Reviews

The Pop Myth: Alex Cameron’s Jumping the Shark reviewed

AlexCameronJumpingTheShark3a5f5fAlex Cameron is a hack. He’s a showbiz guy. He’s a guy who says he’s a showbiz guy. He’s been around the traps. He is exhausted by the world’s ambivalence to his genius and he does not suffer fools. He’s a showbiz guy who knows nobody in showbiz. Alex Cameron is the mythical genius at your suburban RSL, and he is a nightmare. His handsome well-wrought face is peeling and scarred, and he may not be real. You’d better touch his face to make sure.

In his own words, Alex Cameron’s debut record Jumping The Shark “is a story about all which ways [sic] you can fail and believe me you are going to one way or the other. I wanted each track to allow for a story to be told. The music is ground floor. The words take you up to the lookout.”

On his personal website, Alex Cameron often insists that his lyrics are worth soaking up for the philosophical truths they may contain.

In actual fact, Alex Cameron is a Sydney artist who has worked for many years as part of electronic trio Seekae. The trio is not unsuccessful. The trio does not have worldwide kitchen table renown but it is doing okay, for a Sydney electronic trio. Seekae is a capable and enjoyable electronic trio specialising in music which is just nice. Seekae has released two critically well-received records and when they release a new .mp3 people tend to care, which is close to the epitome of success as far as Sydney electronic trios go.

Seekae is Alex Cameron’s biggest failure. In order to appreciate Alex Cameron, you must forget that Seekae exists.

Alex Cameron, as Alex Cameron, strives for kitchen table renown but is the embodiment of failure. His debut record Jumping The Shark, released independently in 2013 but now available on LP through Siberia Records, is a vehicle for a make-believe failure. Alex Cameron is your uninteresting uncle making beats in Garageband, and occasionally namedropping industry powerhouses no one has ever known and who may never have existed. He wears leather jackets indoors and smokes mini-cigars between courses. Alex Cameron probably bought a beer for Michael Chugg back in the ‘80s, only to be ignored. He may have gone on a bender with the guy who booked The Excelsior in the mid ’90s.

‘Alex Cameron’ is a joke, but not a joke Cameron will readily admit to. He is steadfast in his roleplaying. Read through his surreally retro website and you’ll find a compellingly pathetic universe of empty self-affirmation, preemptive artistic defense and lurid self-promotion. When scrolling through his hugely entertaining website it is easy to forget that he is a musician at all. Alex Cameron is a joke. He is a viral marketing campaign. He is a myth, and the myth is probably pissed that AU Review gave him a 7.7 score for his debut record. Ball Park Music’s new one got 9.0.

In light of all this, it feels contrary to say his record is actually good, and it feels more disingenuous to say that it’s good despite the depressing universe Cameron has built around it. The record is not amazing, it’s not something I’d highly recommend to everyone, but it’s a record I enjoy listening to divorced from the myth. Basically: the music is not a mere punchline to the website, which I wholly expected it would be. Overall, the unexpected competence of Jumping The Shark as a piece of music you can happily listen to without applying several layers of lead-strong ironic straightjacket, serves Alex Cameron’s concept very well.

Failure

Cameron recently posted a video (embedded above) tracing his adventures at the South by Southwest festival in Texas. The short documentary presents a day-in-the-life of an aspiring artist at a global industry showcase, desperate to be recognised but resigned to the impenetrable nature of the global independent music hype machine. In the documentary, Cameron’s hotel is a distant roadside dive in an off-the-chart suburb, far away from the throbbing heart of Austin. It sets the scene for a film which bleakly reveals how futile the rags-to-riches pop/rock star myth is: he is far away, hiking on an eight lane highway kilometres from the sex and drugs at the city’s centre. He’s flown eleven hours from Sydney to be close to the oyster of success, but it’s still too inaccessible. On top of that, he’s chintzy. He’s uncool. He’s got no hope. He’s a loser. Alex Cameron sucks. He’s too showbiz. He’s not showbiz enough.

