This past Tuesday, one of Australia’s greatest bands, Silverchair, played a sold-out 9:30 club on the first leg of their American tour. They are promoting Young Modern, their fifth studio release and first album since 2002’s Diorama, which won the band six ARIA Awards (the Australian Grammies).
They opened with a trio of new songs from Young Modern, an album which continues lead singer Daniel Johns’ continuing foray into pop, this time building upon the ornate, occasionally over-blown pomp of Diorama towards classic rock and even the campy and carnival. As if to illustrate the point, Johns took to the stage in pirate form, wearing a bandanna and eye patch (apparently to nurse a bruised eye), later re-appearing in a bowler hat. As natural as this musical evolution might be, it is an unfortunate and hopefully short-lived misstep. Though Johns is a gifted, imaginative musician, it seems he is still in the process of settling into his own niche within the current field.
Despite their relative obscurity post-grunge era in the States, Silverchair has continued to lead the pack for over ten years in Australian rock. Alongside Powderfinger, with whom they will be co-leading the highly anticipated “Across the Great Divide” tour beginning next month, the trio have been consistently serving up radio hits and collecting ARIAs in their home country. Beginning with third release Neon Ballroom in 1997, through to Johns’ successful collaboration with electronic artist Paul Mac as the Dissociatives, Silverchair’s sound has continued to slide, album by album, further away from the overdrive ballast of grunge towards the strings and falsetto of baroque pop.
The most significant leap during that process was between 1999’s Neon Ballroom and 2001’s recording of Diorama, when Johns was taught and utilized an entirely new method of songwriting. This one, piano-based as opposed to guitar, emphasized melodic innovation and creative phrasing over the simpler chord progressions of popular rock. The cover of Diorama features an opening door, behind which lies a rainbow of color. It’s a fitting image, in that the listener can actively hear the keys turning within the band’s head, both in terms of songwriting and influence: they pay tribute to Zeppelin grandeur in “Greatest View,” to prog-rock guitar heroism in “Without You” and, perhaps most surprising at the time, to cabaret and theatre in “Across the Night” and “Tuna in the Brine,” scored by Van Dyke Parks of Beach Boys fame.
The latter, played on acoustic, was the highlight of the band’s performance at the 9:30, without the album’s full string arrangement. “Tuna in the Brine” succeeds upon the strength of Johns’ unusually rich melodies, which unfurl one after another like a young Mozart first discovering his talents, then pouring out a symphony’s worth of ideas into one piece. “Tuna” remains, along with Rufus Wainwright’s “Poses,” one of the more accomplished pop tunes of recent memory.
Two other clear examples of Johns’ liberated songwriting, “Luv Your Life” and “After All These Years” were, alas, not performed on Tuesday. “After All These Years” is a piano ballad which defies cliche, where Johns provides some of the most remarkable melodic turns on Diorama. It is like a study of the major scale, with Johns’ strong tenor bounding across Parks’ staccato string swoops in a series of triadic leaps. During the bridge, harmonies appear unexpectedly and towards the close, the singer stretches the refrain melody like an opera singer. Released in 2002, the album appeared to signal a farewell to old Silverchair, and provided the metaphorical soundtrack to a new, rosy century, both for the band and for Australia. However, as recent involvement in the Middle East has shown, Australian involvement with the United States often proves to be far more complex.
Inevitably, rock critics ask the ‘grunge’ question of the band during interviews.
“We’ve got a point to prove and we definitely feel like we have to redirect people’s skewed perception of what Silverchair is,” Johns recently told Dose.ca. On Tuesday, the conflict of being a band still pegged within the States as “that grunge band from seventh grade” was most apparent in the transitions between Silverchair’s new, lighter fare and the angsty dirge which they recorded in high school.
“Now for another trip down memory lane,” Johns would say, before launching into a crowd-pleasing Frogstomp-era riff, tuning his voice back into the nasal whine he so famously employed, a fair though always pastiche imitation of Eddie Vedder. It was in his dancing steps that the sticky cocoon of grunge–which has proven so hard to throw off–was apparent. In his dress shoes and fitted jeans Johns looks modern and sophisticated (much like Young Modern‘s Mondrian-esque cover) and his feet suggest him trying to glean as much musical pleasure as possible from the same tired, mid-nineties whinge rock that the band has been regurgitating live for over a decade. It is their scarlet letter, and their fans should be willing to jettison their constant demands for the teenage Silverchair once and for all. Better yet, the band should trust in their ability to get by without turning back the clock each evening.
Johns laid out his goals for the new album in Chart Attack:
“I didn’t want to keep following that ‘bigger is better’ path. I wanted to come up with a pop record, a psychedelic pop record…I wanted to make something that was like [The Beatles’] The White Album, with a lot of genre-hopping and being really psychedelic but maintaining the pop aspect.”
Of the new fare from Young Modern, lead single “Straight Lines” is an early stand-out, a bright burst of pick-me-up pop that makes a credible shot for terrestrial radio. Drawn straight out of the Coldplay/Snow Patrol school of maudlin sentimentality, it employs the same plinking piano and swoony falsetto of hits such as “Clocks.”
“Set me on fire in the evening/Everything will be fine/Waking up strong in the morning/Walking in a straight line,” sung the crowd at the 9:30, having already memorized the song, thanks to the wonders of myspace and online leakage, despite the album’s scheduled US release that same evening.
Elsewhere on the new album, however, the results are far less convincing. “Reflections of a Sound” is full of effortless melody but feels decidedly hollow, much of “The Man That Knew Too Much” is simply Johns referencing Roxy zaniness without authenticity. The majority of Young Modern is pleasant-sounding enough, a disjointed tour of sixties and seventies pop periods with enough tunesmanship and orchestration to keep the listener engaged, but it distinctly lacks the heights of “Ana’s Song” or “Tuna in the Brine.” At the 9:30, it felt as though the crowd was respectful, though still unconvinced, by most of the new songs.
As commendable as the band’s efforts to reframe their American image is, Young Modern doesn’t quite succeed in bringing their collection of influences together in a truly satisfying manner. Johns’ vocals show clear evidence of the recent glam and psychedelic influence of Brian Eno and David Bowie. However, it’s hard not to get the feeling he might be shortchanging himself slightly, following the flashes of greatness that Diorama provided.
The band finished with “Freak,” a popular song from their grunge days which seemed to capture the continuing pull of old fans which the band is still trying to completely wrest free of:
“Body and soul, I’m a freak, I’m a freak,” the crowd moaned, in a collective ode to teen self-loathing, their generation’s precursor to today’s Dashboard Confessional set. The problem with playing to such tendencies, much as with pubescent sentiment in general, is that rampant self-absorption tends to envelop the character of the message and its messenger. Silverchair’s band members are now well into their late-twenties; its clearly time to make the transition into maturity complete. Their show at the 9:30 club, along with the mixed bag album it featured, shows that the band is not quite there.