The Sun & Silver Anthology
67 Track, LP (2012, Battle Music)
Related: Low Transit Industries.
While the collected works of so many defunct bands moulder in closets and under beds, Darren Smallman – co-founder of the sadly defunct Low Transit Industries – dares to expose his to the light of day. He’s become a painstaking archivist along the way, compiling 68 tracks from three different projects (Thee Vinyl Creatures, The Sound Platform and The Wells Collective) between 1992 and 2005. That makes The Sun & Silver Anthology an ambitious five-volume time capsule for Smallman, now based in England and running another label, Battle Music.
It’s heaps to sort through, obviously, but it’s also a fascinating document of Smallman’s growth as a songwriter, musician and producer, right alongside his many collaborators. These weren’t his first bands, or his last: a 15-year-old Smallman formed Warped in 1989, tilting at the Melbourne-Geelong axis and playing with the likes of Fugazi and The 22.214.171.124’s. A few years later he started the short-lived Toad – featuring members of Bored!, Tumbleweed and Fridge – followed by the more power-pop-aimed Thee Vinyl Creatures after he departed Warped. Today, meanwhile, he has a solo recording project in Ancient Horses.
Thee Vinyl Creatures is where we begin, with the first two volumes compiling demo tapes, compilation tracks, an EP and the 1995 album The Bias is Transposition. Splitting the vocals and songwriting with Cameron Ross (later of Dishpan Fingers) on volume one, Smallman introduces the mix of ’60s psych and ’90s angst that surfaces across his projects. Thee Vinyl Creatures begin as a riled-up guitar band with an emphasis on both vocal catharsis and thoughtful instrumental passages. ‘Fear of Mediocrity’ balances folk lightness and flushed rock, another sweet spot of Smallman’s. Ross has exited by the second volume, and eventual LTI co-founder Simon Baird has come on board. Smallman now sings lead on every track but one, locking down fuzzy anthems and winding solos that recall early Teenage Fanclub.
Next is The Sound Platform, a team-up with Baird and several other members of Thee Vinyl Creatures. Culled from three EPs between 1999 and 2001, the new band is cleaner and more orchestral by comparison, with Smallman’s vocals more sweet, settled and romantic. The horn-kicked standout ‘Carbon Blue’ shows a newfound degree of focus, but there’s still plenty of loose-ended experimentation at work. ‘Drag the Motorcycle’ is a wavering instrumental, whereas distorted beats open ‘4 a.m. Princess’ and the fragile beauty of ‘Jenny’s New Shoes’ precedes the fuzzy ‘I Guess You Oughta Know’. If ‘Goodbye to Jane’ is more time-honoured power pop, ‘Urban Subjectory’ has a whiff of Guided by Voices in its rickety aesthetic.
Materialising in the form of the 2003 album Along Sydon Drive, The Wells Collective is more of an instrument-juggling solo thing for Smallman, though still with a handful of guests. For my money, it’s the best and freshest of these five volumes. From the found-sound collages of ‘The Red House of Wives’ and ‘Christmas in Royal Tunbridge Hall’ to the effortless bedroom-pop shanty ‘The Boys, the Girls, the Apples & All the Way Home’, it’s very much in spirit with America’s Elephant 6 Collective. (That vibe presages a later collaboration with Sasha Bell of the E6-affiliated The Essex Green and The Ladybug Transistor.) By now Smallman’s singing is no longer anguished, and he’s gotten much better at production. He’s learned to truly integrate sound and story, even in the undisguised whimsy of ‘A Daydream of a Monkey’, without giving up his fondness for cheery group vocals.
The final volume returns us to The Sound Platform, and their unfinished 2005 album The Sun & The Silver. It’s more crunchy and erratic than The Wells Collective, and still split between straight songwriting and offhand experiments. In a way it feels doubly nostalgia, looking back to ’60s psych-pop and ’90s lo-fi rock with equal fondness. If it lacks the previous volume’s clarity, some of Smallman’s catchiest songs are here, including another gang singalong in ‘She Don’t Own the Moon’.
It’s hard to gauge how much demand there is for this collection, but Smallman has found a relatively low-risk way of making it available: as just the final volume on CD with downloads of everything, or a purely digital version of it all. You get the feeling he assembled this more for his sake than for ours, but that’s no surprise. For him it’s nothing less than a history of his musical outpouring for more than a decade. For us it’s a chance to eavesdrop and maybe relish the bits that most strike our fancy.
by Doug Wallen