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I can’t prove it, but I suspect the lads in Melbourne-based folk-pop duo Sodastream are what people Down Under are referring to when they say, “Throw another shrimp on the barbie.” Granted, nobody’s going to mistake the wimpier-than-thou members of Sodastream for Andrew W.K., but together, vocalist-guitarist Karl Smith and bassist Pete Cohen make surprisingly muscular music. Lovely, dark, and deep, it’s just the thing for a night spent spreading Vegemite on your favorite marsupial—or whatever it is that passes for romance in the outback.
Despite having released three EPs and one previous full-length, 2000’s Looks Like a Russian, Sodastream is hardly a household name here in the States. With any luck, though, The Hill for Company, the band’s gorgeous new release, will rectify that unfortunate state of affairs. Not that the disc is exactly screaming for your attention: The Hill for Company offers further low-key refinement of Sodastream’s stripped-down sound, which has been in a steady state of devolution ever since the sprightly indie-pop of the first EP, Enjoy, which the band recorded back in 1997 as a bloated three-piece.
Far from being hamstrung by their minimalist impulses, Smith and Cohen seem liberated by them, gathering more eclectic influences with each recording. The 11 songs on The Hill for Company flirt with folk, pop, rock, and even some weird Celtic Astral Weeks-style jazz—all delivered with what can only be described as clear-eyed gloom. The generally dour Smith strums the acoustic guitar and spins tales of dark spiritual matters in a Stuart Murdoch-like voice; Cohen conjures up big, droning backdrops with his double bass. Guest musicians add drums, viola, trombone, and trumpet to a few tracks, but for the most part, the album is as vast and empty as the Great Sandy Desert.
Though the duo is sure to suffer comparisons to Belle and Sebastian—Smith’s vocals aside, both bands’ best work has a precious quality, a seeming fragility that with repeated listening turns out to be deceptive—a more apt analogy would be to the Laurel and Hardy of highfalutin ’60s folk-pop, Simon and Garfunkel. For one thing, Sodastream’s somber lyrics have far more in common with S&G’s oh-so-pretentious meditations on lonely boxers than they do with B&S’s tongue-in-cheek reflections on terry underwear. Musically, too, the looming presence of Cohen’s double bass—which is miked with such startling clarity you’ll find yourself ducking to avoid getting poked in the eye by his bow—guarantees that, no matter what kind of icing Sodastream may apply to the top of its songs, the cake underneath will always be dark, dark, dark. Rhymin’ Simon ain’t the only one who’s got a rather shadowy old friend, it seems.
But if these songs are about as much fun as a game of Pin the Tail on the Tasmanian Lager Lout, they do provide the perfect aural alternative for people who—like me—could stand to add a little earnestness to their otherwise irony-rich musical diet. Besides, they’re so damn pretty you’ll want to kiss them. Take “Welcome Throw.” You know how, every couple of years, R.E.M. puts out a single so absolutely gorgeous it makes you forget all the horrible, nasty swipes you’ve taken at the band since Michael Stipe started enunciating? Well, feel free to swipe all you want, because Sodastream just stole Stipe & Co.’s next single. Indeed, the guitar intro to “Welcome Throw” could have been copped directly from Automatic for the People.
That may or may not sound promising to you, but mark my words: Far from causing you to lose your religion, “Welcome Throw” will set your every last synapse, kneecap, nostril, toenail, eyelash, and elbow quivering with a kind of delirious—if strangely melancholic—joy. The delicate interplay between guitar and bass, the martial drumming, the swelling chorus that washes over you like a welcome tide—I swear, the song is the next best thing to having your ears licked by baby kangaroos.
Sodastream isn’t doing anything startlingly original here; like all savvy musicians, Smith and Cohen have simply figured out how best to make do with what they’ve got. Which, in their case, is very little: a few humble melodies transformed, by the chisel and hammer of guitar and double bass, into shapes of simple, almost homely, elegance. Even when they sound like an honest-to-goodness band—with drums and everything!—Smith and Cohen demonstrate miserly restraint, as on the austere but high-flying album-opener, “Heaven on the Ground.” These are guys who know how to make an echo here, a simple chord there speak volumes. Which makes The Hill for Company’s musical landscape a place where the gentlest flutter of a tambourine can give you the shivers.
Sure, the relatively perky “A Drum” features some overtly Belle and Sebastian-esque horns (the trumpet solo, especially, sounds as if it had been just swiped from a truck with “Dirty Dream Number Two” stenciled on the side), but when Smith sings “Cast off your hand-me-downs/’Cause I’ve been told,/’No, you’re not ever going to get on your feet again’” and then follows up with “I’ve been/I’ve been where your thoughts were holy/And I’ve seen comin’ rain/I’ve known/I’ve known bitterness between you,” all is forgiven.
Similarly, if the opening words of “Another Trial” (“There’s a dull pain deep in my head again”) don’t promise much in the way of bliss, and Smith’s talk of “sand dunes and pinafores” is almost enough to give you a bad case of the Judy Collins, your patience will be more than repaid by as soaring and moving a chorus as you’re likely to adore in this life. Cohen saws at his double bass like some kind of Australian Paul Bunyan while Smith explores the upper reaches of his register; then the whole friggin’ baobab comes crashing down and the sun pours into the new clearing and you’ve just been reborn, like it or not, as the kind of person who likes big, schmaltzy crescendos.
But maybe you’re the kind of person who would rather hear a hair-band ballad. If so, don’t despair, because The Hill for Company also offers up the slow, slow “Devil on My Shoulder,” an unadorned piano ballad that has “Massive Hit for Ozzy Osbourne” written all over it. “‘Cause I’ve got the devil on my shoulder,” sings Smith, suddenly—and thrillingly—mired knee-deep in maudlin metal mush, “And there’s fire in my eyes/Whose head will be heavy this time.” Yeah, the song sounds great as is, but its waiting-to-be-glitzified splendor almost makes you wish the boys would forget all this heart-on-their-sleeves fragility, sprout spandex wings, and sail away on the mawkish currents of big drum breakdowns, children’s choirs, and endless guitar solos.
That said, the wondrous sounds of Sodastream aren’t for everybody. “Real Prince” is about the only time the band kicks up a din of any kind, with Smith and Cohen reaching deep into their indie souls to dredge up some scaryass Reed-and-Cale-style drone. So if you are now or have ever been a fan of any band with the word “pussy” in its name, or have ever been a member of such a band, you’d be well advised to give The Hill for Company a wide berth. As for everybody else, my advice is not to let Sodastream’s sensitive side fool you. Anybody who knows anything about rock ‘n’ roll knows that, their reputation for utter wussification notwithstanding, Simon and Garfunkel were the butchest, baddest bastards to walk the musical planet in the late ’60s. Well, the same goes for Sodastream now. The simple truth is that it takes a real mofo to make music this beautiful. So forget the dingoes—Sodastream got your baby. CP