The world of Alex Cameron is very funny but it is also very sad. It is sad and funny in the way that many headstrong yet reputedly lacklustre artists are. People love to poke fun at ‘headstrong yet lacklustre’ artists because it reinforces the genius myth at the heart of pop music, but even the genius myth is a ruse papering over uglier truths.

Jan Terri, for example, is a Chicago-born pop musician who is best known for how reputedly terrible she is. When people share Jan Terri videos on social media, it is often because she is not a conventionally pretty woman. The joke is that she’s not a conventionally pretty woman and yet, there she is, acting like a pop star. Her audacity is the joke. Her hope is the joke. The dissonance is a joke. She is a joke because it is shocking to see someone who does not look like a pop star, acting like a pop star.

Terri’s most famous song, ‘Losing You’ (embedded above), is a gorgeous and infectious pop song, and yet it is not taken seriously because she is not conventionally beautiful. She is not shaped like a pop star. She exists in an errant slipstream of pop, where it is executed by plumbers or tuckshop mums or Brian from accounts. It is an unfathomable underbelly open to ridicule because pop music is not meant to present any blemishes, and it is not meant to be executed by normal looking people. Even a sophisticated 21st century pop artist like Lorde, adored by sophisticated people the world over, is considered a brave deity when she posts Instagram photos of her acne.

Jan Terri released ‘Losing You’ in 1993, but it didn’t blossom as an anti-pop classic until YouTube. Now, we relish the unsuccesses of pop as eagerly as we do the successes. In fact, pop music in the internet age seems to bond people based on what they object to more so than what they agree on. The bad has more stickiness than the good, because badness, mediocrity, patheticness, is virtually the only shock-and-awe tactic pop music has left in its arsenal.

The truly terrible is bracing and fascinating. Watching people fail is gratifying because it redeems those – most of us – who do not try. We can be shocked at someone’s futile audacity, but we cannot be shocked by much else. Why isn’t this arsehole in the trenches with us, and what makes he or she so special that they think they can transcend it? We see an imperfection and we toss a hook into it, and drag them through the muck. Rebecca Black, RAED, Dirty Boyz – they’re all considered pathetic because they tried and failed on our terms, but wouldn’t it have been more pathetic had they not tried at all?

Alex Cameron wields this modern appetite for failure. He knows you’re more likely to listen to him because someone said he’s remarkably shit. In some ways, Alex Cameron the man – ie, not the imagined, mythical, patently pathetic Alex Cameron, but the actual Alex Cameron – is the most canny businessman in pop music. He knows that the only way to drag you into his clutches is to make you ogle at him. You want to watch every permutation of his failure, in all its bloodied, cartilaged detail. You are fascinated by his unfounded self-belief, and by his unhip and arcane approaches to The Music Industry. He knows that the only four-minute bracket in your day he’s likely to gain access to is the one you’ll spend watching something which further barricades the entry points to Proper Stardom. He knows you’ll watch him because someone said he’s outstandingly shit.

And then he goes ahead and sells you a reasonably decent pop record. You just bought into a new pop myth that no one wants to make official.

Success

None of Alex Cameron’s songs are as good as ‘Losing You’ by Jan Terri (because few are), but they’re mostly very good. Sometimes, due to the strength of songs like ‘Happy Ending’, with its immaculately minimal bass lines and the plainly-spoken severity of Cameron’s lyrics, you wonder whether the myth is a cloak for an artist lacking confidence. Maybe Cameron did not have sufficient belief in his ability to write pop songs like this. Maybe he needed to buffer them with this fiction in order to shield himself from ridicule, as a member of a respected Sydney electronic trio. Maybe there’s a part of the real Alex Cameron which fears becoming the fictional Alex Cameron. That would be very sad. I hope this is not the case.

Because as a lean and infectious synth-pop record Jumping the Shark is outstanding, and it deserves to be listened to. One of Cameron’s early singles, ‘She’s Mine’, is a lyrically and musically interesting song if you don’t know about the Alex Cameron myth, but then, it is even more interesting if you do. Alex Cameron recognises that his music will fail on pop music’s terms, and so he focuses on its imperfections. His fiction justifies the blemishes and makes them a story, and yet, without the story the blemishes align him with a milieu of artists whose imperfections are their selling points. He has his cake and eats it too.

