‘Smiles of Earth’ is quite simply a glorious album and, for me, immediately takes its place as one of my contenders for album of the year. The new album from Melbourne outfit Cousin Tony’s Brand New Firebird (CTBNF), out through the esteemed Double Drummer, is a perfect storm of incredible songwriting, magnificent instrumentation and an overall delivery that is majestic and bold. It is the soundtrack to a piece of theatrical drama, illuminated by blinding footlights, luscious colours and running mascara.
Last year’s single ‘When This Is Over’ was my single of the year and set a high bar for the rest of the album. It captured the zeitgeist: the horrors of lockdown and isolation and provided a euphoric and shining beacon of resilience and hope when all around was dark. Follow-up singles ‘Bluestone’ and ‘Red Dirt Angel’ for me consolidated the band’s epic brilliance and mastery at songwriting.
Picture in sound if you will a collaboration between Jimmy Webb (the magnificent composer of Galveston, Wichita Lineman and By The Time I Get to Phoenix amongst others, perfectly matched with Glen Campbell), Burt Bacharach (the Dusty Springfield delivered gems) and more contemporary artists like The Triffids, Nick Cave, Pulp and The The. All delivered in an Australian context with a uniquely antipodean flavour.
‘Smiles of Earth’ delivers a wide screen epic masterpiece that consists of endless horizons, wide open plains, red dirt earth and a sparkling firmament. Deep inside every track is an element of optimism and romanticism, albeit a world view seen through the bottom of a whiskey glass in a late night red velvet lounge where a spark of hope glimmers in the opaque smoky air. CTBNF have cornered the market in sonic euphoria.
Lachlan Rose (songwriter, piano, synths and guitar) says of the genesis of the album:
Like most albums, ‘Smiles of Earth’ has been a labour of deep love. Thwarted by lockdowns and the creative process itself, we attempted to make this record in numerous ways. Thanks to the patience and dedication of the band members, as well as the nurturing talents of producer Stephen Charles, the album was finally realised at The Aviary in Abbotsford, Melbourne. The inner themes of peacefulness and positive perspective truly levitated the performers throughout the recording process and they embodied its spirit wholeheartedly. I think that spirit is now undeniable in the sound of the album. In a word, this album was written to make you smile.
Indeed there is an epic, breathtaking majesty in the album as a whole. Rose goes on to say:
As the name leans towards, ‘Smiles of Earth’ comes from a place of inherent peacefulness. Inspired by Albert Camus’ ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’, the phrase captures the natural beauty of the world we live in, which is ever-present but not necessarily always appreciated. While the songs certainly explore the struggles involved in obtaining these positive perspectives, the overall feeling I wanted to leave people with was the choice. The choice between meaninglessness and beauty.
The album drips with a pure aestheticism and radiance that is blinding.
Opening track ‘Gabriel’s Horn’ sets off at a high stepping pace with a gospel/soul tinge and a saxophone edging. There is an inherent sensuousness to the melody and the cloak and sandals lyrics:
The sword fights, the dagger kills,
I see a fire upon the hill,
Gabriel, maybe you’ll,
Come and blow us away,
You’ll blow us and then,
You’ll blow us again,
Blow us away, Gabriel!
It is magnificent and zesty opening, a thrilling entre to the sumptious feast that follows.
Second track ‘Red Dirt Angel’ sets the scene for the band’s capacity for creating cinematic, expansive vistas that seemingly reflects the antipodean landscapes: wild, untamed and beautiful. This is a more restrained release: a crooner style in the vocals with a hint of alt country twang in the sky-scraping guitars, and an element of poignancy in the brilliant pop sheen.
Lachlan Rose (vocals, guitars and synths) eloquently and vividly says of the track:
An Australia dreamscape, ‘Red Dirt Angel’ was the first song that opened up the doors to ‘Smiles of Earth’ – the album it now belongs to. Somewhere during our lengthy Melbourne lockdowns I began dreaming constantly of the outback. The red dirt angel was a faceless usher who continuously led me through the arid, red-earth deserts of Australia. I longed to be behind the wheel of a filthy car with no real destination. For one reason or another, that visual represented ultimate freedom for me, which is the one thing none of us had. The song followed shortly. It’s unapologetically Australian, euphoric and a contribution to the wonderful world of road trip music.
Indeed, the track sparkles like the stars over the red desert, with a backing chorus that is ethereal and angelic.
Third track and first single, ‘When This Is Over’, is one of those epic, cinematic tracks that makes you hope that it is actually never ever over. It has an imperious majesty about it that raises the hairs on the back of your neck with its delicacy and its fragile melodies and yearning vocals, compounded by a chorus so anthemic it has the stature and presence of the Himalayas. And just as indelible.
