Words on The Mountain (and Lachlan Bryan and The Wildes)
by Gareth Hipwell (Country Update/Rolling Stone)
Once in a blue Tasman moon, the damp, limey backstreets of Melbourne produce a songsmith of singular integrity and vision; an artist who is readily able to articulate, in profoundest detail, our most familiar concerns – be they personal, generational, or universal. Paul Kelly, Nick Cave, Archie Roach – each emerged, fully formed, from the fertile proving ground of the Victorian capital. Standing alongside them in the slow-turning screws of Northcote rain is Lachlan Bryan – attended, as ever, by long-time companions The Wildes.
The second studio outing from the re-branded Lachlan Bryan and The Wildes – their first with ABC Music – The Mountain is a landmark recording from one of the country’s most versatile collectives.
An expansive offering, The Mountain is a lyrical and musical expression of resignation falling short of capitulation; of living with doubt without being enfeebled by it; of finding stillness in the face of the constant, pressing urge toward motion.
Since emerging in 2009 as the songwriting force behind The Wildes’ much-lauded debut Ballad of a Young Married Man, Lachlan Bryan has been a consistently compelling presence on the local alt. country-Americana landscape. Much-admired 2012 solo debut Shadow of the Gun was an album of striking immediacy and pathos, cementing Lachlan’s reputation as one of the world’s premier composers.
The Mountain builds on the tearaway success of the most recent Lachlan Bryan and The Wildes offering, the Rod McCormack-produced Black Coffee (2013). That album debuted at the No. 12 spot on the ARIA Australian Albums Chart, peaking at No. 4 on the ARIA Country Chart and netting the group the 2014 Golden Guitar for Alternative Country Album of the Year, as well as The Age Music Victoria Award for Best Country Album, and the Australian Independent Music Award for Best Group. Both infectious single ‘Black Coffee’ and brooding murder ballad ‘309’ (with Bill Chambers) became instant radio favourites.
A tireless touring outfit at home, Lachlan and The Wildes have established a formidable reputation on the U.S. live circuit, racking up dozens of dates across multiple trans-American tours. Journeying overland from Oklahoma to Texas, Arkansas to Missouri, Tennessee to Louisiana, the band has crossed paths with Steve Earle and John Hiatt, performed at the world-renowned New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and supported The Alvin Brothers, The North Mississippi Allstars, and Joan Armatrading. On Australian soil, Lachlan and band have graced the stages of the iconic Tamworth Country Music Festival, Gympie Muster, and appeared at Australia’s premier annual roots fixture, Bluesfest.
Produced by Lachlan Bryan and The Wildes, The Mountain was tracked over two fertile days at Toyland Studios in Northcote. Each of the album’s twelve tracks coalesced with telling organicity.
“The main criteria for us with the studio, the way we record, is to have good isolation rooms, because we like to record live – to track everything together,” Lachlan says.
Joining Lachlan, drummer Mat Duniam, bassist Shaun Ryan, and guitarist Damian Cafarella in the studio were legendary session player James Gillard (Paul Kelly, Kasey Chambers), pianist Ben Grayson (The Bamboos), and pedal steel player Seamus O’Sullivan (Ruby Boots, Bakersfield Glee Club).
The Mountain is Lachlan Bryan and The Wildes at their careworn, uncluttered best. Lacquered throughout with nostalgic guitar parts straight out of the Sun Records playbook, the album traverses dancehall rock’n’roll, heartworn alt. country-Americana, and freewheeling rockabilly.
Co-written with much-decorated U.S. songwriter Kim Richey – who lends backing vocals to the track – album opener ‘Afraid of the Light’ is an instantly recognisable Lachlan Bryan confessional supported by a soft country strum and plaintive pedal steel.
‘I looked outside and wished it was rainin’. I don’t care for the blue sky here at all.’
The rain and shadowy alleys of ‘Afraid of the Light’ are all-too-familiar inspirations – as Lachlan explains.
“I moved back to Melbourne during the making of The Mountain. I feel there’s definitely a lot of Melbourne in this album. Even in the instrumentation – we predominantly stuck to Melbourne musicians for the first time in a couple of records.”
The quiet Victorian streets of Lachlan Bryan’s imagination open inevitably, irresistibly, onto ever-widening roads, highways and byways, drawing the songsmith out into the wild dark beyond the sudden borders of town. If Black Coffee spoke to a single preoccupation or obsession, it was to a helpless fixation on the open road.
Unlike those surveyed on Black Coffee, though, the long roads ofThe Mountain ultimately lead to a very real place – a destination of notorious fixity in terms of both geography and reputation. For Lachlan and band, New Orleans, Louisiana is a city livid with the damp heat of inspiration.
The Big Easy is a ubiquitous presence across the length of The Mountain, writ in stirring organ and, in something of an innovation for the band, several bold and brassy horn parts. The famed jazz capital lives and breathes in languorous Bourbon Street fever-dream ‘Dugdemona’, and swinging Dixieland-inspired closer ‘Gin and Tonic’.
‘Gin and tonic, whiskey or chartreuse, the only drink I should rethink is the drink I drink without you.’
“New Orleans has become our ‘home ground’ when we’re in America,” Lachlan explains. “Because we’ve now spent more time there than anywhere else in the States, it’s also the place we’ve encountered the most music. That was really influential in the writing process for The Mountain.”
If shimmering Southern soul flavours are the ‘black cat bone’ to the voodoo potion that is The Mountain, piano-anchored centrepiece ‘The Mountain’ is the still-beating heart.
‘There are mountains that you talk about, and mountains that you climb. And I was only twenty when I made my way up mine. When I climbed the mountain I had nowhere left to go, but down around the mountain to the valley far below.’
It’s a sobering reflection on the distances travelled in youth, and a clear-eyed survey of all that lies ahead.
“I feel it doesn’t matter what we do in life, we all still come to that endpoint and say, well, now what?” Lachlan says of the track.
True to form, The Mountain bristles with Lachlan’s unique observations on those finer details that, together, add up to a fully-rounded picture of life in all its immensity.
‘It took me a day-and-a-half to get your perfume out of my car,’ he sings on pedal steel-embossed country shuffle ‘The Secret I’ll Take to my Grave’.
Underscoring his versatility as a wordsmith, Lachlan’s irreverent streak undeniably shines on tracks such as the rustic ‘A Long Way to Fall’.
‘A heart like yours takes time to break, but I’m workin’ as fast as I can.’
An established fixture of the band’s live set, freewheeling rockabilly cut ‘The King and I’ offers a lighthearted glimpse into the life of a much-travelled Elvis impersonator.
‘These days it’s just a backin’ track and a broken down PA. And there’s a woman in Deniliquin gets a quarter of my pay.’
“I originally wrote ‘The King and I’ imagining a fairly ‘camped up’ Elvis-type arrangement,” Lachlan explains. “We tried all kinds of ways of arranging it for the album, but we definitely ended up going back to that kind of ‘Sun Records’ sound. If you want to keep the Elvis comparison, it’s definitely much more early Elvis than fat Elvis!”
At once ambitious and restrained, literary and irreverent, The Mountain is a genre-spanning document of Australian songwriting at its thrilling, heartbreaking, captivating best.© 2016 Lachlan Bryan and The Wildes. All Rights Reserved.
Words on The Mountain (and Lachlan Bryan and The Wildes)