The Lucksmiths - First Frost Review

Indie isn’t really a musical genre even though it’s frequently labeled as one. But it does make for a description, one I grudgingly admit to using more than is likely necessary. But sometimes it just fits. And few bands on the planet have earned that portrayal more than Melbourne’s the Lucksmiths.

Strictly speaking, indie describes everything not released on a major label—yes, even Sun Records was technically an indie label, making artists like Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley among the earliest of indie rockers. But indie is generally used as a way to describe a general aesthetic, one that supports the DIY-ethic, an alternative approach to songwriting/recording, a general preference for intimacy and an allergic reaction to polish. There are, naturally, exceptions to these rules, and numerous indie groups sound like majors and vice versa, but the best way to figure it out is pretty simple: if you heard it on the radio during prime driving hours, it’s a pretty safe bet that Universal, Sony, Warner or EMI wanted you to hear it.

Whether the Lucksmiths would welcome the media attention or not (I suspect the latter), there’s absolutely no reason why one or more of the four majors shouldn’t target this group. They’ve been around long enough (First Frost is their ninth full-length studio album, and they have several EPs in addition) so they have a built-in fanbase. They’re fairly traditional in their approach to songwriting—neither dangerous nor dull. And they have an uncanny ability to write perfectly pleasant pop songs. If the Lucksmiths have a niche, it was carved only out of the necessity of mild anonymity. I doubt there is a person alive that can’t embrace at least half of these songs. Even if the tunes fail to inspire a passionate response in certain closed-off individuals, derision could only be summoned by the sourest of fools.

Specializing in the gentle guitar-driven pop rock made famous by the likes of the Go-Betweens, Belle & Sebastian, Belly and the Wedding Present, they know their way around a pop song, and find imaginative ways to force even the most subdued of hooks deep into the brain. Witness “California in Popular Song,” with its whimsical, twinkling guitar line, sun-drenched pastoral folk decadence and hushed vocalizing both sighing and direct. Or try out the funereal “The National Mitten Registry.” Slow, spare and somber (if a bit too lyrically precious—love for mittens?), it gradually collects steam without ever upping the tempo. Simple and effective, they know how to crackle a fire over the iciest of landscapes, drawing in each of their breaths with those from our own lungs. They even dabble in old-style country western duets on “Lament of the Chiming Wedgebill,” built around a twangy guitar trot and accented with acute harmonica flourishes. And when the music gets really quiet just before the placid shoegaze climax of “How We Met,” you realize that this is how Chris Carrabba should have been doing it all along.

But don’t think that this is an entirely sedate and subtle affair. Try out the buoyantly melodic but pristinely potent “A Sobering Thought,” arguably the album’s catchiest track. Or if you prefer velocity, listen to the locomotive guitar of “Never & Always.” That chugging crunch comes courtesy of recently-added guitarist, Louis Richter, who acquits himself nicely as writer and performer both, penning that song as well as the more warmly unfolding charms of leadoff, “The Town and the Hills.” I imagine his rougher edge helped increase the impact of the bouncy, Silver-Jews-on-Ritalin winner, “South East Coastal Rendezvous.” The Lucksmiths were once dominated by acoustic guitars, but the way they blend them with electric now is quite impressive.

If the album opens strongly, it may very well close even better. “Song of the Undersea” and “Up with the Sun” nearly match guitarist Marty Donald’s earlier one-two punch of “Sobering” and “California”; jangly pop nuggets with effervescent harmonies layered over plucky percussion. “Pines” is a gorgeously melancholic mid-tempo ballad, one of the band’s finest slow tracks in their long history—the strings that take over in the second half accentuate the internal turmoil. The phrases that singer/drummer Tali White sing over this cut are suitably sensitive: “I went through all my winter clothes/And quiet was the only thing I kept,” and, “I don't mean to suggest I'm getting older/But the city looks better over my shoulder.” As for the final song (“Who Turned on the Lights?”), it’s not a classic by any stretch of the imagination, but the use of an organ and (I think) cowbell in an entirely logical way suggests that they’re even more sonically inventive than originally suspected.

One of the keys to the Lucksmiths’ success comes in the way they can be effortlessly loose in their arrangements while remaining songwriters as tight as the most frenzied rock acts around. It’s easygoing music, to be sure, but entirely uncluttered and lacking in pretension. The addition of strings and horns to several songs never feels superfluous or forced purely for a twee/chamber pop effect. And as a vocalist, White has the straightforward, mild-mannered dignity and understated effect that Badly Drawn Boy promised us years ago. Luckily, this group has more staying power. After more than fifteen years of recording, here’s looking forward to fifteen more. Maybe one day they’ll be as popular as they ought to, but I’m not holding my breath.

"First Frost" is on sale November 4, 2008 from Matinee.

Matt Medlock


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