On Friday night in the basement venue of The Chippo in Chippendale, NSW, three of Stanley Records‘ artists officially launched their new releases on the label. Stanley Records has been around for a number of years building up its catalogue and chronicling the Australian alt-country scene with numerous quality releases. So in many ways it was also a celebration of the label, spearheaded by performances by Sam Shinazzi, Ben Leece and label head honcho Dave Favours and his band the Roadside Ashes.
Sam Shinazzi has been a stalwart of the Sydney indie scene for years – decades even! His slowburn career has been marked by consistency and a strength of low-key yet mature and heartfelt songwriting. His latest and his sixth album, Days I Won’t Forget is his best yet. He’s found a really wonderful balance between that lazy acoustic strum that forms the backbone of his songs and their fleshed-out form courtesy of a band that has the subtlety and the vocabulary to dig into a bruised, heartland indie rock anthem and then slow their collective pulse to a wistful and authentic alt-country ballad.
‘Closing Time’ (featuring guest vocals from Katie Brianna) might be the finest song Shinazzi has written. At the Chippo it was a highlight, even with Brianna sadly waylaid by illness and unable to perform her part. The overwhelming melancholy and late-night sway of the song hit hard, even with the spark of optimism that permeates the song. ‘Last Night Bruce Springsteen Changed My Life’ was another that blew through the heavy basement air, just as it does opening the new album. You can hear Shinazzi’s influences – The Lemonheads, Buffalo Tom, The Jayhawks, the Bruce name-checking cleverly woven into the story of a man looking back and picking apart regrets. That sense of reminiscing, the flashing of memories through verses and choruses is perfectly conveyed in Shinazzi’s voice. He possesses an unassuming, low-key delivery that rides the melodies with real warmth and a weariness that always seems to gently tug on the heartstrings.
Live, one of Shinazzi’s not-so-secret weapons is guitarist Adam ‘T-Bone’ Taylor who time and time again delivers perfectly placed lead lines and solos. He’s one of the most tasteful players on the Sydney scene, dividing his time between Shinazzi and Restless Leg. On the The Chippo stage Shinazzi brought those memories embedded in the new album’s songs to life, into the present and into the hearts and minds of the supportive audience. Kindred spirits, as he sings on the song of the same name.
Dave Favours may be the mastermind behind Stanley Records but he’s a humble cheerleader for his own band. Live you get the sense of a bunch of mates digging into punk and rock-tinged alt-country songs. There’s no sense of posture or shooting for the stars, just quality songwriting played with spirit and verve. They kicked off their set with ‘Cleveland’ the opening track and single from the new album Cheap Motels After Midnight. The opening riff sounds like it could have come (in the best possible way) from any number of killer Australian bands – The Saints, The Johnnys for example. Later in the set they pay tribute to the sad recent loss of The Saints’ Chris Bailey with a terrific version of ‘Just Like Fire Would’. The new album was the focus of their set and like Shinazzi, Favours and co have recorded their best batch of songs on their new record. Knowing some of Favours’ favourite bands it made total sense when I heard a Red Kross swagger and strut in ‘Louisa’ and even a hint of early KISS filtered through the Australian rock ‘n’ roll underground on the rhythmic chop of… ‘Underground’.
On the album they shift between cowpunk, alt-country and a strong melodic streak. On the closer they take things into a dark and humid swampy world that sounds like prime Gun Club. Back in the Chippendale basement, they serve the new songs well, especially when Aaron Langman gets to show off his impressive chops on guitar and pedal steel, though sometimes the band don’t quite loosen up and get ragged enough as some of the songs might demand. It’s been a while between gigs though, and this was the first night of a run of shows.
Ben Leece. The best kept secret on the Australian music scene. Those who know, know – but he really should be storming the barricades of critical acclaim and reaching a wider audience – and he will. Sometimes the best music requires the slower game and he’s got great people in his corner (and his band) so it’s really only a matter of time. From his debut album to his brand new double EP release Skywatching + Marrow Gold he’s widened his sonic palette as he’s developed his writing, keenly avoiding being pigeonholed into any one category. That flexibility and freedom has allowed Leece to harness the sound of The Replacements, Husker Du, Paul Weller (we’re treated to a storming version of Changing Man), Fugazi and much more.
There are new Leece recordings on the way and one senses that after the experiment of using two different producers (Shane Nicholson/Adam Young) and recording methods (studio/iPhone) on the new EPs, Leece will be solidifying his approach and sound on his next album. That said the choice to release both EPs at the same time was a good one. The listener gets an inside lane on Leece’s approach and creative journey. Through it all it’s the songs themselves that make the biggest impact – ‘Marrow Gold’, ‘Pigeons’, ‘Constellations’ and ‘Magpie’ are all among the finest songs Leece has written to date.
Though it’s evident on the EPs, the dynamic range of Leece’s songs and the way his band can flip on a dime between excoriating, wire-taut punk/alt-rock and sombre, heartfelt and accessible pop-rock songs is undeniably impressive and thrilling when you’re standing six feet from him in a live room. ‘Eddie’ is the most alt-country moment, dancing on Liam Ferguson’s light-fingered and (as always) infinitely soulful bass playing. The highlight of the set was the soaring tumble and crash of ‘Marrow Gold’. It digs into a powerful groove that seems to endlessly build, drawing in the audience before throwing them skyward on unrestrained drumming, and rock (in the best sense) guitar fireworks. Sure there’s power and precision in what Leece and his band Left of the Dial do but there’s also compassion and a sensitivity in Leece’s songwriting that makes him the real deal.
From Sam Shinazzi’s early strummed acoustic chords at the start of the evening, through Dave Favours’ roots rock shakedown and culminating in the heavy heartache and wall of heavenly melodic noise that Ben Leece conjured up, the whole night proved to be a worthy celebration of three quite different yet wholly complementary releases.