21st Century Reviews

You liked Roaring Jack, you might like some of the recent releases reviewed here!

16 November 2006

Steph Miller - Strange Sea (Winter Station, 2004)

This review was originally posted in February 2005.

Steph Miller was Roaring Jack's mandolin, accordion and tin whistle player and occasional vocalist. He wrote and sang some classic Roaring Jack songs, including 'Shell Shocked Crowd', 'Go Leave' and 'A Stranger And A Friend'. With Roaring Jack and later with Eva Trout, Steph's instrumentation helped define each band but he seemed content to remain mostly in the shadows. It was only with The Wickermen, Steph's band between Roaring Jack and Eva Trout, that his own vocals and vision were allowed to shine.

Since leaving Eva Trout in 2001, Steph Miller has found his own voice once again. He has played solo gigs in Sydney and has performed with some great local songwriters like Perry Keyes and Bernie Hayes. Steph's also been writing shiploads of songs. He dragged some friends into the studio in 2001 and 2002, and recorded an album's worth of songs. Frustrated with the difficulty of finding a distributor, Steph finally decided to release the album himself in late 2004. Thus we have Strange Sea, an album that's hard to find but even harder to ignore.

The first thing that strikes me about Strange Sea is its production. What a sound! Even on the acoustic guitar-dominated tracks, the sound is full and impressive. On most tracks, Steph's many instrumental talents are augmented by Matt Galvin on electric guitars and one man rhythm section Michael Carpenter on bass AND drums. The opener 'You Spoke (Hold On)' is built on a wall of sound generated by guitars, pedal steel, organ and the multi-tracked backing vocals of Dominique English. Steph's voice rises over the top of it all as he deals with demons and doubt ('You pushed me back from the 44 / I thought I’d lost to the traffic roar / Thought I heard black dogs a scratchin’ at my door').

It is obvious from much of the lyrical content that Steph Miller is no stranger to loss and grief. There are odes to lost relatives and friends. Depression figures in more than one song, but most notably the mercurial 'Tell Your Story'. This one's not so much about how one deals with depression, but with how the friends and family of a person with depression deal with it: 'I swear that I won't tell your story now / It's not my business anyhow'.

There is a huge range of influences on Strange Sea. Steph's been playing in bands for over twenty years, absorbing sounds from all over and developing his own style. The result is quite eclectic, with songs that will appeal to a gigantic cross section of listeners. I can imagine the album embraced by the various branches of ABC Radio. 'Tell Your Story', with its exotic guitar picking and home-made percussion would fit well on Radio National's The Planet, while Triple J should be gushing over the noisy swagger of 'Dark Café' and 'Two Aeroplanes'. ABC Local Radio, meanwhile, can add 'The Places We Know' and the glorious Byrds-like guitars and harmonies of 'Winter Conversation' to its playlist of intelligent contemporary stuff.

For Roaring Jack fans, there's a lot to recommend this album. It doesn't sound terribly like RJ, but there are elements that may be familiar. There's Steph's voice for a start, which seems to have deepened and matured in the past fifteen years or so. 'Waltzing Too Long' is a gentle tune that could be a distant cousin to 'A Stranger and A Friend'. Near the end it develops into a beautiful full-blown Irish waltz, in which Steph gets to play all the instruments he once contributed to Roaring Jack. 'In the Silence' features a backward guitar riff which for some reason sounds remarkably Scottish (and the song has a great Celtic interlude too). And throughout there are flourishes of electric guitar that remind me of the Jacks' Bob Mannell. In fact, could that be Mr Mannell's guitar playing on the last (uncredited) track?

Since Strange Sea is not readily available in the megastores, a limited quantity is available through the Roaring Jack Archives. Please email us for details. Alternatively, you can get a copy at Steph Miller's gigs.


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