Darling Hills (Dot Dash Recordings)
Striking Australian brings you the wistful grace of the Darling Ranges; combined with a well-travelled mind; culminating in a song of rare beauty and epoch-defining potentiality and pulchritude.
Darling Hills is available at:
The album Burning Boy is available at:
THE arrival of a new male voice, can cause a wide range of emotions…
from the media and fans alike. Whether this vocal talent is a brand new talent, fresh on the scene; or one whom has gone from a band leader to a lone wolf; there is always a great deal of consideration and hyperbole provided. I am always attuned to, and interested in, the prowess of a great voice; and what components and ingredients go into making one. Historically, there has always been a choice of vocal idols. Whether you prefer the potency and raw power of Chris Cornell, Axl Rose, Roy Orbison, or the king of them all Freddie Mercury; or if the beauty of Eva Cassidy, Kate Bush and Thom Yorke is more your thing: there is plenty out there to investigate. One of the biggest problems with this generation, is that there seems to be a lack of interest in the past. Attention spans and focus tends to concentrate around present-day; or if you are really lucky, a couple of years back. Most are seemingly unaware of the likes of Janis Joplin, Nina Simone or Leonard Cohen- blank faces and haughty derision usually awaits. This lack of understanding and myopic fandom is responsible for a lot of miasma in the current scene. A great deal of female solo talent either present themselves as, or are compared with your Aguileras, Careys, Houstons or Winehouses; your boys tend to be ‘the next’ Jeff Buckley or Alex Turner. There is a little variation, but predominantly one can trace roots to an existing singer: making your listening experience seem second-hand and stifled. It does not help that the media seem to sweat with hysterical joy at the sounds of a man who can sing in falsetto; or a woman who has a gin-soaked or belting set of pipes. As much as the over-reaction and false praise is grating; it is also giving wannabes and rising talent a bad message: if you want our praise, throw away an original voice. Greater reward and accrued success will come more readily and more deservedly, when you strike an original chord. Naturally sprinkling some influences into the pot does no harm- in fact it can enhance a voice. It is also okay to be a little endeavouring: defying convention and having a wide-ranging and unfettered voice. Perhaps reintroduce strands of under-appreciated vocal idols such as Tim Buckley, Bjork or Scott Walker: be a bit more daring? However it is to be achieved, there needs to be an about-face when it comes to the voice. In spite of some familiar edges, troubadours such as Matt Corby are reappropriating a genre that is coming under some scrutiny. For all of the dewy-eyed adulation the likes of Tom Odell and Ed Sheeran get; Corby is more deserving of praise. With a wide-range and powerful set of lungs; that can go from a gravelled roar, down to a seductive whisper: it is much more of what is needed on the scene. In fact, it is the likes of Australia, which are producing some of the most diverse and memorable modern talent. Having given the world some of the greatest music of all time, the nation is also producing some terrific and heavy-sounding bands, brilliant female talent, and worthy male voices. The U.K. seems to be a little stifled at the moment, with regards to creative diversification. The mind-set is either firmly planted on fostering below-par solo talent, or generic-sounding bands. One suspects that a large amount of genuine wonder is being lost; dropped through the cracks; simply due to lack of attention and underwhelming social and media channels. It a shame, I guess, yet we here can take notes from the likes of the U.S., Europe and Australia. The latter has an almost stereotypical bonhomie and sense of relaxation: at once endearing, but also business-orientated. The lack of subjugation and suffocation has allowed indigenous talent to move and gain creative space; yet at the same time the more favourable records label/media source to artist ratio, has allowed for greater and more long-term fostering and consideration. The likes of Corby have been given the opportunity to flourish and grow; due to the fact that there is less caging-in and repression. As much as the U.S. and Canada are producing some of the finest bands of the moment, our northern and Scottish climbs, as well as Australia, are bearing forth the most exciting and meritorious talent.
