Issue #20: Claim by Not Drowning, Waving

June 13, 2016

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Claim by Not Drowning, Waving
Released In May 1989
Released By Might Boy Records & Liberation Music

This Week’s Selection Chosen By Guest Contributor John Schaefer

“Bless us oh Lord, and these American gifts.” So sings David Bridie, co-founder of the Australian band Not Drowning, Waving. The line, on the page, may drip with sarcasm, but Bridie’s delivery, in the song “Palau” (named after the Pacific island nation), more closely resembles that of a journalist, reporting back from an exotic locale — or an ancient bard, continuing a storytelling tradition from long ago. Behind Bridie, swirling reeds and hand drums poke through a psychedelic haze.

The album is Claim, released in 1989 when NDW were working under the dual inspirations of world music and alternative rock. “Palau” was not the best known song from the album — lead track “Willow Tree” had some modest success in the UK — but it is in many ways the most representative one. A kind of antipodean extension of My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, the song offers a wide-angle view of a landscape haunted by ghosts. We hear them throughout the album, in the form of found sounds (children at play, Aboriginal chant, even a cartoon clip); but mostly they appear as spectral washes of highly effected guitars and keyboards. The song also foreshadows the band’s next album, 1990’s Tabaran, recorded on the island of Papua New Guinea with local musicians and again cloaking political statements about aboriginal peoples, land rights, and stewardship of the environment in a Peter Gabriel-inflected soundscape.

By 1989, Australian rock bands had made their mark: AC/DC, INXS, and Midnight Oil were regulars on MTV, and The Church had released their masterpiece Starfishing. But NDW, with their name derived from perhaps the most famous poem by Stevie Smith, were never going to reach a wide American audience. For one thing, they were far more concerned with message than “rockin’ out.” Yes, “Palau” rides a trance-like beat, and “Wobble” opens with a blast of Aussie bluegrass, but most of Claim exists on the border between rock and ambient music. The often unidentifiable wisps of sound hovering at the edges of the songs tie the whole album together, and the use of found sounds, either in lieu of singing (as in the pulsing, intense “Sweat“) or as interventions/reminders from another place or time (“Willow Tree”), add to the album’s signature sepia hue.

The album maintains a dark, melancholy mood throughout, but it is by no means monochromatic. From the opening whirlies of “Willow Tree” to the Aboriginal didgeridoo and bilma (wooden clapping sticks) that lead the way in the finale, the track called “Claim,” the band shows a keen ear for color. “Fishing Trawler,” with its sinuous electric guitar weaving around the piano, its clanking metal percussion, and its dramatic chorus, would not have sounded out of place on Peter Gabriel’s third or fourth solo albums. (NDW would eventually open for Gabriel in the early 90s). “Maroon Rust,” one of the album’s instrumental tracks, is rock only if you consider Harold Budd & Brian Eno to be a rock combo.

In short, NDW was not made for radio charts and MTV rotations. It was made for people who were willing to engage with a full album, and have their expectations challenged. (The use of Bugs Bunny and Daddy Duck in “Wobble,” for example, where “fun” is suggested but then subverted.) For those people, the key track is probably “Terra Nullius,” a beautiful and sad song about the loss of an ancient culture. It elegantly uses the album title in its chorus and then leads into the instrumental title track. It also uses the electric guitar as a kind of effects machine, offsetting the stately piano.

Sad and beautiful. It’s not what most people come to rock music for. But with this album, NDW staked a claim to a musical terra incognita that they invited us to explore.

John Schaefer (@newsounds)
Renowned Music Correspondent & Dedicated Disciple

From top-left to bottom-right: David Bridie, Rowan McKinnon, John Phillips, Russel Bradley, Helen Mountfort, & James Southall

