A TRIBUTE TO ROWLAND S. HOWARD – Various Artists (Stagger Records)
Here’s proof you don’t have to be the world’s biggest fan of tribute records or the Birthday Party to dig this generously-appointed double album of sturm und dang by bands from all over the world. Twenty-five tunes to soak up, all inspired by the work of one of Melbourne’s favourite bedraggled musical sons. It’s a dark and intense ride (but then you knew that already.)
Backtrack to the ‘80s and The Birthday Party were always a sideshow for me, for three reasons. Firstly, they came from Melbourne. Secondly, they came from Melbourne. Lastly, I equated them with self-obsessed, self-pitying self-loathing junkie rock which, at times, was on the money but not altogether a reason for devaluing their music. Even junkies got soul (see J. Thunders). Anyway, me not tripping on Nick Cave and Co doesn’t detract from the fact that onetime Boys Next Door/Birthday Party member Rowland S. Howard has produced some of the most distinctive and evocative guitar sounds to come out of Oz in the last 30 years. Wistfully dark lyrics don’t hurt either.
There’s a passing familiarity with more than a few of the bands on this tribute, whose birth was the product of a beer-soaked party conversation between two French musicians, Dimi Dero (soon to tour Australia with his eponymous band) and Patrick Fretin (guitarist for Wok). Nikki Sudden, Dimi Dero Inc, The Dead Brothers, Mick Harvey, The Drones, Kamikaze Trio, Penny Ikinger, The Holy Soul and Nikki Sudden are all names whose music has passed through the I-94 Bar CD rotel/turntable over the years, so interest was high to see how they tackled their assignment.
The answer is extremely well - with lots of licence taken (as far as I can tell) with the original songs. Rowland has a back catalogue as long as the legs of his stovepipe trousers with post-Birthday Party work in These Immortal Souls as well as with Lydia Lunch, Jeremy Gluck, Nikki Sudden and Spencer P. Jones et al. He launched his own solo album (“Teenage Snuff Film”) in 1999 that’s especially searing, so there was a long list of songs for bands to pick from. I’d much rather hear re-workings than faithful copies.
The accent is on guitars almost uniformly throughout these two discs. Kamikaze Trio take it to extremes on “Still Burning” (which came out on a Lydia Lunch record.) The rhythm is almost somnolent before guest player Spencer P. Jones comes over the top with a bent-out-of-shape vocal and murderous guitar-playing.
The Drones show why they’re Australian band of the moment with These Immortal Souls’ “Crowned”. The sustained feedback and Garth Liddiard’s twisted vocals are one thing but the real secret is the monstrous engine room swing these guys (and gal) generate.
There’s much merit in contributions from the bands that drove this project, Wok (who get two bites of the cherry with “Undone” and “Endless Fall”) and Dimi Dero Inc (“Sleep Alone”). Ca
tch Dimi Dero Inc on tour through Australia (supporting The drones for part of the way) in March 2007, by the way. And as for Bad Seed/ex-Birthday Party member and solo artist Mick Harvey’s also “I Ate The Knife”, it also sounds marvellous.
The Dead Brothers (“Dull Day”) provide the soundtrack to an afternoon in an embalmer’s clinic located over the top of a German cabaret room, while the enigmatically-named members of French zombie rockers, Punish Yourself (that’d be Miss Z, X.AV and VX), provide maximum noise with their take on “Blast Off”. It’s one of only three Birthday Party songs (discounting two versions of “Shivers” which was by the Boys Next Door).
“Shivers” has the status of an Oz Rock Classic, thanks to the Screaming Jets, and is still the only song about suicidal ideation ever to crack the mainstream Australian Top 40. The Jets couldn’t make it but the two versions that did (one by the late Nikki Sudden and the other from Noah Taylor, who I’m presuming is the Aussie actor) sound nothing like pub rock. Sudden avoids riding the melody line and re-arranges the tune into something quite different, while Taylor makes a good fist of things.
There’s a nice brooding intensity about “Dead Radio” from Penny Ikinger and band (another one from “Snuff Film”.) The Hate Inside are a relatively unknown band from Japan and a real surprise packet with “Better Blood”, where acrid guitar and a buried vocal from my Aussie-phile email mate Kou Takerbyashi make this sound like a howl from a grave.
Multi-talented (as in acting and music) Loene Carmen contributes the only non-Howard composed song, the poignant “Song For Rowland”, and the man himself closes things down with the unreleased live cut, “So The Story Goes”.
Powerful, dark stuff – which isn’t something you can say about many tribute albums. I’m sure there’s a lot of obsessives who’ll need this, although you don’t need to be one to enjoy it.  
– The Barman