A bunch of mates start a band. They move from their native Canberra to the big smoke in Sydney. They lose some members, change their name and direction but also manage to win a campus band competition. They self-fund their debut single and hand-decorate the individual sleeves, which earns them greater popularity and support from a label. Soon there is a debut album and they ride the crest of the wave for a short time only to implode with some members forming different musical projects to varying success while others get “adult” jobs. Sound familiar? It seems like elements of this story have had parallels with the vast majority of Australian acts since time immortal.
The aforementioned is actually The Lighthouse Keepers’ story. While they were contemporaries of The Triffids, Laughing Clowns and The Go-Betweens and were beloved by the fans they accumulated over 300 shows in the three short years they were active; they have been often overlooked and over-shadowed by the legacies of the latter bunch. This may change however with the release of Ode To Nothing, a compilation of singles and the hand-picked, best numbers from their discography.
The Lighthouse Keepers weapon of choice – like The Triffids and Go-Betweens – was the acoustic guitar. At first they used this to produce lo-fi sounds that suited their recording set-up, which was not far removed from the equipment found in the studios of the sixties (remember not everyone was rich and drenched in eighties excess). But in time they would also grow in leaps and bounds, adding extra layers to make richer, more dense recordings that musically would encompass everything from jangly, guitar-infused pop to post-punk rock; country-fused blues (courtesy of the slide guitar) to ballads, and even jazz. The constant thing in this soundscape was the sweet, ethereal and unique vocals of frontwoman, Juliet Ward.
Their most quoted work is single, “Gargoyle”, the one that was subject to the DIY treatment for its production and artwork. On first listen it may seem a little haunting in sound but it is actually about the dawning of sexual experience i.e. one that can be equally anxious, unnerving and ultimately exciting and joyous. It was this combination of black and white elements through music that means they can oscillate from being exceedingly buoyant and airborne to more introspective, dark and melancholy.
The group were an indie band that combined a rather loose sound with an even more casual ethos, a punk’s DIY attitude, a pop sensibility and a cheeky yet self-deprecating sense of humour. Taken together this means the group can go from sounding like The Breeders (after all, they too are a female-fronted alternative rock band) to Blondie making the people get up and dance to some fine pop. At other times they even possess hints of X-Ray Spex where you have a feisty female holding her own amongst a sax and raw rock band. To say they’re a hard act to pigeonhole is certainly an understatement.
“Torture Road” sees a softly humming country ballad coupled with a wistful softness, a spiritual vibe and a boy-meets-girl kinda tale. With the self-titled track meanwhile, we get some jangly pop that has been beefed up to the max thanks to some brass instrumentation. In some respects “Seven Years” shares things in common with this but is more straight and narrow stuff while the closer, “Whisky & Gin” is a cover of a Bo Carter classic.
This collection has seen the music remastered meaning it sounds crisper and brighter than ever before. The ramshackle goodness and variations in light and space are heightened, making the bittersweet love songs reach their full potential and shine. Though the group were never darlings of the press nor did they ever crack the mainstream, with a collection like this they seem poised to win over a new generation of fans who can appreciate the difference between the poignant and the throwaway; teen angst vs. playfulness; and of course the dark and the light. In short, an ode to nothing seems most unlikely.
Review Score: 9/10