SOME NICE THINGS THAT HAVE BEEN SAID ABOUT DEAD WOOD:
As scuzzy as a cocktail party in a swamp that's knee-deep in alligator shit, "Dead Wood" finds The Stabs in major league form. This stuff is as hard to ignore as a dentist's drill and if you try, it's at your own peril.
The formula is seemingly simple: Rolling waves of bass propel most songs forward with dissonant, knife-edged guitar and black-eyed vocals. Brendan Noonan's precise but serrated six-strings don't so much draw blood as tear arteries on a song like the album stand-out, "No Hoper". Send royalty cheques to a squat on Desolation Row.
As critics fall over themselves to anoint The Stabs as bastard successors to the Scientists and the Birthday Party, the band shrugs off comparisons and gets on with the job. There are elements of both those exalted acts in their sound ("The Hated One" especially recalls the Birthday Party) but it's clear that The Stabs have quickly carved their own place.
Although "No Hoper" is a favourite, "Split Lips" and the fuzz-bass careering "Family Trust" rank not far behind. They're recognisable as songs. "Blues in F#" is simply a pummelling.
The appropriately maudlin "Funeral Waltz" saves its most venomous moments for the outro, applying a good minute's worth of white noise like vinegar on an open cut.
Bassist Mark Nelson might be the unsung star. As well as his constant and consummate work on bass around which many of the songs revolve, he shifts to piano and vocals on the searing "Cabin Fever", adding fingernails-on-a-chalkboard guitar.
Loki Lockwood added his usual deft production ear. The sound is crystalline yet beefy in the bottom end. In striving for dynamism, the middle-range hasn't been lost.
The Stabs have attracted attention from the likes of Mick Harvey (who put them on the inaugural All Tomorrows Parties Australian bill) and they've already toured Asia and the USA. Envelop yourself in their noise. It's cleansing.
- The Barman, 4 1/2 out of 5 bottles of beer (i-94 Bar)
With their debut album Dirt (2005) The Stabs established themselves as serious contenders in the murky gene pool of Australian mutant blues. On the long overdue follow-up Dead Wood they deliver on this promise and bring it on home.
The first thing you notice about this record is the sound. Brendan Noonan has the blare-knob on his amp cranked up all the way, Matt Gleeson hammers the drums like he’s building a coffin out of driftwood and Mark Nelson’s bass sounds positively subterranean. Loki Lockwood’s production only accentuates the scuzziness of this record. The whole thing sounds like he dipped the master tapes in a deep fryer for a few seconds, buried them in the backyard for six months, dug them up and exclaimed: “Gentlemen, I believe it is done!”
The rapid-fire opening salvo of ‘Dead Wood’, ‘Split Lips’ and ‘No Hoper’ explodes with ferocious energy. Lyrically and musically these songs define what The Stabs are all about. Noonan has a real affinity for society’s outcasts, aimless malcontents and the kitchen-sink drama of domestic life on the fringes of “normal” society. His writing style is “beat” in the sense of beaten-down, the way Hubert Selby Jr’s fiction is.
Sometimes, as on ‘Split Lips’, Noonan can express the ennui and spiritual emptiness that leads to casual violence in a way that reminds me of Raymond Carver and Flannery O’Connor’s short stories. It’s all in the economy of the words, their hard edges and how they are driven home by Noonan’s caustic guitar.
“[It’s] an album with two distinct halves – the one with the hits, which summarises where the band has been, and the one that points the way to their future.”‘No Hoper’ is always a stand-out track in the band’s live set for its dynamics and the way it allows Noonan’s storytelling to come to the fore. On Dead Wood, the song takes a bit of a back seat, but nevertheless it reinforces my belief that The Stabs are not just great musicians who love getting feral, but can craft songs that have depth and pathos without being emotionally manipulative or hackneyed.
Not to be outdone by his fellow writer, Mark Nelson contributes two of his finest compositions. On ‘Yellow Blues’ his bass line slinks around like an alley cat on heat, while the guitarist throws rocks at passing cars. The song provides the perfect segue into the second half of the album, where things take an unexpected turn into even darker territory. From here on in, The Stabs show that they have more than six strings to their bow and start fucking with the formula.
‘Funeral Waltz’ introduces piano into its dirge-like din. Gleeson proves his songwriting mettle with ‘The Hated One’, displaying his not-so-dulcet vocal tones, before Noonan sets his guitar and the curtains on fire on ‘Family Trust’. A see-sawing piano riff underpins ‘Cabin Fever’, sung by Nelson, and provides the arena for a twin guitar showdown that can only end in tears. Last, but not least, ‘Blues in F#’ is like that guy at the party who, after a few too many drinks, starts punching a brick wall until his friends drag him off kicking and screaming.
What it adds up to is an album with two distinct halves – the one with the hits, which summarises where the band has been, and the one that points the way to their future. It will be interesting to see them embracing more experimental structures and branching out into different instrumental arrangements, time-signatures and looser structures.
While Dead Wood is an album that I’ll be listening to for years to come, I do feel like The Stabs’ most interesting work still lies ahead of them. I only hope that we won’t have to wait another four years to hear it.
- Rene Schaefer (Mess+Noise)
released May 16, 2013
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