Devastations were presented to me as a cross between Tindersticks and American Music Club by a friend. It was a description that was enough to gain my interest and buy their second LP, Coal. A soundtrack for winter months, from the opening waltz time rattle of Sex And Mayhem I was sold on the record’s sultry strings, ashen musing and Conrad Standish’s sepia croon.
Australians adrift in Europe, like the The Birthday Party and The Go-Betweens before them, Devastations mine a rich seam of dark melancholy. This is Leonard Cohen, John Cale and Kraftwerk swirling in a potent brew, torch songs drenched in ambient menace with a krautrock undertow, electronic textures underpinning classic song writing. Songs from the gutter, the underpass and the dank basement club.
With the passion of a zealot I have been anxiously waiting for new material. They have a new label, having followed The National from American indie Brassland into the arms of Beggars Banquet. Yes, U was recorded in Berlin and mixed in New York – and Beggars cash has been wisely spent.
The sound on Yes, U is rich, taut and disciplined, a marked evolution from their previous recordings and a further stride out into the darkness of the night. Their use of minimal elements has been retained – thankfully they haven’t overdosed on string sections and expensive arrangers. As a result there is greater clarity of purpose and sound.
The opening pair of tracks showcase the band’s new found control. Black Ice drifts in on a gentle electronic pulse and a revolving synth pad, then the acoustic drums are rolled the top, Standish uncoils that velvet voice and the melody emerges out of faint clouds of guitar noise. It’s a blurred snapshot, the smudged windowpane of cab ride home as dawn is breaking. Imagine Leonard Cohen fronting Can if you can.
Clammy from the city heat, Oh Me, Oh My is of Bauhaus covered by Yo La Tengo. Opening with some industrial field recordings before a tight, lethargic bassline begins its dramatic assent, Conrad Standish’s looping bass and Hugh Cran’s drum patterns lock into a heavy dubby rhythm. Tom Carlyon and Kiernan Box weave their sonic alchemy – whispers and suggestions of guitar, glistening piano notes and sighing electronics.
Mistakes has a warped pop sensibility, an elastic bass propelling the track forward. Carlyon’s caustic guitar textures spar with the synth handclaps in the shimmering chorus. The minor chord chug of An Avalanche Of Stars is late night enchantment, the lyrics a doomed romantic plea for a night time escape. The acoustic guitar and rattling snare of As Sparks Fly Upwards blossoms into a sliver-lined piano melody, the vocals low in the mix, lurking just below the surface.
The only mis-step is the The Saddest Sound. Devastations strain too hard to be profound and end up with goth-light, Nick Cave-by-numbers. No surprises, no left turns or lyrical insights, it’s just a predictable litany of clich�s.
That’s only a minor gripe, though. Yes, U is full of iridescent charm, hypnotic grooves and disarming honesty. Slice it open and it bleeds faded glamour and doomed romance. Wonderful.