrated guitarwork. But over and above those qualities it's the songwriting at which you should marvel. As the man himself remarks in the generous liner notes: "Melody is king", and Dom's command of that all-important device - and his application of enough hooks to fill a Rex Hunt tackle box - mark him as a master craftsman.
Plenty of sharp ears have noticed as much, and it's sustained a 20-year relationship between Mariani and Citadel boss John Needham, as well as inspiring raves from Bomp's late founder Greg Shaw and Little Steven Van Zandt of Underground Garage Festival and syndicated radio program fame. That last association inspired an invitation for a reformed Stems to join an all-star festival line-up in New York City n 2004, where, by all accounts, the Australians more than held their own.
There's a fair chunk of Stems material here (eight songs) - and rightly so considering the influence they had on a slew of Aussie bands in the '80s and '90s. They're back playing sproadically and are slated to tour overseas on the back of a new studio album. There's been a flurry of re-releases in recent times to make their story fairly familiar, so many may spend more time with the balance of the material.
A total of 17 DM3 ("Dom Mariani Three") songs should more than adequately trace the trajectory of the post-Stems outfit that should have been all over mainstream radio, if the onset of grunge hadn't clogged programmers' ears. In any company, "Foolish", "1 Time 2 Times Devastated" (even with the "Born to Run" mix), "Second Floor" and "Just Like Nancy" are classic guitar-rock pop, rendered purely.
The Someloves were a post-Stems major label effort doomed to wither and die through the geography of Dom living in Perth and collaborator Daryl Mather being based in Sydney, and were dismissed by many Mariani fans for the overtly pop nature of their songs. As lightweight as they may have seemed - in such close proxmity, on the timeline, to The Stems - those same songs have aged remarkably well. "Melt", "Know You Now" and the stunning "Don't Talk About Us" are as timelessly great as anything here.
Surf music is something any kid with a guitar growing up in Australia in the '70s might have been exposed to, and Dom Mariani was no exception. Few people heard the mid-80s excursion The Stonefish on record, but "Guitar Radiation" is a minor gem. While 2003's album by The Majestic Kelp ("Underwater Casino") was sleepy at times, the trio of tracks included on "Popsided Guitar" have a shimmering, neo-lounge quality that winds things down nicely. Maybe they won't be essential inclusions for ardent Stems/DM3 fans, but they may send a few in search of one of the lesser-heard albums.
Perhaps the only real failing is a shortage of alternative or unreleased tracks. Apart from the odd slightly different mix, Mariani has stuck to songs already in the public domain. A limited run of rarities aimed at dyed-in-the-wool fans might be an idea for the future.
- The Barman
HOMESPUN BLUES & GREENS - Dom Mariani (Citadel)
It's taken 20-something years, but Dom Mariani's first solo work is here. Not that some of his previous projects (especially the late, great DM3) weren't dominated by his singing, songwriting and guitar playing (the Stems and the Someloves, to a lesser degree). It's just that "Homespun Blues & Greens" makes the solo status official, which in itself is something of a milestone.
It has to be said that there's an awful lot to digest here. "Homespun..." runs the gamut; from the horn-driven rock blues of the title tune, to acoustic pop on "Out of Reach", from the folky melodies of "Chinese Whispers" to lush balladry on "At Full Speed". That might be part of my problem: the lack of an identifiable core. It's not that "Homespun" is a bad album, it just doesn't grab me like some of the things that have gone before.
"Make the Leap" has great phrasing and melody. "Yuri" has an obvious theme (Google "Gargarin" if you're clueless, comrade) and some fullsome slide guitar. More glimpses of Dom's underrated guitarwork on "Priest". "Prove" cites the Beatles so I'll pass (not a fan).
These are undeniably nice tunes, carried by nice vocal melodies, whereas the Stems relied on unabashedly simple '60s tunes like some perfect Nuggets jukebox, and DM3 married big guitars and irresistible hooks. "Homespun" is more down home and a little low-key.
It's also recorded and mixed immaculately. Put to tape in Perth and mixed by longtime collaborator Mitch Easter in the US (he also contributed occasional bass), it's clean and strong. You'd also have to think a few of these tunes would be good enough to break through onto commercial radio, if programmers were even slightly adventurous and didn't have copious amounts of shit between their ears.
OK, I'm not the most prolific pop listener on the planet, but someone I know who is 'fessed up to being a little disappointed by this album. I'd put that down to sky-high expectations, given the OIympic-class Mariani track record, and I'm sure he'll get over it. The fact is, diehard Dom fans will lap this up and it should attract a whole legion of new ones. Just don't go looking for a "Road to Rome".
- The Barman
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