Not Ashamed To Be Australian, Mate

14 November 2002

By Stentor Danielson
Scarlet Staff

Iíve been waiting for this album for two years.

It all started in the northern hemisphere fall of 2000, when I was at the University of Wollongong in New South Wales. During my five months in Australia, I became enamored of one of the country's top indie-pop acts, The Whitlams. The band had recently put out its third full-length album, Love this City. Soon after I returned to the States, I heard a new tune on the radio -- the upbeat, assertive, and fun "Duffy's Song (I Will Not Go Quietly)" -- that was identified as the newest from The Whitlams. Could it be a new album out so soon?

But alas, it was just one song. The Whitlams had been commissioned to write "Duffy's Song" for the Aussie sitcom Love Is A Four-Letter Word. It appears I was not the only person who was excited, as the song was voted number 42 on Triple Jís Top 100, a year-end chart from Australiaís public radio station. I had to wait until this summer for the release of the bandís latest effort, Torch The Moon. In July, the album debuted at number one on the Australian charts.

The Whitlams don't apologize for being Australian. Even their name is embedded in Aussie culture, as it comes from Gough Whitlam, the progressive Prime Minister who led the nation from 1972 until the Governor General disbanded Parliament in 1975.

The cover art of Torch the Moon proclaims its nationality as well, featuring the black silhouettes of a thicket of Banksia after a bushfire. Banksia, it should be noted, is a plant that thrives on fire. The plant's woody cones must be cracked by the heat of a bushfire before they will release their seed. The yellow and orange watercolors behind the thicket evoke both the fire that blackened the stems and the sunlight that will nourish the seedlings.

But enough about the cover art. The highlight of the album is the fittingly Australian "Kate Kelly," which is based on the legend of Australia's most famous outlaw, Ned Kelly. (It probably says something about my cultural tastes that when I was in Big Y a few weeks ago, I caught sight of a magazine featuring a story about Nelly and initially thought People had decided to do a story about Ned Kelly.)

Ned Kelly's story has provided fodder for countless Australian works of art, both those who demonize him as a robber and murderer, and those that celebrate his resistance to the oppressive establishment. Ned has been immortalized by the suit of armor he constructed for what proved to be his final standoff with the police. The troopers surrounded the Kelly Gang in a hotel where they had taken several citizens hostage, and set the building on fire. Ned escaped into the woods and then returned in full armor to rescue his brothers. The police shot him in the legs, captured him, and hung him.

"Kate Kelly" is a nightmarish lullaby to Nedís sister Kate, reminding her "They had to shoot out his legs, Kate / And if you could sleep / You could forget how they cut off his head/For the Wardenís paperweight." The music masterfully complements the haunting lyrics. The Whitlams make excellent use of loud and soft, roaring guitars and tinkling piano arpeggios, gentle singing and near-snarls, to evoke the emotions that must have been running through Kate's head after her brothers and her lover Joe Byrne were captured and sentenced.

With Torch the Moon, The Whitlams seem to have fully recovered from the tragic death of band cofounder Stevie Plunder on Australia Day (January 26) 1996. They were never truly down, of course, as the first post-Plunder album -- 1997ís Eternal Nightcap -- won an ARIA, Australiaís highest music award. Nevertheless, both Eternal Nightcap and Love This City sound to some degree like solo projects by Tim Freedman, the surviving Whitlams founder.

While Freedman (vocals and piano) still claims the largest share of the songwriting credits in the latest album, he seems to have settled in with new bandmates Terepai Richmond (drums), Jak Housden (guitar), and Warwick Hornby (bass). Torch the Moon lacks much of the orchestration and reliance on auxiliary musicians that characterized the previous two albums, and Freedman reports that the album as a whole was a more cooperative project.

The first single, "Fall For You," is a good reflection of the whole album. Freedman's piano, featured prominently in the band's earlier work, stays in the background as his vocals are layered into thick electric and acoustic guitars. As he sings hopefully yet mysteriously about taking a romantic risk, guest vocalist Sofie Michalitsianos whispers "Be strong and you'll get strength back / Feed the fire and you'll get warmth back."

Torch the Moon isn't The Whitlams' best album. For your first foray into the Aussie rock scene I recommend Love This City, which showcases more of the band's versatility and contains more than its share of excellent songs. But Torch the Moon is a close second.

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