Remembering The Lucksmiths

One thing I struggle to understand whenever I meet an Australian is how they never seem to have heard of The Lucksmiths.


For a time, it was also incredibly frustrating.  “But they’re yours !” I used to think, “How can you not know EVERYTHING about them ?”.  I was just hoping I would meet someone else who was something of a fan. More importantly someone who knew more than the little I did, so that they could recommend songs and albums to me, and educate me.

I first heard The Lucksmiths around 2002 when I was living in Hammersmith and my friend Su sent me a mix tape (a tape ! For playing in a tape deck !) of their songs.  I loved that tape, listening to it in that strange basement kitchen, cooking kedgeree after five-a-side.  It went missing in the move out of there, perhaps abducted by that bastard landlord of mine who withheld part of my deposit for my alleged theft of a saucepan lid (stolen for what ? wall-hanging ?).  Still, my enjoyment of The Lucksmiths’ music bubbled under while I was away travelling and the loss of that tape forced me to search them out.

In those days before smartphones, wifi, ipads and itunes, I did what anyone in my position would have done: I spent hours scouring my favourite record shops for a connection, but Selectadisc and Sister Ray couldn’t help.  Finally Oxford Circus HMV yielded up 2001’s “Why that doesn’t surprise me”. And thus my love for Mark, Marty, Tali (and eventually Louis) could take full and eternal root.

The sad news (brace yourselves) is that the lovely Lucksmiths split in August 2009. Having missed them once through sickness and once through incompetence I finally saw them that summer, playing Scala at Kings Cross on 8 July with support from Daniel Kitson (he was AWESOME) and ‘Allo Darlin’.  It was quite something to finally see them in the flesh and it was sometimes hard to purely enjoy the moment through sheer over-excitement.  I retained enough presence of mind to get a picture taken with the beautifully-sideburned singing drummer Tali White and to get his autograph for the aforementioned Su.  Then it was over.

But fear not, dear reader: for your listening pleasure (and mine of course) I have covered my recent commutes in Lucksmiths.  To be honest, it’s pretty rare that they ever come off my ipod, but over the last fortnight I have listened to every track of theirs that I own, most of them several times, in order to try and pick out the absolute best of them.  It has been a real education – reminding me joyfully of my perennial favourites, causing me to reassess some that I hadn’t given enough time to before, and confirming that some are a bit more for the purist.  So here are ten songs from one of my favourite bands of all time (plus some not-quite-but-nearlies at the end).  Search them out on Spotify or wherever and give them a try and then you will want to buy them and you can do that through Lost and Lonesome Records (who took them on post-Candle Records) or from a variety of online retailers.

“Cat in Sunshine” (from “First Tape”, released in 1993)

Although I love The Lucksmiths all over, I’m not including an enormous amount from their first few albums – some won’t feature here at all.  The degree of punnery and wordy playfulness is much higher on their earlier albums, and that is a pretty divisive force in music.  Just ask The Divine Comedy – a career limited by archness anyone ?  It is something key about The Lucksmiths, but they learnt to deploy it to much more devastating effect as they got older.  In their earlier recordings, I think their enthusiasm often got the better of them, which is ok for the established fan, but it’s not always easy on the new listener.  This song, however, is a peach: it shows off their carefree style, their willingness to write songs that don’t fit together like they ought to (this song is mixed very heavily in favour of the cheerful bass line), and their (then) knockabout sound.

“Jewel Thieves” (from “The Green Bicycle Case”, released in 1995)

You can hear that they’re learning on this song, and this album.  The songs are tighter, there aren’t any of the loose ends or half-thought-through interludes that occasionally let them down before.  Drums, guitars, and bass have got real snap and mesh perfectly. At 2:13 this song jogs in, tweaks your cheeks, kisses you, smacks a smile on your face and runs back out again, leaving screeching falsetto “yeah yeah yeahs” ringing in your ears.

