You vaguely remember a New Order-derived electro throb, an ear for a hook, and a nagging melancholy just beneath soaring choruses. ‘Pleasure and Consequence’, ‘Sense of Self’... What was it, three years ago? What happened to those guys?
Not much – and also a whole lot. After turning heads with their Movements EP, City Calm Down looked like a band on the verge of something big. To the band themselves though, the process of writing and recording their debut full-length album – In A Restless House – felt a lot like starting from scratch.
Merely coasting on their early buzz was never a serious option for City Calm Down: they were fixed on something bigger – they didn’t know what that something was, but they were determined to find out. Still, three years? As keyboardist Sam Mullaly says, “We had minor successes, but it was just things falling into place, rather than us really working as a unit.”
In this case, “working as a unit” meant dropping out of the Melbourne live scene and completely rethinking their working method. It meant ditching the computers in favour of 16-hour jam sessions in seaside seclusion, and learning how to accept the compromises and frustrations of a true democracy.
That meant exploring new terrain, stretching themselves as musicians, and reaching consensus on every note. Needless to say, it took a while. After writing 60+ songs and discarding countless demos, they eventually found the 11 that all were willing to stand by. “There’s not a single part that I don’t know off by heart in any of those songs, and it’d be the same for the other three guys,” says drummer Lee Armstrong.
The resulting album, In A Restless House, is a startling document: an effortless, surefooted debut that manages to sound both sprawling and focussed, an explosion of ideas that makes a mockery of its tortured origins. This is a band reborn, or rather, born in earnest. The lean, intense monochrome of their early work is still present, but it shares the frame with startling cloudbursts of colour and textural detail.
With long-time producer Malcolm Beasley helming the sessions, City Calm Down have weaned themselves off the synths, adding synthetic and organic new variations to their sound.
Songs like the anthemic “Rabbit Run” carry a familiar blend of exhilaration and brooding introspection, but those feelings are summoned by a greater variety of means. Mullaly’s glistening keyboard lines are now joined by piano, organ, chugging guitars and even mournful horns.
Likewise, Armstrong’s distinctive, post-punk-meets-disco beats share airspace with the filtered hip-hop grooves of “Nowhere To Start”, and the dizzying, shapeshifting rhythms of “If There’s A Light On”. Throughout, he and bassist Jez Sonnenberg establish the sort of rhythmic understanding that allows their bandmates the freedom to explore far-flung sonic realms.
At the centre of it all, though, is Jack Bourke’s unmistakable baritone. The suave, weary croon is immediately recognisable, but as with the rest of the instruments, Bourke delights in bending his voice into new shapes across the 11 songs. He opens “Wandering” with confessional moan, mimics Robert Smith’s wounded-puppy yelp on “Your Fix”, and amid the mannered post-punk of “Falling” he threatens to flame out in a burst of ragged despair.
Across the record, Bourke’s impressionist lyrics act as a moral ballast, exploring the trials of devotion and the difficulty of doing right in an unstable age. His is a restless conscience, a kernel of doubt at the heart of these soaring, swaggering songs.
“I’ve got nothing to complain about, but you look around in your mid-twenties, and you wonder what the world has in store for our generation,” Bourke says. Beyond that general theme, Bourke is reluctant to examine his lyrics too closely. “I almost think it’s irrelevant…the important thing is that someone can grab onto it and find their own meaning.”
For a band that thrives on control, this is no small thing: are they really ready to let go of their baby? “I’m proud of it, so I don’t really give a shit,” says Sonnenberg, with typical candour. “We made the album that we wanted to make.”