In an early ‘album trailer’ for Alex Cameron’s record (a pervasive and transparently amateur Web 2.0 method of promoting music), he is depicted peeling his face off in a shower. It is a grotesque piece of film which undermines any hope Cameron may have of being a sexy, iconoclastic, orthodox pop artist. That’s the beauty of it though: the only hope Cameron has to be that icon, that showbiz doyen, is to peel away the skin and become someone else. You must be beautiful to be important. Alex Cameron could not be himself for this record. Not now. Maybe Alex Cameron’s universe is a charade, and he really believes in these songs. I think he does. I hope he does.

*

Alex Cameron’s Jumping the Shark is available through Siberia Records.

Standard
Reviews

Finding Freedom: Ruined Fortune reviewed

artworks-000069269093-ntlm85-t500x500It’s easy to trace the origins of Ruined Fortune within Sydney’s music community. Angela Bermuda (Circle Pit, Angie) and Nic Warnock are a recording two-piece (the live band also includes Sam Chiplin and Jon Duncan) who both discovered the city’s underground more or less at the same age, and within half a decade defined a small percentage of the city’s musical aesthetic. It was inevitable that they would eventually collaborate, and the timing of their first LP comes at an interesting personal intersection between the two.

Warnock has been progressively moving into weirder territory (see his Exotic Dog project and the evolution of the RIP Society release schedule) while Bermuda – with her recent solo release Turning – has been working hesitantly away from Circle Pit’s dirgery towards a classic rock realm. The Ruined Fortune LP loosely borders the midpoint of these two directions – either in leaving or arriving at what could be seen as each other’s territory – and the record retains the feeling of pushing at those fences.

The approach of Bermuda and Warnock here is like a butcher’s paper brainstorm that no one wanted to refine. It’s a mess of conflicting ideas: grunts that fight moans for space, melodies that blow like tumbleweed past oversized riffs and subject matter that, but for the landmark ‘Closing Till’, is hard to pin down among the noise. It’s not sprawling so much as strewn across the fields, but there’s a definite form that’s created by its physicality.

This sprawling effect is likely a result of both the erratic Ruined Fortune aesthetic and the involvement of Cured Pink’s Andrew McLellan in the studio (someone with an innate ability to introduce turbidity to whatever he touches), with the trio mixing muddy distractions through guttural rock songs. They could’ve played this straight (in fact, Angie did with Turning), but there’s too much going on here to be that easily controlled. This kind of record can only come out of collaboration; maybe even a slightly uncomfortable one.

The vocal delivery is forever strained, words that push at restraints before being plunged into thickets of distortion. Bermuda and Warnock fight each other for space on ‘In A Hole,’ Bermuda grits her teeth on ‘Black and Red’ and a couple of minutes pass on ‘All Seeing Eye’ before anyone clears their head to approach the microphone: it’s damaged. Hearing Warnock drawl “the fear of failure takes a hold of me” on ‘On the Screen’ is like tapping the wire of a tensioned fence: even at rest it carries a load that stretches a mile.

Ruined Fortune’s persistent self-description as a “freedom rock” act might be a joke about the hog-on-the-road quality of the band’s guitar-driven core (Warnock even used to wear a red bandana at Ruined Fortune shows to fit this character), but there’s probably some other truths to that. This record has a certain chaos, maybe because both songwriters have been removed from their comfort zone. They’ve been separated from their close confidants and made to table ideas without any backup for a veto. The record sounds full of conflict and tension, but it thunders ahead anyway. Ruined Fortune carries an engine so powerful that the whole machine falls apart as it runs.

*

Ruined Fortune is available through Hozac Records.