Having spent some significant time as part of Snowman, Joe McKee is a name that may be familiar to quite a fair few- he is certainly a beloved name in Australia. Our hero’s sense of identity and ambition is enforced by the mellifluous majesty of the Darling Ranges. Sometimes referred to as Darling Scarp, they lie south of Perth; are noted for their tremendous beauty. It is a low escarpment, and extends to the south of Pemberton. Dams such as the Wungong Dam and the Canning Dam are to be found; as well as bauxite mines, railways and quarries. It is probably a quintessential destination for one who wants their mind to be inspired, relaxed and seduced. For those whom are aware of, and in love with Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra, the likes of this Perth wonder. Because of the area’s very hot summers, the Darling Scarp has been affected by huge fires as of late. In early 2011, a massive fire plagued the area for four days: forcing many to evacuate and seek refuge elsewhere. McKee originated from here- and barring a sojourn in London- has spent most of his days here; nestled within the quixotic and intoxicating beauty that the landscape has to offer. A long-held belief and tristesse of mine, has concerned the correlation between location and quality. In areas and countries where there are tightly-packed and busy communities, anxiety and hostility can be experienced- causing a drop in music quality and ambition. Where there are wider plains; greater distance as well as more inspiring landscapes; the mind is free to wander and imagine: causing a much stronger and free-range creative output. It is perhaps not a coincidence that McKee has been praised for his music- given where he spends most of his free time. As well as a productive spell in London, McKee has drawn influences and sights from his native Australia, and injected them into his work. His work with Snowman was widely praised- especially 2009’s masterpiece The Horse. The mesmeric sounds and limitless ambition lead the band to London; where they gained fresh inspiration and a chance to record Absense. After the band went separate ways- some to Europe, some stayed in England- McKee was a lone wolf: one filled by the majesty of London, and remembrances of home. Having tried to forget about Perth, McKee invariable returned there, where he recorded the 10-track opus Burning Boy. Under the auspices of his illustrious past and extraordinary talent, McKee has a lot to work with. Where as his band regency was noted for driving and pulsating rhythm sections; the solo McKee portrays and teases and unexpected and lush baritone- one that is causing a quiver amongst the music press. Where as your average solo man: think Ed Sheeran for example, turn in 10 or 11 variations on the meditations of love and personal strife, McKee has a golden nugget in his satchel. Where as a lot of our talent (as well as U.S. solo stars) are too beholden with filling E.P.s and albums with tales of love and wrong-side-of-the-tracks-romance; McKee has more in common with the likes of Bon Iver. McKee draws from the experiences of his landscape: Open Mine talks of Western Australia’s recent gold rush; where as the title cut has a more vulnerable edge. The range of themes and the dexterous nature with which McKee presents his songs, shows a talent whom understands keenly how a terrific set of lyrics, and a brilliant voice; will get you noticed and remembered: take note beige middle-of-the-road acoustic core! Burning Boy was released back in May, yet has lead to a huge swell in social media fans: 855 ‘likes’ on Facebook; 566 followers on Twitter (at the time of this review). Rolling Stone Australia dubbed the album “A near masterpiece”; whereas The Australian called it an “accomplished debut”. The Guardian recently included McKee in their (misnomer aside) ‘New band of the day’ segment. Online music sites such as Beat Magazine and Mess+Noise have heaped praise on the L.P., highlighted McKee’s encapsulating pipes and his superb set of songs. He has looks ready-made for the market. He is a handsome chap; where as like Corby he has a liberal amount of facial hair (including an astonishing beard), and a stare that will bore into you, he is the antithesis of the boy band Muppet: all hairless femininity and weak-limbed effete. He is A Man; recording songs of beauty and stirring resonance: the effect is one that will see him being welcomed back in London- as an inhabitant as well as a touring musician. One suspects that it will not only be Australia and the U.K. whom will be vying for McKee’s attention: the likes of the U.S. and vast swathes of Europe will soon be attuned to Burning Boy’s nuances and rewarding layers.
