Authenticity, or the perception of authenticity, has always been of great concern in the arts. If an artist seems to be coming from a ‘real’ place when they create, their work is always held in higher regard than performers that appear to be manufacturing their art for commercial reasons. As blurred as those lines are, artists with ‘stories’ are instantly more appealing than those without one.
HTRK have one hell of a story. They lost their mentor, the sadly departed Australian guitar icon and Goth grand-daddy Rowland S Howard, to liver cancer in 2009, mere months after he dedicated a song on his final LP to HTRK’s singer Jonnine ((I Know) A Girl Called Jonny). They lost founding member, bassist and programmer Sean Stewart in 2010, just as they were recording second LP Work (Work, Work).
But the music on Psychic 9-5 Club supersedes any contextual details. It’s by no means a bleak, morose or mournful album, nor is it preoccupied with a radically different sound from their previous outings in a vain attempt to diversify their fanbase. It’s still not a commercial sound, by any means. It’s an album, like their others, that is made up of a monochrome palette, where the light and shade of each song deftly captures the variety of human emotions plumbed over the eight dazzling soundscapes that comprise Psychic 9-5 Club. The blacks, greys and whites here are more inviting, more polished, more thought-out than any of HTRK’s previous efforts, through conscious effort or good fortune.
It’s an album concerned with obsession, with sex, with pain, with ennui… Nigel Yang and Jonnine Standish make a tense, aching noise out of minimal components, with the austerity of the sound paradoxically adding to the profundity of feeling held within the compositions. Some tunes are invariably more potent than others, some take multiple listens to fully unfold. Excepter’s Nathan Corbin was enlisted to help refine the record, and HTRK’s label Ghostly present him as some kind of kindred spirit to Standish and Yang.
Psychic 9-5 Club changes the answers to the inevitable questions – they have shifted their sound and identity slightly, but in an intelligent fashion, and by enough that they now appear to be leaning more towards the likes of Portishead or The xx, away from the crude ‘post-punk’ tags that dominated previous appreciations of their work.
As a result, first track Give It Up opens and defines the record. It has an urban, relentlessly modern vibe – the deep throbs and hissing synthetic percussion pop out of the speakers in a cloud of echo, elegantly framing Standish’s yearning, longing vocal. The track’s intimate, seductive atmosphere has been lovingly, obsessively crafted by Yang, and it fully showcases his growth as a producer.
Blue Sunshine is a cult 1976 movie where users of the titular (fictional) type of LSD become raging homicidal maniacs – and it’s also the name of the second track here; a downbeat, trip-hop number with a transplanted dub feel, such is the stark emptiness of the track. Standish’s vocals here echo and repeat and swirl around each other – her breathy tone and velvet timbre make the title into a chorus by sheer emotive force.
The remaining six pieces would all be highlights on other bands’ records, from Wet Dream, with its icy, ethereal vocals and churning, sibilant production to Chinatown Style, which revels in its darkness; a buzzing, ominous air and bone-dry production are occasionally broken by Standish’s night-before voice, which barely gets above a hushed whisper. The Body You Deserve, which closes the record, is built from a glitchy beat upwards, until it becomes the densest track on the record. Horror movie synth sounds and white-noise washes disorient the listener, while Standish’s seductive vocal is placed front and centre to temper the eerie atmosphere.
This is a pulsing, tense record that defiantly teases more than it crassly titillates (something HTRK once did with aplomb). It’s conceptually sound and reeks of hand-on-chin, namedroppable ‘art’. Whether you pre-ordered (and waited a long four weeks for) Dummy from your local ‘record shoppe’, or downloaded Warpaint last night on your Mac, this album fits in your collection. Whether you like to have sex to Kid A or get stoned to WIXIW, this fits. Do you listen to Diamond Life before a night out? And put U.F.Orb on when you get back? This fits. Basically, whichever end of the market brings you to this project, you will be richly rewarded for investigating. Nakedness is sexy again.
Psychic 9-5 Club is a rare, gentle masterpiece, and to paraphrase Kurt Cobain, this album definitely won’t let you forget your ex-girlfriend.