Tom Morgan is 10 years older than Kurt Vile, and he sounds it. His lower register is both much raspier and much richer; his upper register is both fuller and wearier; and, in some sense, his songwriting – that is, his basic craft of melody and lyric – relies much more on its own merits, supported by considerably simpler instrumentation and production.
And although Morgan’s new record, Orange Syringe, deals in the same detached, acoustic-heavy hipster-rock’n’roll that Vile has helped bring so ubiquitously into fashion, his age still shows. That’s not to say that he’s old – certainly no one could call a man in his early 40s elderly. But the 10 extra years that Morgan has over Vile seem to have brought him to such similar conclusions for very different reasons. And this, ultimately, is what makes Orange Syringe a successful and original take on what is now an increasingly popular style of pop music.
Coming into his solo career from playing in ’90s indie moan-pop bands like Smudge, Australian native Morgan wasn’t influenced by Pavement and Beck while growing up, like Vile was – as a member of Smudge, he was one of their contemporaries. Then, his was a more angsty, of-the-moment sound, similar to those bands in his Neil Young-ian vocals and indie-pop arrangements but more radio-friendly, with elements of disco and alt-rock.
As the years have gone by, and artists like Vile rise to prominence in their veneration of Pavement’s simple, alienated rock, Morgan has stripped away everything from his music but this core sound. In fact, as Orange Syringe reveals, he’s stripped away so much that his songs sound barer and more basic than the minimalist recreations of contemporary artists. Songs like Taste for Blood, a simultaneously dark and sunny acoustic rocker that moans and breezes like the best of the ‘90s and the ‘10s, sits on a guitar, a bass, a drum set, and Morgan’s fuzzy voice. Fatherland works with a nearly identical instrumentation, adding only an earthy female voice for harmony: it is a sweetly and warmly crafted pop song, and one of the best on the record.
Furthermore, when contemporary backwards-looking rock groups like Girls and The War On Drugs (of which Vile was a founding member) use markedly plain language in their lyrics and basic, repetitive arrangement, they are being, if not ironic, at least self-aware. Morgan’s lyrics and music are also often simple, and direct. In fact, they are often beautiful: Best Thing For My Baby sees Morgan confessing, “The evening has come and gone/I’m paranoid, and they’re catching on,” a direct and anxious moment over an easy country-folk groove. They can also be clichéd, as in Jungle Boy, which sports a drone-like, aggressive guitar line and imperfect, shout-y vocals. But in any case, they are entirely earnest – and as Morgan works so genuinely through broken, projected dialogues and tired country narratives, it becomes difficult to see his poetic mis-steps as anything other than endearing.
Of course, his seemingly unedited sincerity can produce what some might call unsatisfactory songwriting: “If a clichéd or simple tune isn’t self-aware,” one might think, “if it’s not being plain sarcastically, then it’s just not that good.” But does it really matter what an artist intends if his song can make you feel, or think, or rock out at a satisfying level? With a charming commitment to performing in his songs as genuinely as possible, Morgan’s approach on Orange Syringe to this trendy retro-rock holds its own admirably with its present (and even past) contemporaries. No, it’s not perfect. But frankly, it’s refreshing – proving, in the end, that you don’t have to be ironic to be relevant.