Album Review: The Underground Lovers – Staring at you Staring at Me

In 2013, after a nine year hiatus, Melbourne’s legendary The Underground Lovers returned triumphantly with the album “Weekend” – listed as one of Backseat Mafia’s favourite releases for that year. Luckily, this time round we have not been kept waiting so long – four years later and they are back in business with the release of “Staring at you Staring at me”. And it’s business as usual.

Affectionately known as the Undies, The Underground Lovers are in my opinion one of the best bands coming out of the Antipodean region – both in the past and, on the evidence of their recent output, into the future. Their lush fragile sound, interwoven with a degree of muscular rawness developed at the same time yet independently of the UK shoegaze scene – they flirted briefly with the big time in the early nineties getting signed to Polydor but quit when attempts were made to fashion their sound into something more accessible and audience friendly and create MTV videos. As singer Vincent Giarrusso once told Backseat Mafia, they hated all the “fake prancing and carry on” bands have to go through in videos.

The band’s unique sound is a meld between Glenn Bennie’s raw angry guitar and lush electronica over the distinctive wandering bass lines of Maurice Argiro, all capped by the vocals of Vincent Giarrusso and Philippa Nihill who take it in turns to sing. Giarrusso’s voice is wry and observational, Nihill’s floats softly over the top.

“Staring at you Staring at me” was originally going to be called “Melbournism”, reflecting the lyrical themes of the album and as an ode to their home city.

Opening track “St Kilda Regret” gives a nod to one of the iconic Australian Football League teams and the sense of despair at always following the losing team. With Nihill’s melancholic dream-like vocals and the wall of sound guitars: I like my team but not what they’ve done to me…I’m feeling down, I’m feeling St Kilda Regret. It is a beautiful reverie that captures a snapshot of the suburb of St Kilda itself – a faded seaside den of iniquity with a heart of gold.

“You Let The Sunshine Pass You By” is classic Undies – Giarrusso’s fragile, emotive vocals capturing an uncertainty that seems to be a nod to the famously capricious Melbourne weather. The classic anthemic, haunting tone is ever present – the acoustic jangle and driving beat and the Australian colloquialisms – and then I bag you out – all creates a very personal melancholia.

To me there are two main Undies personalities – this haunting layered style that mixes the electronic with the acoustic, and then there is the more angry abrasive side with shouty vocals and unfiltered and unadorned guitar. I’ve noticed it is often the latter that become singles, and tracks three and four prove no exception.

“The Conde Nast Trap” wakes you up like a slap in the face – it is an angry and visceral blast against hypocrisy. Lyrically, the song seems to be about facades that can entice you – thinking about the other times and the promises you made – making me think about the way Melbourne is often marketed – the sophisticated world of exotic travel and Conde Nast publications.

This track is followed by “The Rerun” – another rumbling insistent slice of Undies cynicism that is undercut by sixties bubblegum interludes. Here is the video – unadorned by any prancing band members:

“I’ve Seen It All” is a return to the more contemplative Undies with Nihill’s voice adding a world weary touch to the catchy chorus and the distant chatter of kids in the playground. It’s a beautiful and yet heart wrenching song.

The lilting tone and jaunt of “It’s the Way It’s Marketed” provides that classic Undies tension – a frilly bounce undercut by a more serious message about complicity and acquiescence stuck in the double bind of love and hate. The almost cheesy synth addition augments this inherent tension. This is a powerful message that could be interpreted as a statement against the growing presence of the racist right in Australian politics, which strikes a serious note in a city known for its multiculturalism.

Clocking in at just over seven minutes, “Glamnesia” builds up relentless, crescending layers of raw guitars and white noise. Giarrusso’s vocals are distant and urgent, regretful and melancholic at the same time, eventually subsumed by a cataclysmic barrage of noise. It’s an uneasy song that leaves you feeling emotionally distraught and exhausted, with all the hallmarks of an aural assault in the vein of The Velvet Underground at their most innovative.

“Every Sign” brings you back to sanity with a strong hot cup of tea – Argiro’s bass rumbling underneath a harmonised guitar blast.

The album closes with the first single off the album: “Unbearable” which lets you down softly before sending you off – it has an acoustic chime and a more reflective Giarrisso:

My first impression of this album is that of anger, uncertainty and dissociation – perhaps a reflection of the changes in geopolitics since “Weekend” was released three years ago. There is certainly a rawness to the album as a whole and yet the capacity for the Underground Lovers to portray beauty and hope at the same time – both musically and lyrically – remains undiminished. This album takes its place proudly amongst the band’s incredible catalogue of work. For those unfamiliar with the Undies, I strongly recommend searching out their earlier albums.

The album is released in May and can be pre-ordered here or through Rubber Records. The album will be launched on 12 May 2017 in Melbourne at the Northcote Social Club followed by gigs in Sydney on 18 and 19 May at Leadbelly in Newtown (the gig on 19 May has already sold out). Backseat Mafia will be reviewing the gig in Melbourne so keep an eye out for this.

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