Whenever pundits reflect on the international music scene, Australia tends to get a bit of a raw deal. While New Zealand boasts a modest but proud
history of credible pop through its Flying Nun label, with feted cult acts from The Chills to The Clean and, more recently, the Flight of the Conchords
comedy duo, some might see a spottier record for NZ’s near neighbours. Icons like Nick Cave and Kylie are effectively naturalised Brits these days, and
for every critically acclaimed act like The Go-Betweens there’s novelty tosh like Men at Work, for every rising indie heroine such as Courtney Barnett
there’s a terrible ‘big-in-Oz’ rock act like Powderfinger. You can hardly compare planet-straddling cannon-firing stadium-trotters like AC/DC with Midnight
Oil, wringing their hands about the plight of native people, or Mental As Anything (remember them?). And let’s not even get started on everyone’s
former-favourite, kids-TV-star-come-sex-criminal and his ‘wobble board’.
But it isn't all ‘Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport’ or ‘Chuck Another Barbie on the Billabong Bruce’. No, not every band from ‘down under’ touring Europe
and the US to an audience of ex-pats is an embarrassment to their home nation. You Am I first came to my attention in the mid-nineties, when their
fellow antipodeans Smudge (led by Evan Dando’s writing partner, Tom Morgan), covered YAI’s early ditty ‘Berlinchair’ in acoustic fashion on their excellent ‘Outdoor Type’ E.P. From there I
discovered You Am I had formed in 1989 out of Sydney, after frontman Tim Rogers moved to the city from Western Australia, convinced an old school friend to play the bass and got his brother
on the drum stool. Suddenly, he had a band.
Unfortunately that kind of dynamic tends not to work, not in the long-term. Through their early years You Am I suffered a revolving cast of rhythm section players,
even as Rogers worked on his songwriting and made numerous contacts in the Aussie alternative scene. Indeed, You Am I seem to have supported every underground act that visited
their country, networking which bore fruit when Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo produced their debut album in 1993.
Despite registering a series of hits back home, it wasn’t until their third record (1996’s ‘Hourly Daily’) that music fans outside Australia started paying
attention. This was YAI’s second Australian number one and it took Rogers’ penchant for sixties-style “unabashed pure pop” to a logical conclusion. This
was their triumph, in spite of the LP’s catchiest songs feeling somewhat custom-tooled, with ‘Good Mornin’’ like an Oz ‘Wake Up Boo’ in its grasp for
accessibility and ‘Mr Milk’ second only to Benny Hill's opus as the catchiest song ever written about a milkman.
The band toured steadily and sold records in the tens of thousands then, in 1999, they added a second guitarist to beef up their sound. By 2006, the frontman was no longer content to
pepper his songs with cutesy characters like Wally Raffles or the Applecross Wing Commander. No, Tim Rogers’ mind was on the shortcomings of that world where his close-knit group
found themselves. The singer was pushing forty, sick of people letting him down and worn out by the idiocy of the music industry. He wanted to name
and shame those who had been looking to exploit him, and the success of his group.
It’s rare this column will focus on the seventh album by a musical act. Eighteen years into their career, a band has either run out of ideas, broken up, or they remain content to coast on
past glories. But ‘Convicts’ is an absolute blast from start to finish, a fat-free dozen songs in thirty six minutes, a set that works perfectly as a whole, full of thrilling music and played by
men who are at the end of their collective tether. Rogers sings about the pointless hedonism of touring, of liars and manipulation and his own destructive behaviour, the rock and roll
lifestyle that leaves a man unable to live well, or even function properly. All the time You Am I employ a thrillingly apposite musical backdrop to convey their frustrations; those
Replacements comparisons the pundits often wheel out feeling earned for the first time. Amid surging guitars, Rogers’ clean vocals are offset by
a litany of whoops, yelps and hollers, and the results are genuinely exhilarating.
Maybe it’s all those years they spent supporting the likes of The Who, The Stones or Oasis (certainly YAI have taken some tips from the Gallaghers’ stylists on their inlay
photos) but the songs on ‘Convicts’ could bring the most apathetic crowd to attention. They're fast and succinct enough to form the basis of a terrific support slot, one that
will leave an initially ambivalent audience begging for more. The record starts with a one-two-three punch of unspeakable force, Rogers with “dime bags stacked up like trophy
wives” on opener ‘Thank God I’ve Hit The Bottom’, self-medicating as he yells and snarls then croons ironically “I can see clearly now some pain has gone”.