Standard
New Music

Listen: Ruined Fortune – Black and Red

artworks-000069269093-ntlm85-t500x500

Lately I’ve finally gotten around to listening to this debut Ruined Fortune LP, which is newly available through Hozac Records. The Sydney group features Angela Bermuda from Circle Pit, Straight Arrows and… um, Angie as well as Nic Warnock from Bed Wettin’ Bad Boys, Exotic Dog and Model Citizen. It also features contributions from members of Cured Pink, Blank Realm and Per Purpose, among others. We discussed it briefly with Angie during this recent interview.

The track below, ‘Black and Red’, is good but it’s not wholly representative of what the self-titled LP has to offer. The record wavers between dark and dirgy rock and more delicate (but still dirty) tracks that bend slightly in the direction of weird basement pop ala The Shadow Ring. Either way, it balances the two instincts with a better sense of cohesion than I expected, and I intend to write further on it soon (so expect a review in 2015 at my current rate of work).

Standard
Reviews

The Bodies Below The Streets: Oily Boys’ Majesty reviewed

OilyBoys_large
Oily Boys’ band name can occasionally be seen spray-painted on brick walls, toilet doors and discarded mattresses in pockets around Sydney’s inner-west. It lends them what feels like a pack mentality, but if they’re a crew they’re a seemingly disparate one. Few bands appear to be made up of such separate personalities than Oily Boys: only one of the members, for example, would be doing any of the tagging.

This works for them. Oily Boys don’t exist to exclude anyone or anything like some might assume of a band with defiant hardcore associations. Oily Boys’ brand of skewered punk carries all the charred remnants of their disparate influences, a clustered mess of punk, metal and hardcore sieved through Drew Bennett’s haggard screams and Dizzy’s caged guitars.

Continuing on from a 2012 demo cassette, Oily Boys’ 7” Majesty differs by an extra degree of power lent by the crisp recording. Many songs have parts that are completely absurd. The snapping guitars towards the end of ‘Rabbit’s Foot’ for example, or the guitar on ‘Arctic Ibis’ which pretty much sounds like trying in vain to shake an entrenched pocket of water from your ear.

It’s not just a hardcore 7”, if the off-pink cover hadn’t already given that away. At one point in ‘Rabbit’s Foot’ the bassline jumps the gun on the rest of the pack and carries on only with Yuta’s maniacally overworked cymbals as company. The crew eventually catches up and powers through a united front, but it’s clear through Bennett’s vocals that there’s a psychotic element at play among the netting of a world of strange ideas.

There are five songs on Majesty, all focusing on murder or at least with that connotation. In order, they’re about the following:

1) Drowning and fucking a man before wearing his skin as a suit.

2) Stalking, trapping and tormenting someone who has broken someone’s heart.

3) Delusions of godliness while standing over a sea of corpses.

4) A honeymooning couple that walks a beach oblivious to a corpse floating face-down in the water.

5) An expression of disappointment that someone wasn’t at the scene of a violent disfigurement.

These are obviously not things that are relatable to anyone who is listening, but the evocations of rage, contempt and violent desire will always be an exciting outlet for the otherwise repressed citizen.

Through Bennett’s maniacal delivery, these songs come across like the angry diary entries of an in-mate on the precipice of release; fanciful threats written on scraps of paper, folded sharply and placed in the shirt pocket of a mad-man who doesn’t really plan on doing anything. In reality he stands quietly at the back of the room and fantasises about the downfall of his enemies. It’s delusion and escapism at its finest.

*

Oily Boys’ Majesty is available through Distort and Eternal Soundcheck.

Standard
New Music

Listen: Vodka Sparrows – Nestle Up To Me Dear Fool

unnamed
Vodka Sparrows is the duo of Anthony Guerra (Love Chants) and Mark Leacy (Castings, Hour House). This cassette, entitled Nestle Up To Me Dear Fool, was originally recorded in 2005 but hasn’t seen the light of day until now.

Listening to the excerpt below, it’s easy to identify the Love Chants connection. It’s sad, deep night instrumental music with a slightly dark edge which isn’t present on the two Love Chants EPs. The tape is available through Alberts Basement.

Standard