This is the sound of Australia. You Am
I's third album, the follow-up to 1993's Sound As Ever and
last year's Hi Fi Way, gets to the heart of the matter.
Faced with making a successor to an album that was both
critically acclaimed as one of the finest ever made in this
country and adored by fans, the Sydney trio have responded
by digging deeper. Recorded in Sydney late last year with
the band producing and American David Bianco (Teenage Fanclub)
mixing, Hourly Daily should give them the commercial success
they've only hinted at till now. Musically there's a strongly
hued richness to the tunes, with level-headed augmentation
from strings and horns on selected cuts. Lyrically there's
a thematic cohesion and eye for detail that brings to mind
Neil Young or Paul Westerberg at their finest.
The protagonist, who comes to the fore
over the 15 cuts, could be your brother or best friend,
boyfriend or a passing acquaintance. You Am I's songwriter,
Tim Rogers, paints such an impassioned, incisive picture
that it's hard to ignore the character beneath the eclectic
He wakes to fuzzy AM radio, "But
waking up is easy when you've gotta voice you love"
("Good Mornin'"). The life portrayed is neither
a perfect pop amalgam of girl/car/friends, nor an idyllic
slacker life of girl/cones/ friends. This is the real world,
where "next door's coughing up his lungs" ("Tuesday").
On "If We Can't Get It Together" Rogers sketches
out one of his most sustained, touching narratives: "To
get up the bond for an inner-west flat he'd work for anybody/If
he wasn't working for her dad... She don't know how to tell
him she's going on the pill... She's looking for his heart
while he stares the other way... His dad is a nut/His ex-girl
is a slut/But he'll be yours forever if you just get it
Making his way around the city on public
transport (an Hourly Daily mainstay) he grabs a "Six
pack/Cheaper domestic" ("Flag Fall $1.80").
He gets reflective, even melancholy: "When I was in
grade six I used to hold open the door for a girl and she
called me a wimp/Said there just isn't the need to be so
fucking polite/I politely agreed with her" ("Don't
Ask Me to Smile"). As darkness comes the question is
asked: "When the day falls where do you go?" ("Who
Takes Who Home"). But we already know the answer. The
listener has come to know, and more importantly empathise,
with the people living in these songs. It's like catching
up with an old friend.
Instrumentally, the width hinted at on
Hi Fi Way has come to bear. The title track is burnished
with sombre strings, while "Tuesday" goes through
a rising set of transitions: an acoustic guitar and echo-laden
voice is underpinned by a ragged electric guitar before
pastoral strings and delicate horns sweep the arrangement
up. The session musicians' input is never played for cheap
tricks. The strings, for example, never dip into sentimentality.
On the orchestral ballad "Heavy Comfort" - a heartbreaker
with lines the calibre of "Now her friends are like
her lashes/Too many dropping off these days" - they
are edgy and resonant.
But there's nothing baroque about Hourly
Daily. For every song that offers new perspectives there's
another that rips the top of your head off on the first
listen. "Wally Raffles" is decked out in tough
electric guitars, while the melodic "Dead Letter Chorus"
is full of six string entanglements around a glimmering
chorus. "Flag Fall $1.80" is typical of the surprises
to be had. Just when you think you've got it pinned down
as a Beatles-flavoured frolic, it sidewinds into a Who-style
The single "Soldiers" is even
more devastating. But where current custom would dictate
drenching it in distortion, You Am I lighten it up, easing
back on the power to accentuate the rushes when they come
and adding a punchy horn line. "Baby Clothes"
is something else. It grabs Bowie's "Suffragette City"
by the scruff of the neck and bops with style, an absolute
dead cert to make you want to dance. As the track builds,
the rhythm section of bassist Andy Kent and drummer Russell
Hopkinson collide head-on with the horns, pushing the beat.
It's typical of the subtle strength they exhibit, holding
the disparate strands together while shining in their own
right. "Baby Clothes" is also one of Rogers' best
vocals - sassy and flirtatious: "If you don't wanna
go/Wear some... baby clothes!" he snarls - on an album
where he sings his guts out, his voice reaching a ragged,
soulful state: a barroom beauty.
The only area in which Hourly Daily really
suffers by comparison with Hi Fi Way is directness. The
reach that's prevalent on the new work requires more of
the listener than previously. But You Am I's musical ambition
has always driven them. Current fashion receives no lip
service on Hourly Daily, but neither is there a retro bent
to it (an accusation that periodically crops up). Only last
year's single "Mr Milk," included here, hints
directly at the '60s.
If each You Am I album was a form of test
they had to pass - Sound As Ever testing whether they could
transfer their EP power to long player, Hi Fi Way testing
if they could get beyond power chords and accusations -
then this album tests whether they have the ability to mature
into something truly special. Once again they pass. The
only question mark hanging over it is whether the rock fan
circa '96 is willing to give in to the undercurrents and
sidesteps, deviations and new directions, that Hourly Daily
turns on. If they do they will find a perfect soundtrack
for these strange days.
If, in the wake of Hi Fi Way, albums by
the likes of silverchair, Spiderbait and now Regurgitator
proved that You Am I's contemporaries could put together
songs just as immediate and impressive, then Hourly Daily
sees You Am I elevating themselves to a whole new level.
It's a resourceful, fascinating song cycle. They've made
the same transition R.E.M. did with Green, stepping aside
from the cut and thrust of contemporary music's fads and
fickle movements into their own enduring world. It took
R.E.M. six album to do this, You Am I needed just three.