It’s a little difficult to tell whether or not Superstar are poking fun. The title of this album and its tracklist almost read like a series of quietly apologetic in-jokes regarding the band’s sound – primitive drum machine; pristine 80s keys; illustrative guitar noodling; whispery, sensuous vocals. It brazenly parades the sonic signifiers of non-descript downtempo pop or TV movie soundtracks from that era, but it refuses to be taken at face value. Calling these exquisite tracks things like ‘Fine Wine’ or ‘Deep Heat’, and laughingly branding your band as ‘Adult Contemporary’, feels like a challenge to the listener to hear past the facade… or a middle finger to those too lazy or callous to bother.
Closer listens bring more concrete allusions to the fore. Parts of A Toast To… sound very much like transition-era Talk Talk unspooling their introspective anti-blues. The guitar sometimes brings to mind early Durutti Column or Mark Knopfler’s soundtrack to Local Hero. It’s worth noting that this record is pretty dark in places, too. ‘Deep Heat’ seems to touch on late-period Earth, then Brightblack Morning Light, and then Om doing their best ‘Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun’ impression, all in the span of about a minute. It dapples the listener with an extraordinary array of moods and shades, evoking the patterns thrown by the shifting shadows of an ornate tree bough on a windy day.
But any associations that the music may bring up for you shouldn’t be lent too much weight. The album may look to the past, built, as it is, with tools that recall distantly familiar and incidental music, but valuing it solely on its appropriation of faded signifiers is a waste. This is a deceptively clever record that boasts three inventive and evocative instrumentals bookended by two sublimely forlorn pop songs. It’s music that’s more potent and simpler than most you’re likely to find on any of this year’s most fetishised Australian releases.
It’s perfectly valid to hear it as a retro-homage – as a record that does little more than conjure something indefinable lurking in the psyches of a generation of Australians that grew up watching TV and half-ignoring commercial radio in the 80s. But dismissing this music because of its surface aesthetic is unwise. If you like, use it as a bridge to the album’s understated and unassumingly dextrous songs. You can listen to it as a shiny nostalgic artefact if that works for you, but it’s much more rewarding considered as a unique, informed, and well-written piece of pop music that also poses as an aesthetic riddle.
A Toast To… effortlessly manages something that many bands aspire to – making potent art of past relics – and even transcends it as irrelevant. It almost hurts to think that most of those who should really hear this won’t even know it exists.
Label: Bedroom Suck
Release date: February 2013