“We are jewel thieves
But we’re such great guys
That it’s hard to believe
We’re so handsome they’ll pay the ransom

We are jewel thieves
With our hands In our pockets
And our hearts on our sleeves
But when we were arrested we were bare-chested”

“Under the Rotunda” (from “A Good Kind of Nervous”, released in 1997)

This is where it really started.  From the opening line of “It’s already Friday and soon it’ll be Friday night” I was hooked. Most people who know me have this song on a mix tape/minidisc/cd somewhere.  It is breathtaking, weekend-is-upon-us delight in song.  I still get a lump in the throat when I hear Tali sing “somewhere, over the railway line” with the production letting his burgeoning voice vibrate into the shadows of the growing evening, leaving you lonely and melancholy as the light turns from soft orange to blue, before picking you back up with “there’s a light on in your lounge room”.  And to top it all, a delightful horn part.

“Synchronised Sinking” (from “Why that doesn’t surprise me”, released in 2001)

Is it any coincidence that so many of these songs come from that tape that Su made ?  This was at the start of side 2, and there was some heavy rewinding going on back in those days in Holyport Road.  I was post-break up.  But not past break-up.  In fact it was in that house that she told me over the phone that she was already engaged to someone else.  “Synchronised Sinking” couldn’t have landed at a better time and I still struggle to think of a better song about coping with loves lost and letting your friends help you.  “Something’s obviously wrong, your face is all-day long”, they say, in the most accurate evocation of what it is like trying to talk to the lovelorn.  Marty Donald does a wonderful job of delivering the queasiness of trying to get your best friend to ‘fess up  – you don’t really know what to say, you feel really uncomfortable probing, you half want to help, half want to run away and all this makes you a little bit angry that they won’t just bloody well cheer up.  This song contains all of those emotions, and all of the techniques that go with them – the chivvying, the wheedling, the consoling, the reminding-of-happier-times, the empathising.  It might not have been the thing that tipped the balance in helping me get over her, but it certainly helped me keep afloat in some of the darker moments.

“T-Shirt Weather” (from “Where Were We ?”, released in 2002)

Exuberant, isn’t it ?  From the opening chords – pretty frenetic by The Lucksmiths’ standards – this song wants you to come out and play.  It’s a day with no commitments, cycling through the suburbs to find a friend with the wind careening through your hair:

“Hey Mike, you busy?
All this sunshine’s making me dizzy”

It’s also, for me, the end of the middle period of The Lucksmiths.  From the ramshackle, mates-in-a-band, lo-fi amusements of their opening period they had begun to really hit their stride.  There was an increasing amount of lead guitar work, the singing was stronger, the songs had more pop sparkle and the melodies were getting purer and sweeter.  After this album of rarities and unreleased tracks it was on to Naturaliste, the album in which their indie pop was purest and the sound they would perfect when, one more album on, fourth member Louis Richter was introduced.  “T-shirt weather” is a real charmer.

“Stayaway Stars” (from “Naturaliste”, released in 2003)

Sometimes everything is just shit because we’re all too lazy or self-absorbed to be nice to each other or to make a change. There’s nothing much to be said about it except that it’s not good enough, it’s shameful.  And we need to do something to slough it off and stop hurting each other.  What’s remarkable is how pretty The Lucksmiths have managed to make that sound with glockenspiel, trumpets, brushed drums and la-la-las.

“Take this lying down” (from “Naturaliste”)

This could realistically have been anyone of three jangly belters from Naturaliste and sits happily alongside “Camera-Shy” and “Midweek midmorning”.  These songs are the beating hearts of this gem of a pop record, bridging the gap between The Lucksmiths’ older, lower-fi sound and the strength and fullness of their newer material.  The guitar part insists on being listened to as a key element of the song in a way that wasn’t always true before now.  The drums are sharper and give a steadier drive.  The bass gives less of a melodic lead and instead provides a hefty dose of beefiness to the music.  Tali White’s voice still carries its wonderful, beautiful, unmistakeable Australian accent but his singing is much purer and more expressive now with a killer edge of vulnerability.

“Sunlight in a Jar” (from “Warmer Corners”, released in 2005)

This is a Lucksmiths archetype: breathlessly inventive words, a bounding rhythm of indie pop abandon, a lovesong of hopeless romanticism and stunningly honest analysis.

