Rumble, Shake and Tumble
10 Track, LP (2011, Spunk!)
A couple years ago Dave Graney remarked that Henry Wagons had countered the indifference of national radio – including the keepers of Australia’s popular youth taste – by embarking on a relentless tour schedule. In these days of witty social media feeds and viral marketing campaigns, Wagons’ approach was decidedly old school. And, strangely enough, it worked.
Within a few years, Henry Wagons’ eponymously titled outfit has evolved into a recognisable brand; a mixture of country rock sensibility and irreverent Australian humour. On stage, Henry is a classic entertainer, displaying an empathy with his crowd that’s closer to the firebrand working class politicians of yore than the buffed indie-pop stars who continue to clutter the national airwaves. So it’s with a degree of audience expectation that Wagons has released its fifth album Rumble, Shake and Tumble – and the first listen was, surprisingly, not immediately inspiring. Conditioned by the driving aesthetic of 2009 predecessor The Rise and Fall of Goodtown, it was natural to assume Wagons would pick up where he left off (no pun intended) and jump back in the jalopy.
Certainly the opening track ‘Downlow’, has both its strengths and weakness. The opening bass riff suggest an air of classic funk; the subsequent lick owes (as has been remarked elsewhere) at least a nod of approval to the Hoodoo Gurus’ ‘Bittersweet’. As a composite piece, the song itself both celebrates, and suffers from the ’70s rock feel from which it takes its inspiration. There are moments when it threatens to cast all competing songs into oblivion; ultimately, it’s loose structure is reminiscent of chunky-knit jumper that needs a bit of attention, but which the wearer loves with pride.
From there, however, Rumble, Shake and Tumble proceeds down a more familiar country path. ‘I Blew It’ is one of a few songs on the record that explores the well-trodden country rock path of break-up; like the sheepish drunk on the morning after a bender, Wagons is full of contrition at his emotional imperfections. ‘Moon Into the Sun’ continues the introspective theme; like so much of the country genre, the sweet and succulent pop melody betrays a dark and confronting psychological intensity (“My life has been a fucking mess without you”).
And here arrives a crucial moment on the record: faced with the prospect of spiralling into introspection, Wagons throws in a cover of The Wayfaring Strangers’ ‘Willie Nelson’, a long-time live favourite, which lightens the mood. ‘Love is Burning’ gets down and dirty on your ass, all thrustin’ groin, lickin’ lips and other predatory social practices.
‘My Daydreams’ reverts back to the album’s earlier inward perspective (not to mention Henry’s obvious affection for Willie Nelson), a soft and tender sojourn into soppy territory that threatens to give way under the weight of Wagons’ emotional baggage. ‘Save Me’, replete with southern country harmonies, is gospel country rock via the Hume Highway; while ‘Follow the Leader’ has elements of the ’70s FM rock canon. The emotional mood of ‘Life’s Too Short’ is philosophical; the musical aesthetic is cheap, cheerful and bristling with clear country air, the sensibility of Hank Williams without the personal demons and chemical excesses.
The final track, ‘Mary Lou’, is the surprise packet of the record. With subtle nods to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ ‘Tupelo’, The Velvet Underground’s ‘The Gift’, John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ and even Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’ (if you strain your ear hard enough) it’s a story of dysfunctional romantic obsession played out against a spaced-out country soundtrack. Come the end of the track, and you’re not sure whether to laugh, cry or call the police.
The real quality of Rumble, Shake and Tumble is its ability to grow on the listener. There are records that peak upon first listen, and then it’s all downhill from there. Not this one. There’s a depth and breadth to this record that only few artists can create.
by Patrick Emery