From there he lets out a rallying cry (“let’s go”) and we segue into ‘It Ain’t Funny How We Don’t Talk Anymore’,
proving Rogers has sacrificed none of his melodic nous in the pursuit of volume. Here the singer characterises himself as “a ghost, a desperate host,
always looking to the door”, that chip-on-the-shoulder alluded to in the album's title manifesting itself, his band appearing before an audience who will
“show up just for convicts”. From there the track barrels into a call and response, Rogers describing himself “the new Pompeii”, feeling like he's buried
under the fiery eruptions.
This idea of being overwhelmed by drama continues into ‘Friends Like You’ (“with friends like you, I could throw
away my TV…”) another memorable composition hurtled through in a way that suggests brevity is as important as
the music. Indeed, this opening triumvirate is despatched in less than seven minutes, honey-coated vocals
combined with a raucous backing.
Of course, a pause for breath must come; an ease off in the pace as Rogers turns the clock back to his childhood. Here we see the bullying and indignities suffered by a
neighbourhood misfit destined to grow into a “roustabout”, that one depicted in ‘A Nervous Kid’, before the singer recalls an early introduction to rock and roll in the mid-paced
‘Secrets’, watching a performer “leering and affected, just like Gene Vincent”.
Not that the rest of this album is any less interesting, or even slower for the most part. We soon arrive at ‘Gunslingers’ with its chiming guitar intro, Hammond organ and
harmonised ‘woo-hoos’. Here Rogers compares old-time outlaws to his all-male band; both groups riding into unfamiliar towns, staying for a brief period of trouble-making, before
being run out again. This is the kind of risky life that can seem free and uninhibited but, strung out over the decades, it becomes limiting, a trap; all those concerts in places
where, at the weekend “I own each square meter I’m allowed”.
But the earworm pop of the second half is best represented in ‘By My Own Hand’, another takedown of Rogers’ enemies and, by
extension, himself (“I hate your ambition, hell I even hate mine”), the singer energised by threats and his determination for petty
revenge on those who have done him wrong: “You get nothing back ‘cause you’re going down, by my own hand”.
That track is positioned next to ‘Constance George’, a positive portrayal of the eponymous heroine who has “a voice like a tonic”. She asserts herself at last in pushing for
freedom: “she’s making up for time stolen by her old man”. Constance is very different from the heroine of ‘The Sweet Life’ (“you’re beautiful, but you’re fucked”) or that “little
man” in ‘Thuggery’. Then comes the penultimate ‘Explaining Cricket’, wheeling in an amusing metaphor. Rogers’ lays out the rules to that old colonial game, unable to
express himself from within the depths of indulgence: “my words they’re drowning in the amber again, it’s like explaining cricket to
‘Convicts’ ends with ‘I’m A Mess’, the rock star surveying the wreckage of a life spent pursuing pleasure, asking himself when such behaviour no longer charms (“I’m a mess,
and it’s losing its spark”). He reflects on the damage done, harmonised oohs over a background of guitar-soloing, regarding a new prospect ruefully as he asks her: “are you
sure you wanna spend some time with me?”
The song is painfully honest, cynical and full of regret, much like most of this record. But ‘Convicts’ is more than a suite of hummable songs, melodies so enthralling that,
when the LP ends, an overwhelming urge comes to start it up again. You see, this record comes from a place that is counter-intuitively cathartic, full of love for life and
music, vacillating between tuneful hate and calling out the misguided. You can hear it in the way the band plays; see it in those sleeve photos of wild performances. It’s a
highpoint in the catalogue of the antipodeans with the slightly disappointing name, and ‘Convicts’ deserved its full release in the British Isles a decade ago, on the excellent
Yep Roc label.
Since then You Am I have continued to record and tour, changing their approach a little from album to album while always pleasing their fanbase, both back home and ex-pat.
Their most recent LP ‘Porridge and Hotsauce’ was released in 2015.
So if you want something brief but compelling, angry and intimate, vindictive yet charming, something that will give a listener the adrenalin rush that only comes from a genuine
tantrum, ‘Convicts’ is the album for you. Listen to it now, and bury your memories of Rolf Harris at Glastonbury, once and for all.
‘Convicts’ is available from all the usual outlets, digitally and in a physical form, at a very reasonable price.