The local bands instilling their music with intellectual integrity.
I recently read an interview with a rising garage-punk band who were eager to underscore their music’s thematic potency. The singer spoke of being exasperated by bands who can’t think of anything to sing about other than how much they love beer, ciggies, and going to the pub. It was this band’s mission to make lyrics count again and reboot the spirit of punk, rebellion and righteousness in the process.
The comments rankled me, and not just because they smacked of self-importance. It sounded like the sort of out-of-touch complaint you’d get from a Gen Xer or boomer – conclusions drawn by someone who’d stopped paying attention. You only need to survey the wealth of guitar bands that have helped make Melbourne a music lover’s paradise in recent years to see that intellectual integrity has not evaporated from the rock’n’roll idiom.
Perhaps the overused descriptor “slacker” has something to do with this oversight. If the guitars jangle and the music feels alternately chipper and moodily disaffected, it’s easy to conclude that the songwriters have nothing to say. But Melbourne remains a breeding ground for artists who buck the slacker stereotype – writers who imbue their songs with considerable lyrical depth, rather than just singing about getting pissed and invoking lazy Australiana.
So here is a closer look at the contemporary Melbourne bands who have no trouble infusing rock’n’roll with intellectual integrity.
Dick Diver and “dolewave”
The term “dolewave” started to circulate in the early years of the previous decade. It was effectively synonymous with slacker, while also incorporating a dog whistle aimed at the working class. The fact that a considerable chunk of musos must claim Centrelink in order to make ends meet shouldn’t be stigmatising, but such is the pervasive psychological imprint of capitalism.
No band was more closely tied to the dolewave signifier than Melbourne’s Dick Diver, a four-piece combo who named their first LP, New Start Again (2011). Dick Diver – who’ve largely been inactive for the past five years – aren’t the type of band to beat their chests and preach ‘The Internationale’, but their songs routinely interrogate complex social interactions and the ways in which we’re haunted by our memories.
‘Interstate Forever’ begins with an evocative couple of lines: “The day you said you wanted to move back up to Canberra/I thought about the link between planned cities and Hitler.” ‘Beat Me Up (Talk To A Counsellor)’ questions macho culture (“You beat me up/Don’t get a gun/Talk to a counsellor”), while ‘New Start Again’ exposes the shame that comes from trying to escape the rat race while also relying on the State (“Living on a fortnightly basis/Monday’s my day – peak in my week”).
Keep up to date with Dick Diver here.
In early 2020, Dick Diver’s Al Montfort helped produce the sophomore record by Melbourne four-piece Primo! The track ‘Machine’ takes issue with the dehumanising structure of the modern workplace. We, the compliant workers, arrive at work day in, day out and do as we’re told. If we don’t, we risk being shafted from alienating jobs for which we’re over-qualified and undervalued.
Or, in the words of Primo!, “You told me just what I should do/But the problem is you’re only human/And I just can’t listen to you.”
Explore the Primo! discography here.
If it’s not our employment situation making us feel trapped, then it’s other aspects of the neoliberal economy. Among the most prominent are consumerism and smart phone addiction, both of which are central themes of ‘Mirror of Venus’ by Melbourne trio MOD CON. The track appears on the band’s excellent 2018 debut, Modern Convenience, which producer Gareth Liddiard described as sounding like a cross between The Bangles and Black Flag.
Venus, of course, is the goddess of beauty and desire – a dyad that’s commonly exploited by the capitalist free market. “Cut your hair/Watch TV all night long/Our sister silently watches on,” sings Erica Dunn, with the television no doubt exposing her to idealised images of how one should look, and the products that’ll allow her to achieve this ideal.
Dunn’s lyrics reflect on how consumerism also keeps us distracted from the bigger issues unfolding in the world. “Buy some shoes, ignore the news tonight,” she sings. “Oh Venus, she’s patient all right.”
But in the final verse, she speculates that having a direct line to retail therapy sitting in our pockets won’t end well. “Will our death be this distraction?/We won’t see the cliff we’ll walk right off.”
Keep up to date with MOD CON here.
In mid-2019, Coburg four-piece Pinch Points released the nine-track collection, Moving Parts, which embraced punk rock’s loud and fast urgency. Pinch Points are an avidly political band – their political conscience and social justice messaging is an inextricable part of their identity. And when they get it right, the themes of protest really stick, such as on ‘Stranger Danger’.
Bass player Acacia Coates performs lead vocals on the track, which alludes to the culture of victim blaming that surrounds violent assaults against women. “Don’t talk to strangers/Don’t talk to people/There’s too much danger,” sings Coates, parroting the likes of Andrew Bolt and the Victorian police force.
Apparently, digging into the root causes of unprovoked assault isn’t necessary. And so for Coates, “Life keeps on getting stranger/I wish that I felt safe from/Stranger danger.”
Find out more about Pinch Points here.
Exposing the hypocrisy of those committed to preserving the status quo is something RVG’s Romy Vager excels in. ‘Christian Neurosurgeon’, from the band’s 2020 release Feral, is one of the more conspicuous examples from the band’s catalogue. The absurd juxtaposition contained in the song’s title is a clue to Vager’s core inquiry. Namely, how it’s possible to hold a scholarly understanding of science while also heeding the commandments of a book written a couple thousand years ago.
“All of my friends/They laugh at me and they mutter,” she sings. “Have you found the cross/In the medulla oblongata?”
But Vager’s not always in such a sardonic mood. Another of Feral’s standouts is ‘Asteroid’, which looks at the fragility of the convictions and beliefs that allow us to form a coherent self-image. The song was inspired by an incident in the life of 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, which brought into question his entire philosophical project.
“I spent 45 years thinking/Got proved wrong in a day,” sings Vager. But despite how crushing it might seem, Vager sees great value in these sorts of events. “I was hoping I could live out my life in a shell/But somebody hatched me/And down I fell,” she sings before concluding, “Something better change”.
Peruse RVG’s website here.
Similar questions about the contours of one’s identity show up in Emma Russack’s ‘Be Real’, a grungy indie-rock song from Russack’s 2019 release Winter Blues. Russack, a gifted articulator and creator of visual depth, reflects on her adolescent belief that cultivating a certain image would be enough to project a distinctive personality.
“All I wanted was an identity,” she sings. “Didn’t know how I could feel free/In such a big world/Wanted to make my mark.”
Songs such as ‘Be Real’ mightn’t inspire people to quit their jobs and kick off an Occupy-style uprising. But as with all of the previous examples, it’s motored by a readiness to probe into aspects of our lives that could be mistakenly viewed as fated and immovable.
Find out more about Emma Russack here.
To return to the original impetus for this article, all of these examples prove that Melbourne is home to stacks of songwriters with more on their mind than their next ciggie break. And that’s something we should celebrate, as these musicians not only enrich the culture of this city, but our inner lives too.
Keen on another local music read? Check out our piece on the 24 best songs from all-Melbourne artists in 2020 so far.
Never miss a story. Sign up to Beat’s newsletter and you’ll be served fresh music, arts, food and culture stories three times a week.