Reviewed by Brent D. Tharp
Oh musical gods, why hast ye forsaken me? Once, long ago, in a place where only vinyl and 8-track tapes existed, a band’s first album was titled using the band’s name, i.e., eponymously. That’s how we got Bread, Boston, [The] Chicago [Transit Authority], [Fresh] Cream, Supertramp, Buckingham Nicks . . . well, you get the idea. Chicago and Cream may have gone a little overboard on the whole put-your-band’s-name-in-the-title-of-every-album thing, but I’m not knocking it—marketing and branding are as important for bands as they are for any other business.
In recent years, however, bands suddenly started releasing self-titled albums as their third, fourth, fifth, or gazillionth album (and in the process sliced a dagger through the heart of the catchphrase self-titled debut). Since I have no warm and fuzzy feelings toward corporate music executives, I’m going to chalk this up to some A&R guys deciding, randomly and after a few martinis, that “henceforth no debut album shall be named after its band.” And that was the end of that.
That’s how we get debut albums with bizarre titles like Teenage Thunderbolt Anarchy or Best of [insert name of obnoxious band here] before they release any music, and while still publicly unknown (the Sex Pistols notwithstanding). Still, none of this explains how a band could (1) think the name Fun would be catchy and popular, rather than simply dorky and unimaginative; and (2) be perplexed that no one noticed their existence for so long. Oh well.
So let us not wonder, though we might, why Spiderbait named their eighth album Spiderbait. Maybe record execs ordained it so from on high, or maybe the band were just tired. Kidding aside, going for a simple album title after a nine-year absence may indicate a new maturity level for band members, or perhaps a back-to-basics approach to song making. But since I’m just guessing, it could also be sunspots.
Spiderbait? Yes, grasshopper. Spiderbait are one of Australia’s most popular bands, perhaps following AC/DC, Little River Band, Midnight Oil, Men at Work, and the Angels. Rick Springfield I’m not so sure about.
Spiderbait even had a #1 smash in Australia with what sounds like an adrenaline- or amphetamine-fueled cover of “Black Betty.” The hit was no anomaly—it was part-and-parcel a representative Spiderbait song by the time the band were done with it. I say that because I’m not about to go through a summary of Spiderbait’s first seven albums. All I’ll say is that the songs are mostly stripped down with raw humor throughout, and lyrics you likely won’t hear anywhere else. I’ve never been a fan of genres, but to help you out, one of the corporate category factories refers to Spiderbait’s music as “thrash pop,” whatever the hell that is. In addition to that completely unhelpful label, this review takes numerous liberties in comparing Spiderbait to other bands with which listeners may be familiar—fair warning.
“Straight Through the Sun” is a hard driving, raging opener with strong tough percussion. Spiderbait’s recognizable fuzzy pedal effects are immediately apparent, never quite subsumed by Kram’s tight, pressure-laden vocals and pounding snare. The song is a great opener, and also the first single released from the album. The atmosphere of the song is techno because of the fuzziness, including some filtering of the vocals, but also has the raw sound of garage rock owing to the intensity of the instrumental part of the song. So you don’t think the song was recorded in a garage, however, Spiderbait shot the video for this song on a beach somewhere (methinks Australia, as that’s the obvious supposition).
“It’s Beautiful” (also released as a single) would seem a jarring change in tone, especially with English’s lilting vocals, but is not a surprising choice given Spiderbait’s sometimes eccentric approach to song organization. A song about how our little planet is attractive in spite of (and because of) its grittiness and imperfections, the song has some nice transitions, and its emotion and complexity build throughout. The official video for this one tells the story quite nicely, and emphasizes that one’s environment is less important than the company one keeps. The unofficial video has a similar message, but is shot with a completely different style and different content. It should be noted that the lyrical content of this one is extremely metaphorical (intentionally or otherwise), and its message could be interpreted contrapositively if one were so inclined.
“Miss the Boat,” continuing the garage rock theme for a bit, has a quick guitar slide before launching into a driving, staccato (well, as staccato as Spiderbait can get) guitar intro that transitions back into familiar fuzziness. The lyrics and harmony on this one are killer, with Kram’s down-and-dirty vocal styling nicely offset by English’s syrupy sweetness. Some memorable lines include the first: “I take pride in missin’ the boat, I don’t wanna be a sailor,” and later, “Take heed to what I say, don’t go out in the water / Take pride in missin’ the boat, you gotta climb your mountain with your own rope.” With a running time of 5:13, not only is this tune the longest on the album, but it’s also unusually long by Spiderbait standards. It has a one-minute intro, and the final chorus is buffered by a 1:00+ extended bridge rolling into a guitar solo and a 1:10 outro that fades out with a blistering improvisational guitar–drum sequence.
“Supersonic” is another lilting song with English singing lead. It opens with a raw acoustic guitar lead-in followed by English’s nearly a cappella vocals, which are later backed by a fairly infectious instrumental base (keys and/or slide guitar, as well as a relentless muted snare)—all of this serves to accent and echo English’s haunting vocals. We get a stronger understanding of just how much range English has on this song, more so than on “It’s Beautiful.” Kram plays aggressively on this one, but the percussion is muted perfectly so that it creates a sonic base for English, rather than competing. The fade-out includes the sound of a jet engine spinning up. The song is pretty dreamy, but a nice little break before what comes next.
