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UNDERGROUND LOVERS @ Badlands gets 9/10

Underground Lovers @ Badlands Bar
w/ Andrew McCubbin
Saturday, February 24, 2018

9/10

Two decades after their last visit to Perth, the reformed Underground Lovers take to the tiny Badlands stage looking like a gang of cool art teachers and librarians. People forget how important and significant this band was in Australian music in the 1990s, avoiding the exhausted cliches of rock music to instead create a cinematic, layered European sound that incorporated the most interesting new ideas of the period (heavy use of effects pedals, electronic loops etc) into a melodic pop framework. They were both hugely praised and totally invisible at the same time, and possibly never quite hungry enough for commercial success, settling instead for critical respect and appearances in endless ‘classic albums’ lists.  Such is the music business as we all know.

The support act tonight is Andrew McCubbin, a Melbourne experimentalist, joined by Melinda Kay on keyboards. Battling a heavy cold with an electric guitar, McCubbin starts off sounding like a morose folk singer but soon builds up steam. About two or three songs in we get keyboards and textured sounds in the mix. A beautiful swirling loop develops and the whole room falls silent in acknowledgement. The track is called Running and it moves to an ethereal, epic climax, sounding like the soundtrack to a dark horror movie set in the Victorian forest. The final track is pretty great too, and people do the impressed nodding thing to one another.

Underground Lovers

Underground Lovers come on stage to a huge cheer and the opening bars of All Brand New from 1996 stripped-down album Rushall Station. After the mellow, folky beginning the set rapidly moves in an electronic direction. The intensity seems to come out of nowhere. New Order-style track Star Signs is an early spacey dance-rock highlight, followed by the demented circular loops of Jumbled in the Common Box with its waves of 70s German Kosmische synths and then Get to Notice which sounds like an avalanche in a late 80s Manchester warehouse rave party. This is just the first set and it is already a tour de force. “We’re just the shithouse support band, the real band will be on next,” says singer Vincent Giarrusso as the crowd noise dies down.

For the second set the full band comes on stage and this time guitars come to the fore.  After the spiky stop-start post punk of Au Pair, late 90s album track Feels So Good To Be Free is reinvented as a hypnotic wall-of-sound epic, followed by two fine singles from the recent Staring At You Staring At Me album (the chaotic rock of Every Sign and the synth-glam stomp of The Rerun).

Underground Lovers

After singing earlier, returned original member Phillippa Nihill takes over to supply ghostly vocals once again for St. Kilda Regret, a newer song which uses supporting a famously unreliable football team as a metaphor for choosing a bohemian life over safety and conformity. It’s a terrific song and it leads the way into a final run of tracks from the classic 1992 debut album Leaves Me Blind.

Eastside Stories – originally written about ethnic tensions in early 90s Melbourne gets updated by Giarrusso to refer to the well-known current media panic about young African ‘street gangs’. It’s a ferocious crashing assault, with guitarist Glenn Bennie extracting waves of distorted noise from just three effects pedals. We go on to the extended workout of Your Eyes which builds up to another space-rock climax. Drummer Richard Andrew looks exhausted. You remember hearing once that this band was legendary in the early 90s Melbourne music scene for their live performances.

Underground Lovers

At this point the fluidity and connection between the band on stage is the obvious essence of the show. As a frontman Vincent Giarrusso is both compelling and intense yet humble and self-effacing at the same time. His stage persona is jokey and playful yet at other moments during the gig the concentration and intelligence on his face are obvious.  By day the guy is a university lecturer in post-war neo-realist Italian cinema, which is absurdly exotic. To be honest, I kind of wish more rock stars had day jobs like this.

The encore? More great songs. We get 1994’s Las Vegas, a song about a transgender showgirl performer who travels to Vegas, with the huge soaring chorus, followed by the melancholy dream-pop of Losin’ It which was actually a minor hit in the same year. They finish with another cathedral-of-sound guitar epic in Promenade. The response from the small but hugely enthused crowd is kind of dazzling. You just don’t see this in Perth too often, with its famously staid audiences, or maybe I am just going to the wrong gigs.

Underground Lovers

Everyone knows music history is filled with brilliant acts who drown in adoring praise from critics and the love of a small band of obsessives, yet for various reasons fail to connect with the wider public. But sometimes recognition can also come better late than never, after years in the wilderness.  After the show two well-known local music writers gush to me that this is the most seriously underrated Australian band of the last 20 years and that the gig went way beyond their expectations. Underground Lovers, almost forgotten by the Australian music world, are having a serious moment right now. Time to look underground again.

GORDON JONES

Photos by Alfred Gorman

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