Their own women

by Nick Bollinger / 10 July, 2010
Fur Patrol's Julia Deans and Goldenhorse's Kirsten Morrell go it alone without their bands.

Bands - who needs 'em? It is a question that must have crossed the minds of two of this country's most successful frontwomen as they jettisoned their male retinues and embarked on solo debuts.

It is a decade since Julia Deans established herself as the guitar-wielding leader of Fur Patrol, whose post-grunge pop captured the mood of a new century and the imagination of a nation in songs such as Lydia and Andrew. But subsequent years were lost in fruitless attempts to repeat their local success in Australia, where their fine balance between melody and muscle tipped fatally towards the latter.

With Modern Fables, Deans makes a welcome return to melody, minus the constraints of a band. She states her intentions boldly in the kick-off track, titled (with certain self-awareness) Little Survivor, in which no traditional rock instruments can be found. It opens with a mock-baroque arrangement of horns, followed by Deans singing the first two verses torch-style, accompanied only by a double bass. Then the beautifully harmonising horns re-enter for the song's elegant conclusion. It's an arresting start to an album that has seldom a superfluous moment in its concise 36 minutes.

Granted, there are some cuts in which Deans backslides into a more routine rock: Recovery and the title track could almost be Fur Patrol in their prime. But for most of the 10-song set, she luxuriates in her unplugged freedom, ­harnessing electronic loops (the heartbeat of Friend and substance of the instrumental Ice Cream) or strings and raga-like drones (Skin) to support some of the most precise and melodic songs she has written. Loveliest of all is A New Dialogue, a slow country waltz with a sublime chorus in which Deans effectively demands to be treated as an adult. In the song, her request is directed to a lover, but it might equally be asked of her audience.

The songwriting and direction of Goldenhorse was shared between Kirsten Morrell and Geoff Maddock, so it was not always obvious who was contributing what. Morrell's Ultraviolet clears some of that up. The group's more folkish moments, it appears, were Morrell's, as were its sugar-pop ones; the quirkier, gnarlier, guitar-driven bits can be attributed to Maddock.

Like Deans, shaking off the band has freed Morrell to dress her latest songs in whatever suits them best. For a good portion of the album, that means looped beats, electronically distressed guitars and keyboards, courtesy of multi-instrumentalist and producer Jol Mulholland.

Even the more downbeat, folky tunes in the latter part of the disc, which at first appear to consist of little more than Morrell and her acoustic guitar, are enhanced by Mulholland's electronic atmospheres. It all amounts to a bubbling, colourful album.

Rather than show a new maturity or departure from pop, as Deans has done, Morrell has chosen to embrace pop with all its candyfloss qualities, while mischievously subverting it to her own ends. Ultraviolet is loaded with upbeat hooky songs. Ghosts rattles along on the kind of island rhythm Goldenhorse sometimes hinted at, while Friday Boy recalls the English ska of Madness or, more recently, Lily Allen.

In many of the songs, Morrell adopts a coy, wounded tone to portray the lovelorn protagonist. But don't be fooled. Things usually turn out all right for the singer in these deceptively detailed scenarios. There's the jilted figure of Friday Boy, alone in the park yet getting the last laugh at the end of the song, or the girl of Cherry Coloured Dreams telling "the guy in the suit to go jump", knowing she will ultimately get her reward.

MODERN FABLES, Julia Deans (Tardus/Universal); ULTRAVIOLET, Kirsten ­Morrell (KMR/Warner).

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