The Goon Sax: Mirror II review – striking, superb songwriting by Aussie indie trio

NSrowing up in public is a tough gig, but Australian trio the Goon Sax don’t have a lot of choice. They were still at school when their 2016 デビューアルバム Up to Anything 解放された, with prosaic, witty songs about unrequited crushes, Saturday jobs and dates ruined by sweaty hands and bad haircuts. It would probably have been compared to the early, Jonathan Richman-indebted work of the Go-Betweens even if frontman Louis Forster’s dad hadn’t been the Go-Betweens’ Robert Forster. 率直に言って, if you’re a trio from Brisbane with a female drummer, dealing in smart, twitchy-but-melodic guitar rock with lyrics majoring in affairs of the heart, you’re going to provoke comparison to the Go-Betweens – who were all of those things 40 years ago – regardless of whether your old fella was in them or not.

The Goon Sax were still in their teens when its less rough-hewn successor, We’re Not Talking, was released two years later and started attracting attention among indie circles in the US, which led to a deal with venerable US alt-rock label Matador, currently home to Perfume Genius, Interpol, Julien Baker and more.

With Mirror II, the label appears to have inherited a different band to the authors of We’re Not Talking. After a layoff in which their members variously moved to Berlin, took up free jazz drumming and dabbled in noise rock, the Goon Sax are now more expansive, ambitious and confident, their efforts aided by producer John Parish, best known as PJ Harvey’s primary musical foil. In the Stone そして Psychic take a sound that started life as resolutely unvarnished and small scale – part of the appeal of the Goon Sax’s debut album was how listening to it felt like covertly reading someone’s teenage diary – and shift it on to a bigger stage without losing any of the idiosyncratic charm. There’s a muscular power-chord chug underpinning In the Stone, but it’s topped off with disjointed, needling lead guitar and weird spatters of ghostly electronics; Psychic’s sound is built out of an odd combination of drum machine, rumbling distorted guitar and bright, poppy synthesiser. Both songs are superbly written, their sweet melodies carrying lyrics that depict people arguing, frequently at cross purposes – “you said that we were psychic,” protests the latter, “like I’d find some comfort in that” – their drollness amplified by Forster’s doleful, conversational delivery.

Forster was initially the Goon Sax’s primary writer, and he’s still the provider of their most immediate songs – not just In the Stone and Psychic, but the spectacular chorus of The Chance, and Bathwater, which starts out rackety and nervous then suddenly picks up speed, breaking into an assured sprint. But a lot of Mirror II’s strength lies in the fact they now contain three distinct writing voices. Riley Jones deals in songs that bear the melodic influence of 60s girl groups alongside more left-field concerns. She’s apparently a fan of Throbbing Gristle and avant garde 70s Japanese psych-rock band Les Rallizes Dénudés, and you can tell: the chaotic mesh of guitar and synth on Tag keeps spiralling out of tune, at odds with her airy vocal, and the track concludes with a keyboard line that would sound poppy were it not in a completely different key to the other instruments.

James Harrison’s writing, その間, is the toughest sell, equal parts Syd Barrett-ish strangeness and the shambolic 80s indie of Television Personalities または the Pastels: his voice is wayward, his chord sequences lurch at odd angles, the lyrics tend to quirky imagery and non-sequiturs (“let me educate you, you clearly don’t understand – and nor do I”). It’s a hard thing to pull off without sounding faintly annoying and contrived, a trap he falls into on Carpetry, but when it clicks – as it does on the sprawling melody of Temples, or the closing Caterpillars, which abruptly jumps from whimsy to a majestic synthesiser coda – the results are really striking.

The diversity of the writing means that Mirror II occasionally feels more like a hugely enjoyable compilation than a single artist album: whether one trio can successfully contain three writers with such diverse approaches indefinitely is an interesting question. Hopefully yes – in a world filled with artists who present themselves as a perfectly finished product, their notion of themselves already set in stone, there’s something intriguing about hearing a band so clearly in a state of flux, pulling what they do in different directions, developing before your ears. It makes growing up in public seem fascinating rather than arduous.

Sault – London Gangs
The mysterious collective’s productivity shows no signs of slacking: their fifth album is as strong as its predecessors. A highlight is London Gangs, with dark, episodic jumps from avant-funk to ballad and back.