A Song is a City: How hard do you want to belong?

“All I got here is books and music
I used to have exercise but I out
Grew it”
– “Smoke,” Eskimo Joe

a-song-is-a-city-4e9a0f4b01874How hard have you wanted to belong to somewhere, someone, something?

For Eskimo Joe it didn’t take long. To my disdain, Kavyen Temperley said “It wasn’t until Girl, our debut album, that we returned to the sort of songs we had intended to do at the beginning.”

Oh, how this quote would have boiled my blood years ago. But the truth is unavoidable: the skills from Girl had been tested, weathered, but the material heart in A Song is a City remained unchanged. It still suffers from Eskimo Joe’s moods. Not just the ripe for ballad moods, but also when the lads, Temperely, Macleod and Quartermain approach their early power-punch stage on “Older than You.” The choral section saves us from Kavyen’s solo-falsetto on “Life is Better With You,” the pianos salvage “Car Crash,” but the fact remains: Eskimo Joe are still playing with how far they can take it across their sophomore effort.

However, for every problem this record carried over, answers are provided; yes,the guitars can get banal, but they quickly regain their edge; yes, Girl-relic “Older Than You,” is too cute for its own damn good, but the band improves the sonic on “Don’t Let It Fly”; yes, the lyrics can get one-note, but the poetry is vastly improved; and yes, Kav’s voice wobbles foppish on the line “whatever happened to this **breathe in** rooooom” but they absolutely thunder with an “all I know is she’s never im-pressed by me.And through it all are those piano accompaniments belie growing confidence. Eskimo Joe’s A Song is a City is what Girl wanted to be: an even-keeled smart garage rock record, an artistic credit builder, a message worth making. The record’s conceit was written as Temperley, Stu Macleod and Joel Quartermain’s lovesong-sick long-player to a city stuck on the other side of Australia—Freemantle. Yes, there’s still girls a-plenty, but there’s marked improvement in the musicality: pianos always on wing, drums crashing in the background, lyrics less stock and guitars layered over top, left and right.

Only the synthesizer play, which continues to breeze without much force, remains rudimentary—it’s an ambient thing that doesn’t really have much point other than to obscure what the rest of the record does well. It’s distracting and irritating and ultimately helps throw this LP’s efforts for greatness into futility. To intellectualize away this distaste: what city doesn’t harbor white noise and what metropolis has no muck? Regardless, it all translates to music that is populated with reasons, lyrics, din, migrating, meandering, moving to motives selfish but no less compelling. This is no great record; but despite itself it is a good record.

All this said: A Song is a City was never my favourite—it still isn’t—instead it vies for the number two spot with Black Fingernails, Red Wine. But with every year, the case for the former fortifies while the latter’s withers away, Black Fingernails now occupies a specific emotional space that casual listening could never satisfy. And there’s a reason why.

“All I know is she’s never impressed by me
– “This Room,” Eskimo Joe

I stated that the lyrics on this record are a marked step-up, I actually consider them the best of Eskimo Joe’s career. But it didn’t start that way: there are lyrics that make little sense at a younger age, not just semantically but emotionally. “You have to suffer the blues if you wanna play ‘em” is a proverb stuck in my head since high school days. I didn’t understand it until my college sophomore year, when I hurt the girl I loved and she hurt me right back. Fair dinkum, I started it. And ever since that proverb had its point—but that’s a story that need not be told here. I’ve got others to divulge.

Fast forward to Junior year, another girl, we had just burned strawberry incense and laid there, A Song is a City rolling from cut to cut to cut. I had no TV, just some libraries, one paper, one wax, one digital and dual monitors; we watched as the random alchemy of Windows Media Player develop on one. For days she left the words “All I know is she’s never im-pressed by me” stuck in my head. They still are, when I crush and strike out. Each time they rash a little redder, bleed a little easier, but sting no sharper, assuaged with the lies of growth: “All I’ve got here is books and music/Used to have exercise but I out-/ Grew it.”

Call it prestidigitation but because these lyrics found me at my most vulnerable, they’ve come to help me define myself. These lyrics that have come to know me, etched by people who don’t. Clapton has done it, the xx have done it, others’ have done it but Eskimo Joe did it first and they had done it again. At that moment she passed through the door, it had been A Song is a City’s turn to mark me, and none no deeper than “From The Sea.”