Back in March, I spent two weeks in Australia and absolutely fell in love with the place. The people, the history, the culture. I absorbed as much of it as I could whilst I was there. So when playing Claim for the first time this week, I was overcome with the memories of that trip. One of my deepest regrets is that I wasn’t able to play this record on my three hour drive from Canberra to Sydney. Claim is such an inherently Australian album, that it almost feels other-worldly at times. It’s a unique experience, with four of the ten tracks being instrumentals, with the entire record using a cacophony of southern hemisphere sounds and noises to great effect. Many times doing these reviews, I’ve mentioned how an album pulled me in and never let go. This record more than any other did that almost immediately. I love opening track “Willow Tree” — it’s epic and oh so ’80s, with a drop of Depeche Mode. It’s probably my favourite track on the record, which is a really difficult choice. Not Drowning, Waving have provided a very visual album, drawing pictures with their music. The four minutes of “Maroon Rust” had me thinking about that three hour drive to Sydney, where I sat in the back of a car drinking in miles and miles of beautiful Australian landscape pondering how far I’ve come. If an album can pierce through your soul to tug at your greatest memories, it’s doing something right. I doubt we’ll ever have as unique an album as Claim on OYR. Something so different, yet so familiar. Something so beautiful. This is a special record.

James Peart (@choccyr)
Fascinated Binger Of Musical Zeitgeist

This album has magic, mystery, and even majesty within — so much so that I’m willing to tumble down a well of alliteration in singing its praises. I will even embarrass myself by admitting it’s made a claim on my heart. As I absorb it into my soul, it’s finding a home near such special works as David Sylvian’s Gone To Earth and Weathering by Epic45. (If both of those are also off your radar, yet more pleasures lie ahead for you!). Fans of Eno and Talking Heads also need apply, using express mail. How to describe what’s going on here? Pastoral ambient art folk-rock? Maybe, but that leaves out the sense of compositional mastery that comes with academic training, not to mention the percussion-heavy jams to which Kip Hanrahan might wish he were invited. Piano figures heavily as does rhythm, and there are also strings and horns, but not used in a way that those words alone might conjure. Most of the singing is by co-leader David Bridle, whose slightly husky tenor is perfect for this inherently reflective music. Cellist Helen Mountfort also harmonizes and sometimes takes the lead in a burnished soprano, lending welcome variety. Nearly every song feels like a memory you forgot you had. I realize that I’ve left the task of talking about individual songs to my colleagues. I’ll just say that I love every song here except for “Wobble,” a dreadful misfire to which you should never listen. I was delighted to learn that Claim comes at the middle of NDW’s first phase and I can’t wait to luxuriate in all that came before and after.

Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore

Not Drowning, Waving is a beautiful band name derived from a Stevie Smith poem with correspondingly beautiful and poetic music. They also manage to accomplish the interesting feat of making complex music sound so pleasingly simple. Opening track “Willow Tree” is the pop-iest moment on the record, and its melodic hook over the more adventurous instrumentation and ambient touches is a breezy, welcoming way into the world of Claim. The album has so much range to it, from its opening pop-leaning songs to the vocal-less jam band excursions of “Wobble” and “Sweat” to the frigid, crystalline beauty of the piano-based “Maroon Rust” and the ominous ambience of the closing title track. On days like today, when the world needs beauty more than ever in the face of unimaginable tragedy, I thank Not Drowning, Waving for making music to get lost in. Sometimes, things come to you just when you need them, and Claim did that for me.

David Munro (@david_c_munro)
Idiosyncratic Avant-Garde Wanderer

What exactly is “World Music”? I prefer to think it’s just a snotty American term for music that doesn’t sound traditionally American. Is rock & roll considered “World Music” in Ghana? It’s a term derived from the same American arrogance that views soccer as a goofy game that our children play until they develop the hand-eye skills to play “real” sports. Instead, I’d like to characterize Not Drowning, Waving’s Claim as ambient. Intense. Sprawling. Emotive. The first half of the album strikes a really interesting balance between the power ballad melodies and song structure of 1989, but without the heavy percussion, over-the-top vocals and pretentious guitar solos. The sugary piano lines of “Thomastown” and “Fishing Trawler” are prime examples. The second half of the album takes a turn toward the hypnotic, tribal rhythms of their native Australia. We hear it in the suspenseful drone of the didgeridoo on “Claim,” or on the drum circle-esque “Sweat.” The playful, middle-eastern bounce of “Palau” reminds me of a classic Jethro Tull piece — minus Ian Anderson’s virtuoso flute, of course. Music, regardless of where it’s from, is meant to take us to another place. This is a snotty American giving thanks for the trip.

Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator

The prolific David Bridie in all his emblematic art rock glory.