“Where’s the Baseline,” if for no other reason, appears to be in this exact spot on the album to make sure we don’t forget that this is, after all, a f——king rock album. It opens with some spoken word, then uncorks Kram like an evil spirit, frenetically singing to the whole wide world all at once. This is the kind of song that never seems to stop, then suddenly drops into a sort of Mott the Hoople–esque bridge at half speed, using just enough time for a quick drag on a giant burrito-sized reefer, before rolling back into the primary verse. Perhaps Kram needed a break midway through—this is the only song in which one can literally hear him drawing the oxygen he needs in order to belt this puppy out. The lyrics, though by no means especially original, are consistent with the head-pounding and ripping nature of this song: “I’ve been driving in my car, and I can hear there’s something missin’ —— oh where’s the baseline? / You’ve been low, you’ve been high, you’ve been preying on me all night.” Gather your friends around, do some shots, and turn this mother up until your neighbors call the cops.
“I’m Not Your Slave” is a marked departure from most Spiderbait music. It has the vocal styling and tone of a Jack White song, with a guitar that sounds like it might be channeling the spirit of a now-retired guitar pedal once owned by Eddie Van Halen or Steve Vai. It also marks a departure from the initial hard–soft–hard pattern of the album, a trend that lasted an entire five songs. The lyrics on this one are pretty extraordinary (look ‘em up).
“Get Bent” is a ditty, that’s the most apt description I can summon. Kram doesn’t bother covering up any of his Aussie accent and sings in a lower register, nearly in spoken word. This song is reminiscent of the best Kinks songs (a more contemporary example would be Australian band the Cat Empire), and no wonder: Kram sounds a lot like Ray Davies here, and lyrically it sounds exactly like a song that Ray Davies would write. I might also note that the bass line on this one is pretty intense—I’m surprised that English wasn’t knocked down by the reverb (come to think of it, I have no way of knowing that she wasn’t).
“What You Get,” showcases English again, but this time in a driving punk song, albeit not as stripped down as most. Its punk status is helped by English’s wry delivery, but injured greatly by her ability to sing in tune. Near the end, the band go into a maniacal frenzy, and fade out that way.
“Freakazoid,” is a heavy, slogging maniacal beast roaming through the woods and trying to kill everyone in sight. It’s also instrumental—sadly, most beasts are capable of neither speech nor song.
“Crazy Pants (Rockstar for a Night)” is a pleasant little slow roller about crazy pants, sneakers, dancing, and being a rockstar, pretty much in that order, and recalls the fun-loving Nickelback tune, “Rock Star.” Just kidding—it sounds nothing like the Nickelback song. Also, the song is mostly about kicking the ass of the poser in your life (feel free to find one in your own life, and play this song for same while you have the locks changed on your habitat).
“Mars” has lots of whispering in it.
“Reach for the Sky,” in some sort of twisted trick, is a gem that the band hid near the end of the album, perhaps as recompense for the preceding song consisting almost entirely of whispering. As I was listening to it, I had to stop writing and go to the outside bar, slamming my head against it until marble whorls were etched in relief on my forehead. This song could easily have come from an Ozzy Osbourne or Dio album. But it didn’t.
“The Sun Will Come Shining” is a Go-Go’s–sounding tune with the same happy message, except with stronger musicianship all the way around. Hey, I love the Go-Go’s as much as the next guy, but really, Kram can play him some mean drum, that’s all I’m saying.
“Goodbye” ties this opus together rather well.
All in all, despite some early cynicism, I must admit that the song choices for the album were excellent, and what appeared at first to be a quirky track order was actually quite cohesive. More than that, this album is impossible to define, showcasing an incredible amount of musical talent that crosses several genres fluidly and, for the most part, flawlessly.
Spiderbait LP track list
1. Straight Through The Sun 3:56
2. It’s Beautiful 3:40
3. Miss The Boat 5:13
4. Supersonic 4:33
5. Where’s The Baseline 3:17
6. I’m Not Your Slave 3:13
7. Get Bent 3:01
8. What You Get 3:33
9. Freakazoid 1:38
10. Crazy Pants (Rockstar For A Night) 3:40
11. Mars 4:22
12. Reach For The Sky 4:31
13. The Sun Will Come Shining 2:37
14. Goodbye 2:35
Total track time 49:49
Note: track times shown are from digital media, and may vary from those of other sources.
Players: Janet English—vocals, bass; Mark Maher—vocals, drums; Damian Whitty—guitars.
Label: Universal Music Australia Pty Ltd. (Mercury label for physical CD and vinyl).
Production: All tracks except “It’s Beautiful,” “Where’s the Baseline,” and “Crazy Pants” composed by Janet English, Mark Maher, and Damian Whitty. “It’s Beautiful” and “Crazy Pants” composed by Janet English, Mark Maher, Francois Tetaz, and Damian Whitty. “Where’s the Baseline” composed by Janet English, Dann Hume, Mark Maher, and Damian Whitty. Mastered by Joe LaPorta.
Management: Fiona Duncan.
Booking: Owen Orford at New World Artists; http://www.newworldartists.net.
Other: Released November 2013. Additional band information available at spiderbait.com.au.