G'Day Mate! The Whitlams Aren't Just Rocking The Land Down Under Anymore

25 January 2002

By Stentor Danielson
Managing Editor

Last fall (spring in the Southern Hemisphere), I noticed a disturbing feature of the trans-Pacific music exchange during my semester in Australia: It seems the trade is almost entirely one-way. Sure, America has been exposed to such musical geniuses as the Bee Gees and AC/DC, but Aussie radio is chock full of American band, from Limp Bizkit to *NSYNC. And it's not just bad music we're exporting -- at least three songs by They Might Be Giants, hands down the greatest Yankee band around, got airplay on Triple-J (Aussie public radio) last month.

How can we correct this cultural disaster? Start with The Whitlams.

I can't properly describe The Whitlams' sound, but I would be suspicious of any band whose sound could be reduced to a simple blurb or phrase. There are elements in their music that remind me of Ben Folds Five, They Might Be Giants, Moxy Früvous and REM, but those comparisons don't do the band justice.

Perhaps it's best to take those as indications of what else you might find in the collection of a Whitlams fan. Indeed, Whitlams frontman Tim Freedman told the Canberra Times "it helps to not be a style-based band, we're more a song-based band so no one's really turned off by any one style."

The Whitlams were founded in 1992 by current singer/pianist Freedman and singer/guitarist Stevie Plunder.

The band suffered a setback when Plunder was found dead at the bottom of a cliff on Australia Day (that's tomorrow), 1996. After the untimely death of Plunder, Freedman retooled the sound of the band a bit and captured the ARIA -- Australia's highest music award -- in 1997 with Eternal Nightcap.

The award was presented to them by the band's namesake Gough Whitlam, who was Australia's Prime Minister from 1972 until the Governor General disbanded Parliament in 1975. Whitlam is widely hailed as a reformer by Aussie liberals (that's liberal with a small "l," since, through some bizarre twist of politics, the capital-L Liberal Party is actually the more conservative of Australia's political parties).

Love This City takes over where Eternal Nightcap leaves off, matching the previous album's sales and putting songs in at the top of Triple-J's "Hottest 100" chart for two consecutive years. It's enough to make a lover of obscure music shy away, were there not so many Americans oblivious to The Whitlams' existence.

One of the biggest strengths of this CD is its integrity as an album. This isn't one you'll be hitting the random track button on; it demands to be listened through in order, even the weaker songs (weaker being a relative term here). It starts off with "Make The World Safe," a tender, honest-to-goodness love song that avoids being sappy. After many twists and turns, the album arrives at "There's No-one," the best song I know in praise of being single. It was the first song written for the album, coming out of music Freedman penned before the death of Plunder.

After watching the stress Plunder went through trying to keep his relationship together while on tour, Freedman reflected on his own, easier, unattached status.

There was some sort of a strange requirement that every Australian band releasing an album in 1999-2000 had to write a song about the Olympics. Yothu Yindi celebrated the spirit of sport-induced goodwill with "Calling Every Nation," while Regurgitator took a more realistic look at the reasons people watch the Games with "Crush The Losers." The Whitlams made their contribution with the almost-title track, "You Gotta Love This City." It's a cynical commentary on the contrast between the energy and enthusiasm that Sydney put into the 2000 Games and the complete lack thereof put into helping the city's own less fortunate citizens. And I love the fact that one of the things the main character of the song does when his life becomes pointless is to watch American television.

Social commentary shows up several times in the album, a departure from the more personal themes that characterized the band's first three albums. Freedman pulls out the best lines of the album in "400 Miles From Darwin," a ballad about the conflict in East Timor. Speaking of the self-righteousness of people who feel far removed from the conflicts of the world, he sings, "we would have all been Schindler there ... Watching the movie, we'll ask how the people might have known / Let it happen there without a fight / Kept driving quietly home / Left the Timorese alone."

The best song on the album, in my humble opinion, is the third bit of social commentary. And I'm not saying that just because it's in 3/4 time. "Blow Up The Pokies (1999)" is a driving-without being overly energetic-meditation on trying to help someone with a gambling problem ("pokies" are the electronic poker machines available in nearly every Aussie bar, although a friend has suggested that the song also works if you look at "pokies" as being cactus-based enemies from a Super Mario-type video game).

Some radio stations were forced to change the name of the song, which has become the band's biggest single, to "I Wish I" in order to avoid upsetting their pokie-enabled sponsors. To top it all off, the song ends with a Mussolini reference: "Another man there was made the trains run on time."

The album, however, is far from totally serious. Perhaps the most fun song is the third track, the delightfully incomprehensible "Chunky Chunky Air Guitar."

The whomping guitar will have you taking the title's suggestion, while the lyric booklet will be necessary to make any sense out of the vocals (a hint: it's "she came from the Cocos Islands," not "she came from the Coke of Silence"). Freedman admits to air-guitaring to the entire album, noting that you can only really air-play an instrument you can't play for real.

This album never gets old. Listening to it for approximately the seven millionth time in order to get inspiration for this review, I picked up even more interesting bits, such as a few new spots -- such as the word "bathroom" in "High Ground" -- where Freedman's Aussie accent shows through. A new Whitlams album is due out later this year, and this fall should see the band return to this side of the Pacific. But until then, there's enough in Love This City (not to mention the band's earlier albums, Eternal Nightcap, Undeniably, and Introducing) to keep your ears and brain busy for a long time.

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