Spunk Records 20th Anniversary review: Tunes to move music lovers

Spunk Records 20th Anniversary: The Middle East, Jack Ladder & Holly Throsby, Machine Translations

Sydney Opera House, May 24

Four stars

Arcade Fire, Mogwai, Andrew Bird, Mac Demarco, Stephen Malkmus, Tortoise, Yeah Yeah Yeahs – the golden ear of Spunk Records founder Aaron Curnow has a knack for picking alternative artists that may not always sell millions, but always manage to move music lovers.

Celebrating the Thirroul label’s 20th birthday are four Australian acts on its roster, all sharing a folky aesthetic in varying degrees of complexity.

Under the moniker Machine Translations, mild-mannered musical maven Greg Walker creates off-kilter, experimental folktronica soundscapes. As evening opener, Walker and his band play 2002’s Happy to the still-filling Joan Sutherland Theatre. It’s his best-known album and a good one, sure – but it also sadly leaves no room for gems from Walker’s stellar back catalogue, such as Out to Sea or Venus Traps Fly.

Next up, the duo of Jack Ladder and Holly Throsby, wielding electric and acoustic guitars respectively, play a short set, alternating between each other’s tunes. Ladder has a spare, moody vibe and low baritone, while Throsby is a pioneer of the breathy vocal style that so often graces the airwaves of JJJ. Together they create a ying-yang double act of shade and light, interspersed with playful banter that’s at times more entertaining than the songs themselves.

Banter is definitely not a feature of enigmatic and earnest headliners The Middle East. Originally from Townsville, they burned brightly but briefly in the mid to late noughties, and tonight reunite for the first time since 2011.

With 14 members on stage, this is more like an orchestra than a folk band, and the hushed and intent reception that songs such as Black Death 1349, The Darkest Side and an utterly entrancing reworking of Blood receive from the audience calls to mind a classical performance. The only nod to rock is the relatively upbeat Jesus Came to My Birthday Party, but even here backing visuals from 1970s home movies lend to it a potent sense of melancholy.

In less subtle hands the wide array of instruments – piano, keyboards, accordion, flute, recorder, trumpet, saxophone, vibraphone, glockenspiel, cello, violins, bass, electric and acoustic guitars, lightly brushed drums, congas, hand percussion, banjo, harmonica and multiple vocal harmonies – might create a wall of noise.

Instead, The Middle East simmer a delicate sonic stew of ingredients that blend into one another and bathe the audience in a wash of pastoral psychedelics and hushed vocals, creating a sort of semi-symphonic chamber country folk in the process.

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