You Am I - Rolling Stone Review
Rolling Stone, Issue 708, November 2010 | By: Darren Levin
Oz Rock legends draw a line in the sand with their experimental eponymous LP
Rating: 4 Stars
What prompts a band to make an eponymous record nine albums and 21 years into their career? In the case of You Am I - surely one of Australia's greatest rock bands - it's an unflinching belief that this is their finest and most definitive work to date. But have they ever felt otherwise?
Prior to the release of the band’s sixth album, 2002’s, Deliverance, Tim Rogers declared the record “uber You Am I”. That it’s widely seen as the nadir of the band’s storied career says everything about their mindset. You Am I always feel their best record is around the corner – even if that’s not always the case.
So when they call an album You Am I you better believe it’s a statement of intent. Like Lou Reed – who dubbed his final Velvet Underground record Loaded, because he was asked to release something “loaded with hits” – You Am I’s past three albums have been adorned with one-line epithets. Deliverance was about delivering the goods with a minimum of fuss; 2006’s Convicts was their rebellious first album as BMG castaways; while 2008’s Dilettantes cheekily questioned their right to dabble in experimental art-rock. You Am I, unsurprisingly, is an album made on their own terms.
Ahead of its release, the band called time on their relationship with EMI, inking a deal with new Sydney imprint Other Tongues. It's a liberating move, but the stakes for You Am I have never been higher. Whether this album sinks or swims is in their own hands, and it's reflected in the fact that it was pieced together with producer Greg Wales over sessions in several studios, with no deadlines or restrictions.
The first thing that strikes you about You Am I is how subdued it is. The album opens with "We Hardly Knew You", a hazy almost psychedelic number with acoustic guitar buzz and a whistle that sounds like it was recorded impromptu during a vocal take. Rogers enters the fray, subsumed in reverb. He's quoting the Declaration of Independence: "We now hold these truths to be evident/That nothing is bolted or permanent." builds in intensity, before a guitar rings out and some sleigh bells signal a reprise of the chorus: “How could you not march so blissfully on/Knowing everyone loved is on loan/You’re not alone.”
The song segues nicely into “Kicking The Balustrade”, another slow burner, featuring a trademark Rogers analogy (“as loose as a real estate suit”) and a heavily processed twin guitar solo by Davey Lane. It triggers two pop songs: “Lie And Face The Sun”, with sweet call-and-response vocals courtesy of indie “it” girl Megan Washington, and “The Good Ones” – a perfect example of their newfound maturity. There’s a deliberate sense of restraint here; an ability to rethink songs from the ground up, reminiscent in the way Wilco have approached their material over the past decade.
Dilettantes signposted this direction, but there was a nervous air about that record that’s all but dissipated here.
Rogers hasn’t sung this well in years – there’s an effortless swagger to songs like “The Ocean” and “Pinpricks”, a zippy two-minute rock anomaly; and his phrasing has notably benefited from his forays on stage (he starred in a production of Woyzeck in Melbourne last year and wrote his own stage show for the Adelaide Cabaret Festival in July).
The album’s final moment, “Let’s Not Get Famous”, is telling. It’s about the dangers of corrupting your art with adulation and fame. “The best laid plans of mice and men” sings Rogers atop piano tinkles, chello and radio static, “were noble until the crowd came in.”
For some fans, Hourly, Daily and Hi-Fi Way are You Am I’s highest water marks, and that will never change. But for those not clinging to nostalgia, or expecting the band to live up to a dated indie-rock ideal, this is ground zero; a new line in the sand. It makes You Am I a fitting name.
Key Tracks – “We Hardly Knew You”, “The Good Ones”, “Waiting To Be Found Out”