The Dark Horses/The Band of Gold
Australian rock icon Tex Perkins plays it safe on new albums with The Dark Horses and The Band Of Gold, writes DOUG WALLEN.
Two albums cut in different studios with different players (save shared bassist Steve Hadley). One all originals, the other all covers. Yet these new works from lifer Tex Perkins don’t present reverse sides of the man so much as confirm where he’s at right now: a dark crooner and reflective songwriter who’s long since graduated from dive bars to swank theatres. Well-mannered and soft of step, these twin outings may be best absorbed after sundown, but they still keep to a smooth simmer. Even when slipping into 14 classic country songs with his Band of Gold, Perkins embraces a reassuring constancy rather than, say, tragedy or comedy.
Following up 2003’s Sweet Nothing, meanwhile, Perkins & The Dark Horses’ self-titled reappearance is also anything but raucous. With a pristine gloss from producer/mixer Magoo, these MOR tunes feel at once timeless and stock-standard. Everything is in the right place – including Perkins’ sage co-writes with longtime collaborator Murray Paterson and the subtle playing of Hadley, drummer Gus Agars and multi-instrumentalists Paterson, Charlie Owen and Joel Silbersher – but too much so. For such troubled love songs and melancholic musings, everything is so pretty and poised that it lacks any edge whatsoever. A few guests also contribute sleepy strings, bringing the total number of instruments to well over a dozen.
For better or worse, you have to listen more closely to locate the shadows in such a placid setting. The standout ‘Necessary Evil’ feels like Ten New Songs-era Leonard Cohen minus the R&B twinges, while other songs channel the quieter side of Johnny Cash in a way that proves Perkins is still used to playing him from those “The Man in Black” shows. He also sneaks in some lyrics that defy the perpetual drift, dreaming about “Teachin’ all those little pricks a lesson” on ‘Life Gets in the Way’ and admitting “Everything I do is fucking genius/Every now and then I realise it’s only me” on ‘Snakes’. On an album dominated by slow-burners, it’s moments like those that keep certain numbers from floating past without connecting.
Self-produced over just a few days with engineer/mixer Roger Bergodaz, The Band of Gold’s debut reteams Perkins with singer Rachael Tidd and their entire Man in Black band The Tennessee Four (Hadley, guitarist Shannon Bourne, multi-instrumentalist Shane Reilly and drummer Dave Folley). Devoting themselves to covers, the ensemble run down an impeccable list that includes two tunes each by Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard and Townes Van Zandt, as well as many other fine ringers. Like the Dark Horses album, it’s more homogenous than it should be – especially eerie considering these songs come from so many different writers – but it’s also quietly tasteful and mournful in a way that’s best said with pedal steel.
“Even when slipping into 14 classic country songs with his Band of Gold, Perkins embraces a reassuring constancy rather than, say, tragedy or comedy.”
The honeyed twang of Haggard’s ‘Silver Wings’ is to be expected, then, and yet it feels more open than The Dark Horses. There’s more air in these arrangements. Still, songs that lend themselves easily to relatable despair can become cosy and even feel-good here. Sure, Guy Clark’s ‘Anyhow I Love You’ is unabashedly devotional, and Haggard’s ‘It’s Not Love’ is all about making do (“It’s not love/But it’s not bad”), but ‘Pardon Me I’ve Got Someone to Kill’ from prickly weirdo Johnny Paycheck is delivered all too straight, as if Perkins doesn’t quite register the lyrics’ portent. Tidd has considerably more sadness in her voice, adding that very ingredient to Porter Wagoner’s ‘Lonely Coming Down’, John Prine’s lovely ‘Speed of the Sound of Loneliness’ and Kristofferson’s opening ‘Help Me Make it Through the Night’.
Perkins proves workmanlike throughout these cumulative 28 songs, draping his voice low and fog-like over the proceedings. The trouble is, listening to them back to back reveals more about his control of tone and nuance than it establishes any acute personality. Perkins steers both of these ships away from choppy water so well that listeners might find themselves hoping and praying for an errant storm.