Crow’s first album in more than a decade proves they should be mentioned in the same breath as The Triffids or The Bad Seeds, writes RENÉ SCHAEFER.
It’s a mystery why Crow never achieved the acclaim they deserved. Maybe they arrived at the party too late. After all, the gates to the pantheon of great white, male, Australian rock poets had already been hermetically sealed by the time Crow emerged in the early ’90s. Critics and audiences gushed over the likes of Forster/McLennan, Kuepper, Cave, Kelly and McComb, but overlooked the dark treasures offered up by Peter Fenton and Peter Archer on releases like My Kind Of Pain (1993), The Helicon Days (1994), Li-Lo-ing (1995) and Play With Love (1998). Going to see Crow in that decade felt like being privy to an arcane secret, and it is only fitting that the band chose this epithet as the title of their reformation disc. Right from the start, they make it clear that this is not a bid for belated acceptance, but a gift to their acolytes.
With Arcane, the band has come full circle, its line-up identical to the one that played on their Steve Albini-produced debut album. Fenton’s younger brother John on drums, and Jim Woff on bass, are as instrumental to the sound of Crow as they ever were. It feels like a family affair, not just in a literal sense. Fenton and Archer have that instinctive ability to contribute something to each other’s songs that makes each composition instantly recognisable as a Crow number, despite their very different songwriting styles. This has always been a hallmark of their artistic relationship and it appears the old magic has not diminished over the last decade of separation.
Arcane represents quite a substantial body of new work. With typical attention to detail, Fenton and Archer mine a wide range of moods over the course of the album’s 13 songs. There are claustrophobic sounding rockers, dense with baroque guitar curlicues and Woff’s shuddering bass attack, but balancing that are lighter offerings, which almost have a country or folk feel to them. Almost, because this is Crow after all, and there’s nothing straightforward about their approach.
“With typical attention to detail, Fenton and Archer mine a wide range of moods over the course of the album’s 13 songs.”
Fenton sets the pace with a bracket of three songs that establish a theme that reappears throughout the album, of the Australian landscape, its ghostly mystery and harsh splendour. In ‘Ghost At The Crossroads’ he imagines his band as spectral drifters re-emerging from the wilderness like Harry Dean Stanton’s character in Paris, Texas, somehow needing to reclaim their corporeality. ‘The Whole World Turns’ equates a romantic relationship with the changing seasons, the elements and phenomena of the natural world. It’s a classic metaphor, but the singer imbues it with a melancholy yearning which defies cliche. The slightly hamfisted titular pun of ‘Stray Leanne’ is made up for with a stomping beat and a soaring guitar coda.
Archer weighs in with a twisted piece of leaden grunge rock in the form of ‘Every Little Thing’, and then gets poetic on the wistful ode to child-like innocence ‘The Editor’s Gone’. Both songwriters’ idiosyncratic vocal phrasing often makes the lyrics of Crow songs difficult to follow. Thankfully, they are reproduced in a cleverly laid-out booklet, as they are central to the complex picture the band paints.
‘She’s Higher Than The Light’ introduces a horn section that would not have sounded out of place on Hunters And Collectors’ Jaws Of Life. Other numbers, such as Archer’s ‘Knee Deep In Mud’, make great use of Jason Walker’s pedal steel. ‘A Great Day’ allows Archer’s voice to soar over a backing of brushed drums and harmonium, before one of his prettiest guitar solos takes centre stage.
‘My Show Is Of The Air’ recalls some of Dave Graney’s best work, as it deals with the delusions of grandeur flowing on from notoriety and fame. The irony is that it comes coming from the pen of Fenton, who experienced success as an actor on the ABC drama Love Is A Four Letter Word and in local films such as Praise.
‘Hesitate’ is another great brooding track, where subterranean funk resolves into sky-scraping choruses, before the album is capped off by Archer’s ‘Barbarous Things’. Despite its acoustic nature, this is probably the darkest song on Arcane. Yet again it alludes to some very Australian themes and is stronger for its refusal to directly state its point. Instead, an air of unease and tension pervades this track, despite its closing image of “glorious red sundown clouds”.
This Australian-ness, expressed in a somber lyricism and unorthodox song structures, has always marked Crow as equal in importance to more celebrated bands like The Triffids and The Bad Seeds. The fact that they have chosen to reform and proved capable of producing an album that matches the glorious yield of their earlier records, just goes to show that true creativity does not diminish with time. If only more people were prepared to listen.
Arcane is out now through Nonzero Records.