The track is rooted in hope and its euphoric horn-tinged refrain and choral backing delivers just that: a shining beacon of light when all else is dark. Born out of lockdown, Rose explains,
As far as artistic offerings go, the last thing I felt people needed was a reminder of the pandemic and its consequences. But as it unrolled and began to affect my loved ones so deeply, I started to formulate this hopeful sound that served as some kind of anthemic beacon of times to come. Hearing people talk of their plans to travel, connect, socialise, and party was devastating in its hopeful simplicity, and the phrase “when this is over” was used all too frequently It wasn’t about dragging people down to the depths of my isolation, but painting this hyper colour vision of the connection – romantic, spiritual, emotional – that awaited us on the other side…
There is a palpable emotional strength exuded by this track: it is breathtakingly beautiful and heartwarming in its power and optimism.
In ‘Bluestone’, the deep, sonorous vocals grab you by your spine and hold fast, the horns swirling through the track provide a powerful, stirring binding in the mix. It is songs like this where the term cinematic is aptly applied to music: describing the vastness of the sound, the detailed evocative imagery and the hypnotising effect that overwhelms the senses.
Rose says of the track:
For me, Bluestone is a song of acceptance. Heartache and grief reach a certain stage at which you can finally turn around and view it with gratitude for the way in which it has shaped you. ‘I love you for leaving’ to me represents the euphoria of not just acceptance but reverence for the hard journey that led you to this point. In some ways, the metaphor of a relationship as a bluestone house continues the poetic journey of [earlier track] ‘Best Face to London’, the result of composing music whilst on a building worksite.
‘Bluestone’ becomes the palimpsest for a relationship: the solid and constant foundation upon which relationships can build and sometimes fail. Lyrically beautiful images to match the powerful delivery.
This is one of the most stunning and ambitious series of opening tracks I’ve heard in a long time.
‘Aquarius’ provides a short interlude as if to give you time to compose yourself – a brief sparse track relying on glorious harmonies over dappling guitars and Rose’s delicious romantics lyrics and expressive, yearning vocals. This takes one to ‘Happy Place’ – a shuffling, wandering fugue with a long, hypnotic introduction replete with delayed, shimmering guitars that slowly builds momentum and Rose’s more softer, reflective vocals burnished by shimmering backing vocals. The song is like being on a slow moving cross country train with a mesmerising circular motion as the landscape rolls past.
‘Every Morning It Breaks’ steers the carriage into a countrified twang with a touch of jazz and soul. The label Americana simply does not fit – the label Australiana would more accurately reflect the languid drawl and easy delivery. The track is raw and delicate, infused with a sense of loss and tragedy that seems to refer to addiction, as Rose sings my heart it breaks every morning, every morning it breaks.
CTBNF put on display their musical versatility with the swooning track ‘Fullness of Time’ – Rose as a heart-worn crooner in a faded blue velvet tuxedo in some outback pub singing to an empty room with all the passion and dedication he has, an antipodean Mink de Ville singing ‘Spanish Stroll’.
‘Dreamboat Odyssey’ continues the lounge room insouciance with Rose’s mellifluous vocals and sky-scraping backing vocals skipping over the piano driven flow. There is a sweetness and delicacy to the melody – spacey and filled with air as Rose sings with a sense of optimism and joy:
Breath in the sails,
Stars in the sky,
Dreamboat, sailing through the night,
It’s in the air,
And your eyes,
Lover’s delight in a dreamboat,
Sailing for the light into the air
A spoken word exhortation recalls the power and passion of a preacher.
The album closes with ‘Beauty and Doom’ – CTBNF at their most eye-liner dramatic with the gold lame luxury of bands like ABC: posed and studied, bright and bold. The song paints a vivid portrait, lifted by a synthesised thrum and heavenly chorus lending a sixties-flavoured vibrancy.
Even the title – ‘Earth Smiles’ – exemplifies the inherent optimism and cheer at the heart of this album. It is a bold, visual piece of aural theatre that entertains and enthralls based on an glittering arraignment of superlative songs underlined by a glowing sense of compassion and love.
The album is set for general release today through all the usual sites and through the link below.
Lachlan Rose – Vox/ Piano/ Synths/ Guitar
Francesca Gonzales – Vocals
Peter Simonsen – Vocals/ Guitar
Nicholas Reid – Drums/ Percussion
Matthew Hayes – Bass
Oliver Whitehead – Saxophone
Josh Kelly – Saxophone/ Clarinet
Liam McGorry – Trumpet
CTBNF take this monumental album on the road from September. Dates with links to tickets are as follows:
23-25 September – Wanderer’s Festival, NSW tickets
Friday 30 September – Mo’s Desert Clubhouse, Gold Coast, Qld tickets
Saturday 1 October – Woolly Mammoth, Brisbane, Qld tickets
Thursday 6 October – The Cambridge, Newcastle, NSW tickets
Friday 7 October – Oxford Art Factory, Sydney, NSW tickets
Saturday 8 October – La La La’s Wollongong, NSW tickets
Friday 14 October – The Eastern, Ballarat, VIC tickets
Saturday 15 October – The Lab, Adelaide, SA tickets
Friday 21 October – The Corner Hotel, Melbourne, VIC tickets
Saturday 5 November – Euroa Music Festival, Euroa VIC tickets
Saturday 12 November – Backyard Festival, VIC tickets
Feature Photograph: Thom Mitchell