As well as the title song; Flightless Bird and Blue Valeria; which have struck and captured me with their beauty and variegated plumage, it is Darling Hills which lingers longest in my thoughts. The album is not available on Amazon until July 1st; yet the songs are available online- or most are. Blue Valeria’s success and wisdom drew in a lot of new (and existing) fans; and if Darling Hills is shared liberally; many new fans will take McKee to heart too. For all the press and adulation that the title track has garnered; I was struck by the autobiography and tender passion that is evident in Darling Hills. As you can tell by its title, it has geographical significance, and a great deal of personal relevance to 29-year-old (maybe 28; he was born in 1984, although I am not sure which month) McKee; whom was given a great investigation by The Guardian. I am often ambivalent (read: angry) towards Paul Lester (who writes the daily page); he often seems glib and fatuous with regards to the talent he features; sometimes bordering on the hate-filled. With McKee (whom he praises liberally), he is spot on. Highlighting his intelligent song craft, which as hallmarks of ’80s greats such as Prefab Sprout and Go-Betweens. His songs are imbued with sensitivity and orchestral majesty; mixing lick-lipping string sweeps, with spacious piano codas. To my mind, Darling Hills is the epitome and summation of all of the positive attributes and seductive D.N.A. that Burning Boy promotes.
The atmospheric and heady rush arrives immediately. Cinematic and epic strings; lush and romantic sweep in. Where as the likes of contemporaries such as Lana Del Rey employ swaying, dark string sections; Darling Hills’ intro. has more in common with the work of The Cinematic Orchestra: it shares the same immediacy and stirring quality. McKee’s vocal arrives; both tender and striking. It has a quality of Jim Morrison: there is that weight and potency; with an echoed/reverb effect to the voice. Our hero appears far away, with the song sounding like it was recorded in a tunnel; or empty valley- such is the sound of the voice. This gives the track a dreaminess, as well as emotional cadence that emphasises and augments the mood. Early thoughts and confessions point towards the beauty and majesty of where he is: “Darling Hills/Rolling in the dust”. Our hero’s voice is backed and supported by a gentle-picked and sighing guitar; tenderly played, summoning up some bare-boned beauty and evocativeness. McKee’s voice floats in the atmosphere; like the breeze it gently blows; caressing the words and it gives the listener the feeling he is actually in his Brisbane haunt: him and him alone, letting its natural wonders roll over him. Everything about the song and its projection would suggest a devotional love song- in a way I guess it is- as it seems like McKee is calling out to a lover. Scenes and thesis mix sensual and vivid imagery with delicate regard (“I dream of your/Burning skin”). It is the way that McKee brings you into the song, and gets you to appreciate the beauty he sees; that makes the song so captivating. It seems near-impossible that he recorded the song upright, in a studio, with a microphone; as you would think he was relaxing in the Darling Ranges, surveying the landscape, playfully teasing the grass in which he lays. As much as I have mentioned the older legends, and referred to Jim Morrison/The Doors; McKee has a Thom Yorke-cum-Jeff Buckley hybrid: not to employ an over-used comparison (as I hate to do so); yet it is that stillness and etherealness that was synonymous with these icons, that can be heard in our hero’s voice. The emphasis is very much on the word; letting it speak its truth and draw you in. Musical backing is never too heavy or overwrought- quite the opposite in fact. Gently plinking piano plays like soft rainfall, where as the articulation of strings is designed to elevate the emotion and tenderness; whilst embodying sunshine, moonlight, romance; joy, wistfulness- it manages to bring all of this to mind. The mix of the romantic and geographical mix perfectly, blending a heady and drunken kick, that will melt and seduce. McKee’s talent- amongst many- is to calm your mood and mind; no matter how you are feeling. The vocal is poured like chocolate, and has that enriching tone to it. Critics and reviewers may not have alluded to some (possible) influence, but there is a touch of Nick Cave. In fact there is a little of Matt Berninger from The National. Like these vocal wonders, McKee’s (voice) has a similar conviction and headiness. Unlike Berninger, McKee’s vocal is not rooted in sadness or introspection (quite as much); his words are not as oblique, and are more literal and romantic: “Through the trees/I can hear your voice”. So hard is it to find any link- direct or not- to any other artist, that you sort of hint at ‘maybes’: hearing a tiny bit of him; a whisper of them- the originality is what gives the song its purity. In the accompanying video for the track, we see images of the water; the ocean and rivers tumble with riparian smile; our hero lays down, eyes closed: the images are his thoughts and dreams, and a calmed peace seems to be present. Acoustic guitar and piano melt into one another; the guitar occasionally goes out in front, creating its own gravity and beauty, before dropping back slightly. In the way that the blues and jazz legends of the ’50s and ’60s could leave you spellbound with the voice and carefully-considered instrumentation; McKee does likewise. So much attention and hysteria has been paid to his country mate Corby. Matt Corby’s strengths lay in his power and guttural roars; where as I feel he is lacking when it comes to the more sedate and romantic side of things. In fact, over the course of Corby’s E.P.s and singles, his voice has not wavered too much from its core- it is great but you get the sense that he will need to expand it if he brings out future albums or E.P.s. McKee has proven he has a similar power and masculine power; yet he has the stillness and devotional spirit that Corby- as of yet- does not posses. Similarly the way strings are carefully employed; adding extra layers of intrigue and beauty, are something that Corby has not quite mastered. I only use the comparison to show that McKee deserves a similar attention and appreciation. Darling Hills is a paen to the nature of home: where the heart and spirit is. It would be axiomatic to say that the vocal and lyrics are convincing: this has been noted by everyone whom has heard the song. The sense of tenderness and stillness is what makes the song stand out. When you marry the words: part love letter to McKee’s native climb; part romantic calling out; and tie it together with the stirring and gorgeous composition that all of the various parts make a magnificent whole- one that sticks in your mind for a long, long time.