Forgive me while I use the cover of The Dark Side Of The Moon as a prop real quick, because it could be the perfect metaphor for Claim. Imagine that the beam coming from the left is a musical genre. We’ll go with rock and roll. In the second half of the 20th century, as rock swept the globe, musicians near and far tried their hands at this new style, each bringing a different set of prior experiences and traditions to the table. That one beam turned into a rainbow of rock. Claim sounds a little like that process being reversed — sending the rainbow back through the prism to find what a particular range of colors have in common. The term “world music” is impossibly broad, unless you use it to describe a concerted effort to find some specific middle ground — a musical Esperanto — and that’s what I hear when I listen to Claim. “Middle ground” may sound pejorative, but you’re talking to the person who just spent a weekend cozying up to a new vinyl copy of Paul Simon’s Stranger To Stranger, which finds Simon judiciously embracing the blend that worked wonders when Graceland came out in 1986. Claim came out just a couple of years later, and while the color palates aren’t all that similar, both Graceland and Claim work from right to left, using the Dark Side test, and doing so is no mean feat.

Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds

While the production of Claim might come off a little dated, I think it holds up way better than most records of this time period. Dense layers of sound are mixed with samples ranging from water to Looney Tunes that still leaves plenty of space to breathe. The mix perfectly creates beautiful cinematic vignettes of exotic landscapes for the lyrics. Somehow they are able to fuse native Australian instruments and other world music textures with drum machines and modern (for 1989) keyboards without it sounding cheesey. If, like me, you’re curious as to what Claim might sound like if they made today… just visit David Bridie’s bandcamp and sample some of his many releases.

PJ Sykes (@pjsykes)
Gutsy Punk Renaissance Man

This is an interesting album that is hard to get a grip on. The former is true particularly because of the latter. Not Drowning, Waving (the name an inversion of Stevie Smith’s dark classic, which has also inspired at least one noteworthy ’90s emo track) could easily have made a mellow soft-rock album that would have bored me senseless, using many of the same ingredients that come together for Claim — male-female vocal harmonies, ringing piano chords, tasteful drumming. But what makes Claim more interesting than that, more worthy of repeat listens, is the way the whole album seems to come to us through a filter of gentle waves at low tide. At certain key points on the album (“Maroon Rust,” the closing title track), things drift into downright ambient territory, with the mellow-pop song structure floating away. We’re left with wandering piano and ambient humming, for the most part, but the result is strangely hypnotic. The way these hypnotic additional layers wash across even the most structured songs here result in some real highlights (“Fishing Trawler,” “Yellow Earth“) that could easily have gone the other way, were they produced by someone with more of a direct aim for that “elevator music” dollar (I could say much the same about Enya’s best work, in fact).

Drew Necci (@buzzorhowl)
Insightful Scholar Of The Underground

Promo photo showing the range of emotion you can find on Claim: humorous, hardened, and halcyon.

I initially tried to place Claim within my knowledge of Australia, but my head kept swirling with INXS, Strictly Ballroom, Noise Addict, and, sadly, The Real Housewives of Melbourne. So I thought of Tracks, a film based on a memoir by Robyn Davidson in which a woman traverses the Australian desert with her dog, some camels, and Adam Driver a National Geographic photographer. Every scene in it is a photograph, featuring the landscapes, animals, and people of Australia. I flipped through the photographs in my head that I remembered and heard the varied, intense, political music of Not Drowning, Waving scoring the images. It started to come together — the influences that made up Claim, but also the vast, cinematic sound. It is no coincidence that David Bridie has gone on to score movies and television. The lyrics and instrumentation of the album further express the cinematic qualities. In “Thomastown,” Bridie sings “And our neighbors hold on to the things they know best / they sweep our verandas and cry for their kids,” while samples of children playing hover under a piano melody and swelling strings. I can see the narrator of “Willow Tree,” swinging “through the air over Bob’s little garden” over falling-down sheds and the “rambling backyard.” The images are so striking and memorable, like Mia Wasikowska leading her camels through the desert in Tracks. I admit to being a multitasker who can’t just listen to music, but I quickly learned that Claim demanded attention in order to really appreciate all the layers.

