It is pretty much a proven fact that ‘less-is-best’ makes good rock’n’roll. The early Sun rock records of Elvis, Chuck Berry’s teen tone poems, The Who, Nirvana, the list goes on and ever will. But it is not only the stripped back rhythm-plus-guitars that makes this music raw and true – often it is also less players fussing up the clean forward drive of the song with their ideas.
Roots, blues and rock’n’roll songwriter Bridie O’Brien – for years now a bighearted fixture at festivals and rock venues around Australia – built her new album, Highway Heart with just two people. Recorded with polymath producer Syd Green at his Sanctuary Point studio, Mononest, O’Brien plays everything (guitars, lapsteel and piano) but bass and drums which Green provides. And it shows.
The two can conjure moments of still and whispered intimacy, such as the lovely ‘New Year’s Day’ and the acoustic miniature ‘Too Small to Be a Boat’ (one of two instrumentals here). They can chug as well, with a decisively propelled groove – the country honk ‘Dead or Alive’ (faintly reminiscent of Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ in mood and country greens and browns) is a gas. And they can wail, sounding much bigger than two (even with overdubbing), as on the night dark Neil Youngish ‘Lonely’.
But whatever the mood or colour of the song, it is the directness and unfettered power of one (or two) musician’s mojo that really works here. It also helps that the songs are so strong. This is O’Brien’s second album – her first was 2006’s Soft Side of Dark – and her deeply human songs draw on country, roots and rock (which are all part of the stew of the blues anyway) without falling into the cliché traps that too many do. She liberally adds indie rock flavours or a harsh chord where the music needs it – God bless the non-purists…
It is always a buzz hearing a songwriter deliver their own material – telling it like it is meant to be told – and O’Brien is no exception. Her voice is really something, its qualities growing on me through repeated listenings of Highway Heart: mostly a honeyed whisper and pure country clearwater revival, but rising to a rock yell as a song rises, reminiscent of such cat-scratch vocalists as rock’n’roll queen Wanda Jackson. The coda of the truly chilling ‘World’s Gone Mad’ races like a fireball through the streets of a city, voices and instruments rising rising rising into an unbearable cut-off, like sudden death.
O’Brien builds the moods on Highway Heart almost theatrically (Producer Green always a sensitive and painterly set-designer to her heart-plays). ‘Disco Lights’ chorus – ‘Everything is quiet/I can see the Disco Lights/They’re coming from a dark room’ – comes loaded with so much depth of mood thanks to O’Brien and Green’s insistent emotional buildup. The title track, ‘Highway Heart’ is widescreen and pastoral, like a country blacktop at night, scarred with the tyre tracks of too many sad roadtrips. But its chorus is anthemic and dawn-coloured, bringing to mind My Bloody Valentine with the guitars turned down. The opener, ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’ is pure mood – an atmospheric instrumental (apart from a few repeated lines two-thirds in) – all chugging acoustic guitar and skeins of splintery Stratocaster. As an opener, its very unsongness is a statement of O’Brien’s uncompromised artistry.
The single and featured track is a blues-smeared cover of Rose Tattoo’s ‘Rock’n’Roll Outlaw’ – two minutes and twenty seven seconds of attitude and mission statement – which fits beautifully with the whole album. Green’s production and bare bones drumming on this cut are as raw as a black eye; his understanding of this mood and swagger are right on the money, as is O’Brien’s delivery.
It is testament to her talent (too weak a word for something this soulful) that Bridie O’Brien can howl ‘Rock’n’Roll Outlaw’ and a few songs later sweetly croon her own ‘Country Song’ – ‘If you’re lookin’ for a little spare time / Darlin’, you can have some of mine’. In a genre that grows creatively narrower and narrower in a mistaken crusade for ‘honesty’ and ‘realness’, Highway Heart captures them both and finds time for musical adventure and daring originality.
Highway Heart is available on iTunes and from www.bridieobrien.com from October 22.