I have been a little down on U.K. talent for a while now. From listening to Darling Hills and Burning Boy, perhaps we suffer an incurable ailment: we just don’t have the scenery to inspire. Even if you travel to the hills and countryside of Yorkshire or Scotland; nestle in the busy cities, or take a trip through to a quiet environ, one thing will be apparent: it is not quite as majestic as Australia. I suspect that if a U.K. solo artist were to reside within the Darling Ranges, a similarly touching and beautiful song could have been produced. McKee has drawn in his influences from London and his time spent here, and brought them into a track that is very much Australian. It represents and speaks of the beauty of where he calls home; what many of us can only imagine in our minds. With these thoughts and evocations in our hero’s head, it is perhaps not surprising that a song of this quality and vividness has been made. Let us not give all of the credit to the landscape and inanimate objects: the lion share of plaudits go to McKee himself. As a writer his lyrics here- as well as throughout Burning Boy– are striking; able to mix metaphors, literal, tender passion and starkness together. There are few genuinely great lyricists on the scene at the moment. For the obvious indie-flavoured examples, the leaning tends to be on negative aspects of love, or a tristesse on modern life: the city streets, dangers and heartaches etc. McKee instead has taken a different approach and is speaking about what he knows and where he comes from. Little consideration is given to the negativity of break-ups; there are few examples of resentment in a relationship, and the constant power struggle. There are few evocations of the harshness of modern life and the horrors and realities of where we live today. Greater leaning is put onto the shoulders of tenderness, positivity and remembrance: these are key themes that are enforced throughout the L.P. In that sense there is an air of Patrick Watson: a Canadian artist whom has a majestic voice; and someone whom projects gorgeous and evocative tableaux. The composition of Darling Hills is measured and tender: strings, piano and guitar don’t force their way in; they simply back up our hero’s central voice. To that note, it is the vocal turn that is most impressive. Devoid of any obvious comparison, it is a unique instrument that says more than anything else on the track. At once relaxing, tender and romantic; the next pure and aching. That breathy and unforgettable baritone washes over you and pulls you in: such is the potency of the song that you let it, gleefully. Perhaps my reticence of the U.K. scene will abate in time, but our current crop can learn a lot from McKee. Over the course of Darling Hills, I have been jotting down notes and lyrics; ideas and thoughts. For a while I have been attempting to hone and complete a love song: a paen to a particular muse; yet have been unable to locate all of the appropriate words. I have come a lot closer to satisfying my thirst, and how many songs can you say influence you so immediately? Darling Hills is certainly no fluke- far from it, as this track is relatively under-reviewed. Where as the likes of the title track have been garnering most attention, it says a great deal when other tracks on the album hit just as hard. In fact the consistency of the album goes to show just how strong McKee’s talents are. Most acts and solo artists turn in an album with at least one or two filler tracks- yet if you survey Burning Boy, there are none to be found at all. I hope that McKee plays London very soon, as I will have to come and see him and experience Darling Hills live. It is a track that not only takes you to where McKee speaks; but makes you want to move there and experience the beauty first-hand. Given what we know of the new music scene…
HOW often can you ever say that of a song?