Artist/s: Mark Seymour and the Undertow. Mark Seymour (vocals and guitar), Cameron McKenzie (guitars), Peter Maslen (drums), John Favaro (bass), Scott Griffiths (keyboard and guitar)
Category: Contemporary, Rock
Label: Liberation LMCD0310
Reviewed by Mandy Stefanakis
“Mark Seymour is, at heart, a storyteller and the wonderful traditions of Australian folk music are effusive, stripped of the aerophonic hardware prevalent in his Hunters and Collectors persona.”
This double album, Roll Back the Stone, covers much of Seymour’s oeuvre with a span of his output from across several decades exploring sentiments ranging from seduction to political and social activism. As one with quite a number of years and vicissitudes on the scoreboard I am somewhat cynical of the former, but armoured up for the latter, a resistance to the kind of political persuasion now bearing a marked resemblance to the seductive variety. But there is much more to Mark Seymour than this seeming dichotomy. One’s jaded world view fades quickly with the warmth of his musical communiqués and his rich and vivid narratives. For he is, at heart, a storyteller and the wonderful traditions of Australian folk music are effusive, stripped of the aerophonic hardware prevalent in his Hunters and Collectors persona. Westgate, relating the collapse of the Westgate Bridge, is a prime example.
Adding to the intimacy of the album is the feel of those listening as it is recorded, their applause added on some tracks. Though not a ‘live’ album in that Madison Square Garden kind of way, the recording has been captured with a smallish band of pilgrims over a three day stint at Bakehouse Studios in Richmond, Melbourne. It works. The instrumental ‘musickings’ by The Undertow are considered and rich here, with superb technique on guitar in particular. The vocal work, both melodic and harmonic is also true and evocative throughout.
Some of Seymour’s most well known songs are pure irony, of note, Holy Grail and When the River Runs Dry. They have been used in the most incongruous settings, given their lyrical content. For example, Holy Grail, an exploration of the impact of greed and egoism at the expense of whatever happens to get in the way, is often played before football grand finals. And to be fair the legitimacy of focus on a leather ball in a footy match will not cost lives – well, except for a few cardiac arrests with the most recent AFL grand final. I’m sure some players are aware of the lyrical meaning, but one wonders. Similarly, When the River Runs Dry is about those in blessed positions in life who seem able to turn a blind eye to those ill of fortune around them, often exploiting them. This not only refers to monetary wellbeing but the planetary variety. It is a sentiment Seymour still sings loudly. But again, blind, perhaps, to its sardonicism, it has sometimes been used by the very people it seeks to chastise. All of which, of course, further confirm Seymour’s insightfulness about human nature.
Seymour says, ‘How you feel is the sum total of all that surrounds you anyway, all that defines your condition as you navigate your way through life… And you realise that the songs are you. Any songwriter who tells you otherwise is lying.’
I once had a discussion with a friend as I researched music and she, language. She said, ‘It’s all about memory. Without the memory of experience, you have nothing.’ And I said, ‘Without having any feeling about the memory, the memory is not worth having.’ We agreed that you needed both to be, as Seymour says, ‘you’. He comes through so clearly in his work and just as there is that amazing resistance to those who would plunder for self-gain, he shows pride in his own identity.
It’s very much a male perspective, which of course it must be, but one gets the feeling that Seymour is at times ambivalent about what would seem the defining features of manhood and how he sits with some of the attitudes that prevail with this, what is fast becoming a ‘legacy’ of manhood that some still cling to tenaciously. In many respects Seymour seeks to redefine these concepts of maleness, demonstrating that one can still be a bloke, an egalitarian bloke, without the baggage of desire for dominance, whether through pounds, power, profession or the need to win. None of these qualities is only the domain of men of course, but the settings Seymour serves up in his songs certainly provide this vista. He draws on extremes to convey the central point to his message. They are exemplified here in songs such as What’s a Few Men, The Light on the Hill and the evocative Turbruk Pin, the lyrics of this last by Geoff Goodfellow.
The feast of quality songwriting is endless here. The very different rendition of When the River is gorgeous. The plight of those who seek refuge reeling from one tenuous environment to another that is equally so, is tangible and heart-felt in Two Dollar Punter. One’s greatest hope is that the narratives Seymour uses to convey his beliefs resonate with ever more listeners.
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