If Words flow easily when describing mediocrity,
but greatness can leave you in a state of wonder. To borrow
from Van Morrison, it's an Inarticulate Speech of the Heart.
So we come to You Am I's second album
Hi Fi Way. Forget the second album syndrome if You Am I's
debut Sound As Ever was a mixture of breathtaking singles
("Adam's Ribs", "Berlin Chair"), album
cuts that broke new ground for the band and several woefully
misjudged selections, Hi Fi Way simply does away with the
latter. Its 15 tracks feature evocative, electric rock music,
touching ballads and moments of sheer transcendence.
Weaned on everything from the Stones and
the Who to the Replacements and Royal Trux, You Am I are
that greatest of rarities: The Next Big Thing who truly
deserve to be big. The biggest. They may have emerged from
the independent scene, but they've developed a sound so
pervasive and durable that it's beyond labels that limit.
The word 'timeless' will eventually be called on.
The core of Hi Fi Way is its immediacy
and naturalness. The adrenalising guitar intro of "Cathy's
Clown", with the rhythm section dropping out and leaving
a handful of splayed guitar notes, hits like the intro to
your favourite song - lodged in your head without effort,
never to disappear.
Hi Fi Way does more than perfect the parameters
of Sound As Ever. From the Pavement-like harmonies that
arc across the opening "Ain't Gone and Open" through
the strings that slide in under the sculpted guitars at
the arresting conclusion of "She Digs Her" to
the Beatlesesque touches humming in the background of the
sparse ballad "Hand Washer", You Am I prove they're
nothing less than a rock group for all seasons.
There's never the sense that You Am I
are stretching themselves into unsure areas, the changes
in their sound are accomplished. "Jewels and Bullets"
rattles with a killer guitar riff and an impassioned vocal
from guitarist/songwriter Tim Rogers; it's followed by "Purple
Sneakers", an acoustic cut progressively strengthened
by strings and the fluid bass of Andy Kent and the drums
of Russell Hopkinson. One song complements the other both
resonate equally with You Am I's musical verve and emotional
Certainly the production from Lee Ranaldo
(Sonic Youth) is much more authoritative than previously,
framing the songs with clarity and depth. The real revelation
is Hopkinson on drums. Joining You Am I after Sound as Ever
was recorded, he delivers a masterful performance. His predecessor,
Mark Tunaley, operated on direct velocity, which certainly
gave a charge to early You Am I EP's like the driller killer
Coprolalia. Hopkinson, however, operates with both power
and swing. His work on cuts like "The Applecross Wing
Commander" and "Punkarella" reaches the rarefied
levels of the Who's Keith Moon in his prime.
The root of all this is Tim Rogers' songwriting.
It's his compositions which provide the canvas for Hopkinson
and his own biting guitar to work on, it's his compositions
which provide the breadth of material and it's his compositions
which see him cautiously revealing himself to listeners
with a mixture of vignettes, hidden asides and memories.
On "How Much Is Enough?" Rogers
asks "Did you ever just wanna lose touch with everyone
you hurt?" Hurt, regret, incidents from the past which
still resonate, this is the lyrical terrain he traverses.
"Cathy's Clown" spotlights his skills for character
dissection, with the priceless announcement that, "She'll
drop beers like you drop vitamins."
Beer - along with other inebriates ("19
through 22, cherry red wine and you," from the classic
chords of "Pizza Guy") - regularly appear, creating
an undertow of unease. But Rogers isn't that easy to pin
down. Throughout Hi Fi Way he does his best to resist writing
about more than a few people, and his use of "we"
is limited. In seeking to avoid speaking for his generation,
he ends up illuminating more about them than those who make
it their mission in life.
There are literally 200 other facets of
this album that could be discussed, including, but not limited
to, the vocal phrasing on "She Digs Her", the
guitar sound on "Minor Byrd", the use of cymbals
on "The Applecross Wing Commander", the way Rogers,
Kent and Hopkinson seem to play as one on "Stray",
the sheer sonic force of "Ken", the bassline on
"How Much Is Enough?" and the sense you get from
certain songs that you know Tim Rogers personally…
Ultimately, though, these are just
effects. The cause behind them is the near (just for the
record, "Gray" is simply good) comprehensive brilliance
in conception and execution of this album. Put simply, Hi
Fi Way sets a new benchmark in Australian music.