Clean-cut pop ditties laced with deftly produced, occasionally mawkish Americana. Memorably insipid.
When the co-founder and primary songwriter of a band as famous as INXS makes an Americana album, it’s fairly predictable that even mainstream media of the likes of The Daily Mail (see, we knew you’d be impressed…) have sat up and alerted their readers. What’s more, whichever of the 12 tracks on Andrew Farriss’ first solo album closest in style to INXS’ hugely successful brand of shimmering, deftly formulated and formulaic power pop’n’rock will arguably do little to disappoint his long-term fans, provided they don’t mind the odd intrusion of a banjo or fiddle or steel guitar, all of them nods towards this album’s Americana slant, here and there.
Perhaps fortunately, those kinds of songs comprise a hefty percentage of the album, even if they arguably lack some of the grittiness that characterized INXS’ more emotionally driven material. Either way, though, the INXS-lite songs operate in a very different dimension to the three or four tracks where Farriss uses a much more traditional interpretation of Americana as foundations, and where, unfortunately, the music maybe veers too close towards a queasy caricature of the genre for its own good.
The best example of this musical backfiring is undoubtedly the opening track, ‘Bounty Hunter-Hummingbird’, which comes with a kind of faux Country’n’Western audio theme park introduction, complete with thundering hooves, wild bird cries and oh-so-atmospheric bursts of mournful mandolin and massed violins. Don’t worry if your attention wavers, either: this segment lasts a full 90 seconds before anything like a proper tune actually begins, so there’s plenty of time to re-focus.
Maybe Farriss is hinting with this introduction we should take the album in a light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek spirit. Or maybe he wants any stray INXS fans to realise his debut solo work will likely not contain any of the mega-Watt juggernaut anthems for which the band are deservedly famous. Either way, the net result of this overly long spaghetti-Western intro on track one is that when the curtain finally rises on the bland, traditional folk-pop music that follows, it seems like the continuation of a Christmas pantomime soundtrack, one complete with cardboard cactuses, silhouettes of cowboy hats on the stage backdrop and giant signs pleading with the audience not to shoot the pianist.
Track one is particularly at fault, with Farriss crooning “You’re desert sky, I’ll be your tumbleweed, I’ll keep rolling on and on…” as the mandolins themselves rattle on and on and wild hawks (or some kind of bird, anyway) cry plaintively in the background. Production-wise, to give credit where credit’s due, it’s a smooth, very thorough operation. But in terms of content, for this reviewer at least, the end result feels horrendously artificial.
After that claustrophobically clichéd start, almost without looking at the album listing, you just know that Australia’s closest relative to the American Wild West outlaws, Ned Kelly, is bound to get at least a cameo appearance. Sure enough,on track three, we get treated to the umpteenth musical resume of Kelly’s life, complete with a well-polished folky mixture of mandolins, tin whistles and several repetitions of his most famous comment, “Such is Life”.
The same kind of slick, vaudeville-esque Americana feel continues apace on tracks like ‘My Cajun Girl’, which unfurls some fluid violin solos and boppy Zydaco-esque beats and ‘Run Baby Run’, where (lending credence again to the idea that this is actually a cunningly designed theatrical soundtrack) the accompanying video is set on a train full of circus acts.
You could argue that there’s a kind of witty, sleight of hand approach to this all that makes the album insubstantial fun to listen to, if nothing else. But that’s before we get treated to a sombre musical description of Farriss’ visit to ‘Apache Pass’ in the USA. In it, as plaintive mandolins strum in the background again, he tells us in solemn tones how you can “almost hear the arrows flying and hear the rifles firing,” whilst hawks circle overheard (we get a few more hawk cries at the end just to ram the point home) and, too, how he feels “the spirit of old Geronimo.”
The lyrics sound well-intentioned enough, and there’s even a slightly disconcerting intrusion of the 21st century at one point when he says he hopes the noted Apache leader Cochise could come back to life and drive all the drug dealers apparently now operating in Apache Pass back to Mexico. But rather than expand on that angle and get some real social observation in the song, as per some of the best Americana, the comment gets smothered in a sea of unthreatening cliches. A pity.
You could say the songs on Farriss’ albums with the most edge to them sound most like the softer sides of INXS of old but which dip in and out of Americana. Unpretentious easy listening like ‘Starlight’, with a deftly ripping guitar solo, or gentler ballads with a vaguely electric country core like ‘Come Midnight‘ maybe aren’t going to get the audience standing in their chairs. But they are smoothly delivered and have catch-all, mass entertainment-style lyrics that can’t raise any objections, very similar, in fact to the times when another big 1980s band, Dire Straits ventured into country music.
And there’s some real versatility too. Come the album’s final quarter, where we get a thundering anthem like the final song, ‘You Are My Rock’, which blends spiritual harmonies with some deep soul sounds or a funky dance track like ‘Good Momma Bad’, it’s as if Farriss has wandered off-stage from the Americana panto, dumped his cowboy boots and hat in the theatre’s rubbish bin, and decided to give some other genres a blow out as an encore.
In the pre-publication interviews he’s done, Farriss is clearly very enthusiastic about this project. And historically, it’s not as if heading into Americana for 1970s/1980s New Wave musicians or bands is unprecedented. Elvis Costello’s ‘Almost Blue’ is one of his best-regarded albums is one example. Paul Kelly, part of that same era’s Australian pub rock scene with the Dots, has subsequently had some significant Americana ‘moments’, too – including, as it happens, a cracking bluegrass song about namesake Ned Kelly, ‘Our Sunshine’.
But regrettably, an album like this, with solidly crafted but slightly anodyne ballads as its strongest suit and spells of overly varnished, flavourless Americana as its least attractive, arguably has a much more limited appeal.