10 Track, LP (2010, Departed Sounds)
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Related: Lindsay Phillips.
All wobbly warble and throaty swallow, Lindsay Phillips sings as if he’s endured every hardship chronicled in his ominous lyrics. His CV includes time in death metal bands, which surely informed the uncompromising grimness of this debut solo album. And yet the Melbourne songwriter doesn’t go in for cheap thrills or readymade murder ballads. His lyrics are as threadbare as the album itself – most often just Phillips’ voice and acoustic guitar – and he tells stories in shadowy, blink-and-miss-them snatches. He begins by singing of tidal waves and weeping sores, and later it’s bloodied tunics and “deadwood, wreaths and knives”. No wonder the album’s title is Swedish for “warning”: these cautionary tales would serve as well in post-apocalyptic times as in Biblical ones.
That’s not to scare anyone off. Phillips renders his songs in a way that actually makes them feel comforting. A low hum of vocal harmonies emerges when he needs a sort of angel on his shoulder, and guest Melissa O’Rourke sings back-up to similar effect on three songs. His guitar is as much a guide as anything, twanging with melody as Phillips carves a touching, quivering chorus from the waking nightmare of ‘In Your Arms’. His voice can also flutter with a real vulnerability, lightening the load of those heavy lyrics. There’s even a breezy affability to ‘Legion’ and ‘Infinality’, and ‘When The Spirit Dies Young’ is about grasping for a lifeline whether it’ll do any good or not. It feels at once like a rickety folk standard and, of all things, the album’s best chance for radio play.
Whether describing burials or barbed wire, Phillips writes songs that are melancholic, wise and useful. The sheer character of his voice can distract from his lyrics, but it also grabs hold right away and doesn’t much loosen its grip with time. Following two self-released EPs from Phillips, Varning is the first release on the new Melbourne label Departed Sounds, started up by publicist Ash Sambrooks and songwriter Andrew Keese. It was recorded two years ago, and Phillips has already written and partially demoed a follow-up album, Taedium Vitae. Off-putting at first glance, the cover image of Varning was salvaged from a Prague bazaar because Phillips thought it fit the album. And true enough, it speaks to the old-soul weariness seeping through the songs.
By never specifying an era or geographical setting in his lyrics, however, Phillips gives his dark tales a universal quality that’s missing from so many of today’s period-costumed folk revivalists. The harrowing subject matter is delivered more as a point of fact than as some spooky campfire story. Phillips seems to dream himself into the blackest of lyrical scenarios just for the challenge of hunting down any available sliver of hope. And even against daunting odds, he always finds one.
by Doug Wallen