21st Century Reviews

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

05 November 2009

Steph Miller and the Winter Station - Brickwork (Winter Station, 2009)

Steph Miller is not the most prolific singer-songwriter out there. His gigs around Sydney are rare, and Brickwork is but his second album since leaving Eva Trout at the beginning of the millennium. In return for this lack of quantity, we’re rewarded with strong, heartfelt songs, impeccable production values and impassioned, unrestrained performances.

Recorded in March-April 2009, this album contains 20 years’ worth of Steph Miller songs. One or two songs date back to the days of Roaring Jack and the Wickermen, but most were written over the last twelve months. Steph welcomes back guitarist Matt Galvin and introduces a new rhythm section: drummer Tully Ryan and bassist Phil Blatch. Several songs are boosted by the appearance of Lindsay Martin (fiddle), Michael Baker (keyboards) and a host of guest musicians.

‘The Still Eye of the Storm’ opens the album on a high, with Steph’s familiar voice impassioned as he strains for and achieves those difficult high notes. Lindsay Martin’s warm fiddle and Steph’s mandolin cast a folk-rock glow over proceedings, until the power chords break through near the end. It’s an appropriate great precursor to ‘Autotramp’, one of Miller’s hardest rocking songs, up there with ‘Dark Cafe’ from Strange Sea. Crunching guitar riffs are joined by some crazy J. Mascis-style wailing and a wall of treated acoustic guitar. Some very interesting sounds in there.

‘The Ballad of John Kevins’ is a sad tale of a lonely suburban boy whose only friends are the shonky desperadoes who spam his email account. John’s ‘junk mail friends’ entice him with talk of ‘finance, romance and the future of the world’, and it all ends in tears.

Steph drags out his accordion for ‘Land of Ice and Snow’. This one features great fiddle and honky-tonk piano, and shuffles along amiably like a Mick Thomas song.

‘A Lighthouse with no Sea’ was written near the end of Steph’s time with Roaring Jack, probably for the Wickermen. Phil Blatch switches to double bass for this laid-back track. There’s fiddle, organ and acoustic guitar, and the only percussion is from a snare and cymbal. Browny from Sydney City Trash guests on pedal steel and helps emphasise that feeling of wistful isolation.

‘The Hail and the Rain’ is the newest track on the album. It features just Steph and his guitar, blasting away to create a sound that’s moody, bluesy, sparse and spontaneous. The whole band returns for ‘Don’t You Ever Steal a Worker’s Tools’, a big band blues with extra electric guitar from Geoff Holmes and backing vocals by Bonnie Kay. ‘Sweet Time’ is gentle, driven by finger-picked acoustic guitar. Backed with sparing electric riffs, it rocks out near the finish and ends with a cracking martial snare drum.

‘Medina’ is an addictive, sparse middle eastern-sounding instrumental on which Steph plays mandoud, accordion and piano. It leads cunningly into ‘Money is Your God’. Steph wrote this one in 1989 and it sounds surprisingly fresh. Steph on tin whistle teams up with Roaring Jack’s Bobby Mannell on mandolin, to take on a wild horde of eastern-sounding instruments (plus the Breton bombarde that appeared briefly on Roaring Jack’s ‘Takeaway Love’). It’s a blistering song that takes us into completely new territory.

Steph then breathes new life into ‘It’ll Take a Long Time’, a gentle romantic song that Sandy Denny wrote and recorded in 1972. As Bobby Mannell strums the opening chords in his unmistakeable style, I am reminded of how crucial Bobby’s guitar sound was to Roaring Jack. That evocative, glistening, electric sound is enhanced by Denise Thomas’s sweet backing vocals and Browny’s sympathetic pedal steel.

Then it’s all in for the big finish. ‘Tourist Drive 12’ - a huge rock song - is a monumental way to end the album. Based on a soaring guitar riff, this travelogue highlights Steph Miller’s powers of observing the rare and unusual. He recounts weird and wonderful sights encountered on a drive through country New South Wales. It showcases the tremendous drumming power of young Tully Ryan, who is certainly an impressive find. The album features so many different tempos and textures, and Tully Ryan is never once found out of his depth.

Just in case the final track hasn’t been ingrained into your skull, the bonus track is a completely different version of ‘Tourist Drive 12’. The sounds of nature replace the music, and the lyrics are recited by a man with the broadest Australian accent you’ll ever hear. It’s an ingenious way to end one of the most satisying Australian albums of 2009. Steph Miller remains true to himself and continues to create songs that just cry out to be heard.