Be wary of barristas, especially in airy little cafés in quiet back-streets. They feed you your coffee, they bring you your cake and cookies – in return, you ignore them and any of their own dreams. While you’re unwinding with the brew, relaxing or kvetching, gossiping or confessing, they’re stuck there with the crunch of the grinder, at a loose end. On quiet days, you’re probably the entertainment. If they happen to be writers of some kind, one day one of your stories might come bubbling back up.
As it happens, two members of StillWife still put in time as coffee-shucking barristas back in the band’s Melbourne hometown. Have any washed-up conversations washed up into their songs? I’m just saying. Or is it the coffee talking?…
There’s little that’s caffeinated about StillWife’s debut EP. Apart from those moments when one of the guitarists drives in a power-chord, a pointed solo or a burst of white noise (generally with the reluctance of a man drilling a necessary hole in the porch) it’s primarily about detailed acoustic fingerpicking and sleepy man-and-woman harmonies. There’s a soft, dusty touch of country music here. There’s something of Grandpappy in those guileless dollops of antique synth tone, like bubbles in the sun. There’s a little of Low in the semi-hush, as if they’d recorded it all on a distant Australian veranda. The drums are played by someone who’s so good, so subtle and egoless, he becomes the invisible springs that hold in place the band’s buoyant way with disillusionment.
Of the two primary singers, Dylan has the stoic country clarity of a youthful Willie Nelson while Moat’s she-panther tones capture the langourous, wounded and incurably passionate feel of both Stevie Nicks and Briana Corrigan. As for the songs, they’re about awkwardnesses and aches rather than grand passions. Their stock-in-trade is the ambiguities you don’t grow out of; the kind that make you mumble (as StillWife do in Olympia) “I know it’s wrong but I can’t bring myself to say I’m sorry. / You’re all I want, but I can’t say that I’m not feeling worried.” Both Moat and Dylan sound as if they’re in love with the slow, subtly adult pains that they sing about. Each of their voices comes twined around with the murmuring sounds of various bandmates singing along: as close as lovers, and sounding like straying echoes.
The EP’s centrepiece, Out To Sea, begins life as a duet of unraveling and entwining love and goes somewhere more apocalyptic. Moat sings cryptically about fire, about names and letting go, while from the second verse, Dylan’s muttering a grim counterpoint – “searching for the meaning in closing fires – / I’m calling on awful writers – / I’m taking pleasure in my own undoing.” As the song winds on, Moat launches meaningful non-sequiturs to wash up on the beach (“The youngest child, it don’t feel right, / it never will – he’s lost his light,”) while Dylan circles in despair (“and there is no me and there is no you; / and if there is no us, then there is no love; / and if there is no love then there’s nothing that’s true.”) The longer it continues, the more hallucinatory it becomes: even as they sing of separation, the two singers drift closer together. By the end, they’re not so much duetting as singing different parts of the same mind, chanting out “it’s in the way that winter’s coming around; / it’s in the snow-like stain, blood on the ground; / it’s in the wave descending, pulling me out to sea…”
Olympia – simpler – could just be about being too shy to ask someone out, its hotel setting a place of missed connections and missed handshakes. Or it could be about a failure of nerve in general – not having the pluck or energy to ask for what you want, even if it’s just a question of knocking on a door and speaking. In comparison, Haven’t You Heard is fairly lightweight: but perhaps its whimsy and gentler touch is needed to counterbalance the deeper aches elsewhere. Slung in a hammock of wry country picking, Dylan muses on unthinking aggression and ambition (“When I was a kid I had a lot to prove, / I was young and angry, with an overactive muse”), and touches – ever-so-lightly – on human cruelty. When not singing about warning off unwary aliens, he gently salutes the time when he finally “opened up my eyes and saw the view. / Saw the world for what it was – unfolding and askew.” A wonky electric solo ambles in like a sheepish grin. A second one opens out into a concluding cobweb of pulsating guitar noise, like a countrified version of Heroes.
With its Bo Diddley beats and stutters, its sudden embrace of dirty noise and its chopped-up minimal lyrics, So Sued turns StillWife’s usual working methods on their heads. Yet it still ties in with the band’s exploration of heartbreaks and awkwardnesses. A barbed kiss-off from girl-left-behind to boy-off-to-find-himself, it’s sung by Moat in a sardonic hiccup like a raised eyebrow. “You’re going solo, into the night… / You’re going solo / so get it right.” she jabs, before mocking with a chorus of “On the road, uh-huh; / on the road, ah-hah; / on the road, eh-heh… / We get it.” It’s bitter honey, powering on into pileups of screeching guitar as Moat wails – blue and biting – like a sarcastic banshee.
Creatures, though, might be the key to it all – the kind of beautifully wracked, subtle-heartbreak song that any lovelorn person needs to hear at least once. Licked around by misty synthesizers like weeping foghorns, it offers more of a Blue Nile approach to heartbreak – an intangible moment or event which nonetheless means everything, stretched in time as it soaks into the soul. Across a room, a soft-singing Dylan watches his lover dance; and at that moment realizes that it’s over, that what they’ve had has somehow been lost. “Through the crowd I see your face – content and undirected gaze. / Barefooted you begin to sway; I dance under the twilight’s haze, / and though it hurts I hold my tongue – some things can never be undone.”
Exactly what’s gone wrong, or what’s happened, is never revealed. An unthinking betrayal; or maybe simply the moment when common cause slips away, leaving just two separate bodies moving in an ever-growing space. There’s a tremendously sad dignity to this song, but that’s not all. A desperate hope-against-hope breaks through in a final pleading chorus: a sudden flare of forgiveness stretched out like a shaking hand – “Tell me you make mistakes – mistakes can always be unmade. / Tell me I’ve faith and I will pray – / just don’t leave me here this way…”
Utter quality. More of this, please.
StillWife: ‘StillWife EP’, 2012
Released: 8th March 2012
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