Those looking for a shot of high-quality Australian jangle pop need look no further than Songs from Empty Streets, the latest from The Golden Rail. Though based in Melbourne, The Golden Rail are the project of Perth-based songwriters Ian Freeman and Jeff Baker. The two have a long indie-pop pedigree, having met in the 80s and been involved in multiple bands together and apart including The Palisades, The Rainyard, Header, Summer Suns, DM3, The Lazybirds and The Jangle Band.
The Golden Rail’s Perth roots remain strong. The band is in fact named after a long-gone Perth bar, and Freeman has described their sound as evocative of Perth suburban life. The album’s themes do indeed draw on a particularly Australian sense of longing and wistfulness, the kind of reflective thinking arising from the surrounds of sparse suburbia and clear skies overhead.
It’s an approach that does risk running thin, and indeed the album’s main misstep is a singularity of vision and lyrics that teeter into overly earnest territory on more than one occasion. Float Like a Feather’s lines of “Every bird must sing its song/ And every song will resolve in the end/ To be sung/ Like a feather in the wind” are a particularly glaring example. I Suppose’s corker of “I could’ve been me/ I could’ve been you/ I could’ve been anyone, I suppose” isn’t great either, especially as it’s repeated a few times for good measure.
It may come down to personal preference however, and The Golden Rail strike a good note more often than not. Most importantly, the songwriting and musical backing is excellent throughout. Opener Silver Linings is beautiful, drifting the listener off into the atmosphere in much the same way that its protagonist is lifted by his subject. It’s masterfully sparse, driven almost solely by acoustic guitar, bass and shuffling drums. The band keeps this simple setup as its bedrock, but introduces just enough electric guitar, violin and brass flourishes throughout to keep things interesting. This is a sophisticated sounding album that recalls the soft rock sounds of the early 70s more than anything.
Under New York Skies features haunting violins and turns of phrase that recall Gerry Rafferty in his finer moments. I Suppose plays like an ambitious 60s psych rocker with its military drum march, moody reverbed vocals and the album’s heaviest moment: a guitar that dares to be distorted. Elsewhere, Hold Me Tight and Wireless Hill make excellent use of some swirling organ. The latter is the album’s high point, a beautifully constructed track that builds tension in the verses before exploding into an angelic chorus.
Freeman’s vocal recalls Neil Finn here, in an effort that would have no qualms sitting beside Crowded House’s finer material. If only for the strength of this material, some songs do suffer from a lack of hooks – Big Sky lays down a jazzy mood but meanders a bit, and Still Falling Down is a rather schmaltzy brass-driven ballad, a good exercise in stylistics but prey to awkward lyrics and phrasing.
Overall however, fans of bands like The Triffids and Go-Betweens should take note. This is a fine album of gentle and mature pop rock which isn’t afraid to wear its heart on its sleeve.