With its empty highways, lonesome deserts and frontier culture, it’s no surprise that country music seems to make sense down under. While Australia has spawned mega-selling, Nashville-gazing artists like Keith Urban, country has also been a source of influence for some of its most exciting and literate artists outside of the mainstream.
Hailing from the seaside town of Torquay, 60 miles from Melbourne, 24-year-old Fraser A Gorman is the latest young Australian songwriter to follow in the footsteps of the likes of The Triffids and The Go-Betweens, who both dabbled with elements of country.
Strangely, though, one of the records that his debut Slow Gum most resembles is The Kinks’ Muswell Hillbillies. Released in 1971, the band’s ninth album saw Ray Davies take some of the tropes of country music – fiddles, pedal steel and the like – and mangle them into a statement that both reflects and emanates Englishness. Similarly, Gorman works these same hallmarks into an unmistakably Australian style.
Where The Triffids had “Wide Open Road”, Gorman has “Big Old World”, which opens the album in surprisingly intimate style, just the singer and his guitar, rising out of background buzz. And while David McComb sang of “crying in the wilderness”, Gorman deals with a more urban angst. “I know about the guy from North Melbourne,” he croons softly. “He nearly killed himself/Sipping life from a lead-paint-filled balloon.”
The musical horizons soon widen, with “My Old Man” crashing in with gypsy fiddle and some Crazy Horse-style chugging guitar, Gorman singing enigmatically about a heartache “bigger than Goliath’s beard”. He channels The Velvet Underground on “Dark Eyes”, both in its title and its “Sunday Morning”-like electric strumming; soon, though, the chugging guitars are joined by a chorus of saxophones. The trippier “Mystic Mile” also builds to an ornate climax, the opening acoustic guitars blossoming into a haze of organs, pedal steel, Mellotron and airy backing vocals.
Perhaps taking inspiration from Bob Dylan – as he surely has with his hairstyle – Gorman has a skill with simple, touching metaphors. “Hey, my old boy,” he sings on “My Old Man”, “I can see your eyes for miles/They’re like two birds flying in the sun.” On “Broken Hands”, the most immediate song here, he describes his lover shaking “like a six-year-old’s wobbly tooth/String on the door knob…”
Like his friend Courtney Barnett, who starred in the video for “Shiny Gun” (repaying his appearance in Barnett’s “Avant Gardener” promo), Gorman makes this all look rather easy, as if the words are tumbling from his head straight onto tape, an honesty he shares with the best country music. On most of Slow Gum, too, Gorman works with well-worn chord sequences and yet manages to conjure up melodies that feel arresting and new, a feat that The Go-Betweens’ Grant McLennan often managed.
The songwriting is a joy throughout, and yet the ten tracks here are also aided by consistently excellent production. Every track is coated in gorgeous reverb and echo, moving the whole very much into the present, while the potent arrangements never overwhelm Gorman’s voice as it lazily floats its way through his strummed reveries.
At the end of Slow Gum, though, we’re fittingly left back where we started, with just the songwriter, his acoustic guitar and a harmonica, picking his path through “Blossom & Snow”. He recalls returning to his hometown, where there’s “nothing left” for him, and alludes to the death of his father when he was a boy. “So little bird sing,” he entreats. “Sing it to me, sing it sweetly, on my way down.” It’s a moving end to a confident debut, a record that is greater still than the sum of its impressive parts.
Fraser A Gorman
What’s country music like in Australia?
In America, it’s like pretty much 95% of country music is really shit, but the 5% that’s good is absolutely incredible. Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle and Guy Clark, that kind of stuff… Country music is a bit like that over here, mainstream country is pretty awful. If you went into rural towns and mentioned Townes Van Zandt, no-one would know who the fuck you were talking about. I just kind of lean on country music a bit because I like the songs.
How was the recording process for Slow Gum?
It was recorded with a few band lineups, it took a while. I sort of didn’t really know what I was doing. The record was also written over a long time as well. It was a long yet enjoyable experience and I learnt a lot about lots of things making it, but it was all really positive. I’m kind of glad that it came out how it came out.
Having the two solo acoustic tracks bookend the album really works…
I wrote pretty much all the songs on the record sitting on my bed in this shitty shared house in Melbourne that was really cold and the roof was caving in and all that shit. So I suppose the first and the last song are as close as you can get to listening to me playing on the end of my bed.
INTERVIEW: TOM PINNOCK
The History Of Rock – a brand new monthly magazine from the makers of Uncut – a brand new monthly magazine from the makers of Uncut – is now on sale in the UK. Click here for more details.
Meanwhile, the September 2015 issue of Uncut is on sale in the UK on Tuesday, July 28 – featuring David Gilmour, a free Grateful Dead CD, Bob Dylan and the Newport Folk Festival, AC/DC, Killing Joke, the Isley Brothers, Julien Temple, Ryley Walker and more.
Uncut: the spiritual home of great rock music.