Melissa Koch (@bunnycaper)
Mediocre Runner, Aspiring Celebrity DJ

Overall, I would describe Claim as a serious, dark album. The mood is generally somber and the subject matter is intense. The album is interspersed with instrumental tracks that reinforce the mood and come very close to meditative. This would be great study music, I think. But there’s one track I want to highlight. I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that “Wobble” was one of the most startling tracks on the album. It’s the third track and the first two songs had used samples in them (“Fishing Trawler” for example, had the sound of lapping water to reinforce the setting and theme of the song) so the concept wasn’t new. But to hear the sound of what was, at first, only a vaguely cartoonish dialogue, and what I eventually identified as that famous Daffy Duck/Bugs Bunny Duck Season/Wabbit Season exchange, was something completely out of left field. But it works. My God, what has the world come to when this kind of thing works? When it not only works, but kind of makes sense. On my third or fourth listen, I started thinking about politics and politicians trying to sway the common man and how the smarter politician can trick the other one into destroying themselves. And on and on. And I wouldn’t put any stock in it, normally. I’d think, “They just found this cool sample and made a fun, catchy song around it.” But listen to the rest of the album. Doesn’t that kind of symbolism fit right in with the other themes that are cropping up? I think it does. And I am floored that it works so well.

James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts

Reading Rainbow (the show not the band, kids) taught us that books are vehicles of transport to any and every far off land. I’d say it’s no stretch to apply the same line of thinking to records — at least certain ones. Claim is such an album. The first thing you need is headphones, and yeah, even those Apple earbuds will do. The auditory space here is just too well-crafted and important to forsake as background music. We are presented with a stalwart sense of place as plaintiff piano lays the path, stone by stone. The sound has an immediacy of feeling, like sitting across the room as a story is unfurled. Samples of water and voices meander in and out of breathy refrains, amalgams of folk and period stylings. And yes, a share of eighties-ness, but as a whole it feels much more transitional. “Wobble” with its instrumental artfulness could even fly as fringe Cure quirk. There is a style and sentiment that I suppose the Great Lake Swimmers would be indebted to twenty years later on albums like Ongiara and Lost Channels. This connection must have taken me a good 36 hours of brain racking to put two and two together, but alas it was made! Which brings me to my favorite track and final act, “Terra Nullius.” The ebb and flow of piano and affected strings with subtly chugging rhythm paint a gorgeous and poignant pageant of what it means to be claimed or unclaimed. While certain that this and other motifs stem from their Australian heritage, the work has a thematic beauty that extends to and through us all. This is one for steeping.

Matt Klimas (@nearcticfauna)
Surveyor Of All Things Fuzz

“And everything is how it should be.” This lyric is the linchpin of “Fishing Trawler” and heralds in the brooding song’s most triumphant moment. But no matter what’s going on musically when the lyric is said, it’s very clear that everything is not how it should be in the eyes of Not Drowning, Waving. Let me stop for a second though. I’m no expert on American political and social movements, let alone Australian ones from 30 years ago. Even if it’s clear this album is a direct answer to the tumultuous Australian bicentenary, it’s foolish of me to assume what David Bridie and company are specifically trying to convey in their songs. But it is clear that there are serious matters weighing on the minds of NDW with this record and the turmoil they create is blatant even when the words tell a different story. Hell, even the instrumentals are tempestuous and extend far past what’s in front of you. Maroon Rust is desolate and sullen, almost like a post-battle soliloquy delivered while staring at destroyed tanks covered in blood. But there were no battles like this going on at the time, leading your mind to wonder if the music is predicting a war or equating past wars to the present day. Heading down that path leads to foolish assumptions as I said, but even with no context, there is an unconcealed unrest in the music and lyrics of Claim that surely extends beyond any personal struggle. The key here is that through the subtle majesty of their music, NDW has you thinking about what’s actually going on in the world they’re detailing. And with all the different styles, sounds, and instruments, they’ve made a compelling argument that it’s a world very much worthy of your attention.

Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart

Next Week’s Selection:
Slow Train Coming by Bob Dylan
Chosen By Jeremy Shatan

Off Your Radar Newsletter

Editor: Doug Nunnally

Contributors: James Anderson, Josh Buck, Shannon Cleary, Andrew Cothern, Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford, Matt Green, Davy Jones, Matt Klimas, Melissa Koch, David Munro, Drew Necci, James Peart, Jeremy Shatan, & PJ Sykes

Logo By Matt Klimas


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