“I could have slept for days
It’s like a radar
and it comes
To you
from the sea”
– “From the Sea,” Eskimo Joe

I’d been listening to this song for nearly 14 years. I still had no fucking clue what “it” means to Temperley: a crush, a keepsake, a melancholy? This is Temperley’s temperamental and obtuse lyrical skill highlight—for once his straightforward obliqueness paints himself into a semantic corner where no one cares; “it” could be anything, but by dealing in poetic vagaries, any odd sight within the city (a passing car, an ocean squall, a fish-and-chip shop scene) could invoke and run with “it.” Me, I had given up on spoken-word semantics and settled on the musical ones.

It seems pastiche to use seabound metaphors to describe a song such as “From the Sea,” but on the floatsam reelback of delay at “Come Down’s” end, a ticktocking drum machine jetsam rocks on the wave of a main piano melody, try as the song might to drown it in rhythmic storm, it never wholly disappears. Like a radar, it continues to bob and revolve on the big blue. Perhaps this is what he means by “it.” Perhaps that’s “why.”

However, there is another candidate, on the second swell there’s a gorgeous piano melody played on the left flank of the choral mix, siren’s melody calls, limestone keys calcify then dissolve. It’s not exactly fleeting, but it doesn’t stick around for long; in the wash of guitars and Kavyen, perhaps this is that “it,” perhaps this is that “why.” Lost until found then lost to be found again. For anyone listening to this song on the first few listens, either should suffice; but not for me.

The first times I found this piano riff was in Australia, in the Land Rover, on the radio, Triple J, as usual. There is no singular instant; just a continuous scene with inescapable truths and souvenir spitshine. Triple J loved this song and along with Missy Higgin’s “Scar,” it flipped on static frequently enough that somehow it became indelible and everlasting to my memory. Funnily, I never confirmed it to be an Eskimo Joe cut until after I fell in love with Black Fingernails, Red Wine and the subsequent remix EP, but I heartily digress, it was a song of my youth, known or unknown, confirmed all the same.

I later found the riff in a car of my own, recently graduated, living with parents, driving, at night, from whatever happening—either work or a concert, I hardly remember—no radio, just a CD brought to me from a family friend, Daz, who had also migrated to the States and gone back to Australia with a list of orders. That he remembered mine imbued the record with something, a vague sense of connection, perhaps, with a land I call mum in secret. That might have been “it.” That might have been “why.” But on the dark return route, it was gone before I got to the driveway

When I returned to Australia to visit mates and enjoy what I had lost for a decade, eventually my host and I needed a day to separate. An unfortunate necessity for my personality—we’d spent the last being best mates, but even that needs a moment to cool—I had no plan, content to wander the streets of Melbourne, enjoy the odd art museum and watch the riverboats cruise the Yarra and her upside down run. Eventually I was in Queen Victoria park, sitting, spectating, writing at a mound, shared, between two palm trees and me and something else. A ghost, a power?

I didn’t know what to call “it.” But at the smell of Eucalyptus, the charge of Spring hail and sudden thunder, the sound of Kookaburra calls and notes opening on the sight of the Yarra, I knew what it was, what it is.

Album Artist: Eskimo Joe

  • Kavyen Temperley—vocals, guitars, piano
  • Stu MacLeod—lead guitars, backing vocals
  • Joel Quartermain—drums, guitars, piano, backing vocals

Producer: Self-Produced w/ Paul McKercher
abel: Warner/Mushroom
Genre: Indie Rock, Garage Rock

    1. Come Down”
    2. From The Sea”
    3. Life Is Better With You”
    4. Older Than You”
    5. A Song Is A City”
    6. Don’t Let It Fly”
    7. I’m So Tired”
    8. Seven Veils”
    9. Smoke”
    10. Carousel”
    11. This Room”
    12. Car Crash”

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About BenJamsToo

An insane man moonlighting as a respectable member of society from Portland, Oregon. A rock ‘n’ roller since his mother first spun The Police’s “Roxanne,” Ben is a lover of all things rock, soul, funk, jazz, blues, electronic and hip-hop. Perhaps it’s easier to list what he doesn’t like: most gangsta rap, country-western and modern metal disagrees with his stomach. Once upon a time, a friend told him to write about music. So he started doing that under the title of a Willie Bobo cover by Santana. Now he wonders about what Stu McKenzie has for breakfast, why John Congleton is the best damn record producer this side of the millennium and just how Common came to be his favourite hip-hop star. He’s been working on that last one for nearly a decade now. No answers yet.