“We’ve never been much chop
At all that sensual stuff
One of us always seems to stop
Before the other’s had enough
Like a self-help manual that’s been written in Braille
It seems the more that we touch
The more we learn about our failings”

I don’t think you can take issue with this assessment of the reality of being with someone: the conflict between love and familiarity:

“I’m struck speechless by the nape of your neck
But your requests and suggestions
Have a similar effect
A litany of prettiness and pettiness, too
I reckon every second second
We come up with something new”

And this:

“Overblown libretto and a sumptuous score
Could never contain the contradictions I adore
We can just be chaos and then something aligns
It’s so hard to contain, maintain it or define it

I tried to write another chorus
But I didn’t get that far
‘Cause trying to sum you up in song
Is like catching sunlight in a jar”

“Fiction” (from “Warmer Corners“)

It took a little while but eventually this one dwarfed them all.  Pitchfork called it their “most ambitious” song and I can understand why.  The tone taken with the listener is not a usual Lucksmiths deceit and the lyrics are much more cryptic than before.  There’s something special too just in the sound of the words, in how they sit together; you can hear it in Tali White’s voice, that he’s especially enjoying the enunciation of this set of lyrics as they roll on from each other.  Although the song remains rooted in the everyday (“invited to a barbecue, I took refuge in the kitchen”) it’s a ghost story with obscured characters, missing sections of time, and a missed connection that could have been who knows what (but that we get the impression could have been a great love).  The sense of loss is palpable.  For me, the effect is that I will always wonder, on the edge of sadness, just like the narrator, about this “girl from Kansas City, with my favourite tattoo”.

“A Sobering Thought (Just When One Was Needed)” (from “First Frost”, released in 2009)

This is The Lucksmiths as they went out: bigger and bolder than ever before.  “First Frost” is a confident-sounding record with lush production and a lot of booming guitar work – including this crunchy number.  Evocation, evocation, evocation.  I’ve never yet been to Oz but I feel like I was there with them and the “friend I seldom see” during this heavy-drinking reunion that lurched into a trespassing late-night swim.  In the closing part of the song, Tali sings “a sobering thought” and the band answer “just when one was needed”, bringing to mind a party of cheerful drunks wandering past your bedroom window last thing at night, fading slowly as they go, only this time you want to throw some clothes on, pad silently down the stairs, slip out the front door, and join them…

“Atop the cyclone fence
I could almost see the sense in heading home
But the laughter of a friend
From the shadows of the shallow end…”

Also starring:

  • Pines (First Frost)
  • The Lament of the Chiming Wedgebill (First Frost)
  • Little Athletics (A Good Kind of Nervous)
  • Caravanna (A Good Kind of Nervous)
  • he Music Next Door (Warmer Corners)
  • The Fog of Trujillo (Warmer Corners)
  • Macintyre (What Bird is that ?)
  • All the recipes I’ve ever ruined (Why that doesn’t surprise me)
  • Fear of rollercoasters (Why that doesn’t surprise me)
  • The Sandringham Line (Naturaliste)
  • Midweek midmorning (Naturaliste)
  • Smokers in Love (Staring at the Sky)
  • A Chapter in Your Life Entitled San Francisco (Warmer Corners)
  • The Great Dividing Range (Why that doesn’t surprise me)
  • The year of driving languorously (Why that doesn’t surprise me)
  • Off with his cardigan ! (What Bird Is That ?)

Also starring:

Although the band is over, the members live on:

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  1. Watta
    May 15, 2015

    My life changed back in ’96’ when I first saw these lads on a Wednesday night at the Dan O’Connell bar Carlton, Melbourne. Lost count of the many times I get to see them and even when living in UK, got to see them in Manchester.
    Now I get to see my kids enjoying them and singing along. Ahhhh I do miss them, but as the saying goes, ‘it is better to have lost, than not to have had at all’. Or something like that 😉

  2. DLJ
    September 1, 2020

    I’ve stumbled across this site and while these previous posts are old I thought I’d just share something.
    I first heard the Lucksmiths while on a marine research vessel in the middle of the north Atlantic in about 1997 – one of the crew had picked up the tape of First Tape when the vessel was docked in Oz one time.

    I started to buy the CDs direct from Candle records – big parcels that would take weeks to get from Melbourne to the UK.

    When I was younger the jangly, up-tempo songs were my faves, but as I get older I get drawn more to the melancholy Lucksmiths and while you’ve mentioned it in passing, I think the greatest of their songs is ‘The Sandringham Line’ on Naturaliste. There’s something about that tune, and the dual vocal with a female voice, which really captures me.

    • September 1, 2020

      Thanks for sharing Dafydd! A lovely tale of the universality of how music gets under our skins – Chris

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