Album Review: R.J. Andrew (Underground Lovers) takes us on an epic, cinematic journey through ‘Black River’.

Feature Photograph: Suzanne Phoenix

The Breakdown

'Black River' is a momentous journey that travels across a widescreen vista filled with muted colours engendering a dreamy reverie. It feels intimate and raw at times and yet is carried by momentous all encompassing sonic waves that are immersive and moving.
Independent 9.0

A well recognised character providing a steady and yet impossibly wild percussive spine to the legendary Undergound Lovers, R.J. Andrew has just unveiled his epic solo album ‘Black River’: a dreamy reverie spread across 15 epic tracks.

The album sets sail with ‘Darling Please’: crunchy, satisfying guitars that tremble and shine and move in a forward motion while Andrew’s vocals plead and exhort across the troubled waters – sweet and melodic. Andrew’s vocals reveal a rich and deep timbre, often infused with a poignancy floating over ambulant music waters. Witness the breathtaking beauty and simplicity of ‘Lost’: a dreamy soundscape cloaked seemingly in mist and regret that floats and hovers above us.

‘What Goes Up’ has sharp crystalline guitars and layered harmonies that are delivered in almost a monk like chant, infused with a touch of fairy dust and psychedelia and borne on a weeping bed of strings.

We move up the psychedelic scale a few notches with ‘The List’ that has a twelve string shimmer and drone-like attack – think the Brian Jonestown Massacre with a heady drug-fueled incense laden air. Drooping eyelids and nodding heads convey the rich atmosphere and immersive feel.

The album shifts and shimmers like a mirage in the desert – ‘Girl On A Wire’ floats above a dappling acoustic guitar bed with Andrew’s vocals yearning and passionate, naked and exposed.

Each track is a vignette – a little tasty morsel that rarely exceeds the two and a half minute marker with intervals such as ‘Pilot’ and ‘Forty Windmills’ forming a minor intermissions of expression and contemplation without words. ‘Backstreets and Broken Hearts’ is a short sip of aching and yearning liquid that rests on Andrew’s soft yearning vocals that almost break with a sadness.

Andrew’s skill is painting a broad sweep of sound in a balladry form with rich, evocative textures – ‘Two Wrongs’ floats gently downstream on a bed of arpeggiated guitars while a piano provides a harsh counterpoint and seagull cries bid farewell.

‘Holy O’ is haunting and sparse – there is almost a spiritual air with a touch of a seafaring ballad which references the album title – a ghostly chant that gently exhorts and entreats like a siren’s song. It is achingly beautiful and regal. The dream is broken and the gentle slumber dispelled by ‘Un Beso’ with its latin american lilt (sung in Spanish) and flamenco twirl that flounces and spins in a shot burst. This segues effortlessly into ‘Broke My Pony’ with its equine trot and Andrew’s vocals never so dramatic and bold with a Burt Bacharach sonorous melodic flow.

‘Five Below’ could sit comfortably alongside a Simon and Garfunkel catalogue with its gentle harmonies and poignant delivery over the ripple guitars.

Of penultimate track and single ‘The Fates’, Andrew says:

 …in Celtic culture are essentially there to determine our destiny….in other words, we have little or no control as to how our life pans out. I’ve always been fascinated by this concept and to a degree believe that life is pretty much a ‘ride’, and plan as we might – things turn out however they do.

And so – this song takes that notion to the extreme where the people inhabiting the song have found themselves somewhere they’d never imagined they’d be. 

The result is something quite beautiful and reposed – in stark contrast to Andrew’s windmill drumming and wild demeanor you see when the Undies play.

The accompanying video directed by Kieran Doolan uses vintage photographs sourced from the NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive, Justice and Police Museum, and The U.S. National Archives and Defence Visual Information Distribution Service. Andrew says this takes up the theme about our helplessness in directing life’s path – in Shakespeare’s words, as flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport:

It’s in the eyes of most of the poor souls in the photographs that I get the sense that they can’t quite believe that they have found themselves at this desperate point in their lives.

It’s a moving depiction of fate:

With final track, ‘Six Hundred Nautical Miles’, the aquatic thread that weaves its way in and out of the album continues apace – an electronic thrum of white noise and disturbed radio patterns feed under a sparse piano tinkle, with a gale force thrum that ascends and segues into a reprise of ‘Holy O’, bolstered by deep harmonies. It’s like a sea shanty seeping through an enveloping fog, with mist and the cold air sweeping into the mind. Statuesque and beautiful, we are left with the vestiges of sound filtering through to a deep dark silence.

‘Black River’ is a momentous journey that travels across a widescreen vista filled with muted colours engendering a dreamy reverie. It feels intimate and raw at times and yet is carried by momentous all encompassing sonic waves that are immersive and moving. It leaves an impression of a sea voyaging exploration into an unknown universe, with a sound track of ghosts whispering into your ear, drawing you in and entreating you, seducing you, and leaving you shipwrecked on some distant shore. Bereft, discombobulated, exhausted but so very satisfied.

The album is out today and available to stream and download at all the usual places and though the link below.

Feature Photograph: Suzanne PhoenixPhotospunctuatemylife

Previous Premiere: Troubadour Mark Moldre's 'Every Waking Hour' is a sparkling gem filled with a poignancy and stature, released ahead of new album 'Nambucca Fables'.
Next Album Review: Dead Miranda unleash the anarchic and thoroughly satisfying 'Anima Pod': a brutal sonic assault with a soft heart.

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