A country as big as Australia certainly ought to have a country music tradition, but would you know what it sounds like? Mick Harvey – composer, producer, talented instrumentalist and solid rock of the band he co-founded, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – isn’t going to make it famous overnight, but One Man’s Treasure does give us an intriguing taste of what he calls “urban Australian alternative country music”.
Urban country? Oh well, let’s not quibble over an oxymoron. What matters is the music, and Harvey’s treatment of some classic songs – and some of his own – is really rather good.
That should come as no surprise, of course. Harvey hasn’t spent nearly 30 years in the business without adding a lot of varied experience to his native talent, and there are many who suspect that Nick Cave would never have acquired his current cult status without Harvey holding it all together.
What does come as a welcome surprise is just how good a voice he has; somewhere between tenor and baritone, with an attractive growl at the lower end. It’s highly effective in the slower, tender tracks such as the dreamy Louise and Come Into My Sleep (Nick Cave). In the melancholy First St Blues (Lee Hazlewood) he would even give Richard Hawley a run for his money.
So what does Australian urban country sound like? Well in Harvey’s production it’s relaxed, gentle strings overlaying equally gentle guitar, some sensitive percussion. Some of the tracks lean more towards the American version – especially Man Without A Home, with its reference to Jolene and soulful premonitions of disaster – and some lean towards folk (We Will surrender), but these songs offer far more variety than classic country and it’s more a spirit than a genre.
Demon Alcohol, one of the stand-out tracks, has more than a whiff of Bad Seeds about it, the discordant slashes of jangling guitar reminiscent of Red Right Hand and Let Love In; Planetarium is a wistful and beautiful song, developing into a frenzied guitar solo.
The River (Tim Buckley) is an ominous minor-key song in which Harvey’s voice and simple guitar accompaniment are perfectly attuned; Bethelridge has an extraordinary sustained, eerie backing that talks of vast empty spaces and seems to nod in the direction of native Australian soundscapes. The album closes with the exquisite Will You Surrender, Harvey’s voice taking on some of the softness of Ralph McTell, infinitely caressing.
After two albums of Serge Gainsbourg covers and collaborations with Anita Lane and others, it’s good to see Mick Harvey taking centre stage himself. This is an album of varied pleasures: it doesn’t grab you by the scruff of the neck but it pulls insistently at your arm until you have to take notice.