Release Date: May 20, 2016
Record label: 4AD
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
Australia is certainly kicking out the jams these days. Courtney Barnett’s ploughing a furrow of expertly executed deadpan observational guitar based ditties, and Tame Impala have nailed the psychedelic rock niche of alternative music in a very successful fashion. Musically the marvellously dubbed Methyl Ethel are closer to the latter, although lyrically Jake Webb can serve up as droll a line as Barnett when the mood takes him.
As one of the most isolated cities on the planet, Perth has proven fertile ground for autonomous eccentrics and studio shut-ins, from Sleepy Jackson/Empire of the Sun impresario Luke Steele to Tame Impala mastermind Kevin Parker. And to that list we can now add Jake Webb, who launched his equally wiggy outfit, Methyl Ethel, as a solo home-recording pursuit in 2013. But while mounting acclaim prompted Webb to turn his private concern into a flesh-and-blood touring band, Methyl Ethel’s debut full-length, Oh Inhuman Spectacle, is reflective of the project’s humble, hermetic beginnings, with Webb handling all the production and instrumentation.
After a warm reception in their native Australia, Perth trio Methyl Ethel should get their due with the broader release of Oh Inhuman Spectacle. It helps, too, that the group’s debut is so meticulously crafted, sweet, and palatable for anyone with good feelings towards the indie pop and rock of the last decade. Whether you’re into dream pop, chillwave, or psych, Jake Webb and co.
Perth has long been a hotbed for some of Australia’s best musical talents, from The Sleepy Jackson (and later Empire Of The Sun) to Tame Impala, Pond and their web of offshoots and collaborative projects. Enter Methyl Ethel, who are the newest band to uphold the city’s reputation outside of their homeland. The trio are the latest signing to 4AD following dangerous levels of buzz around their debut US shows late last year.
All the hallmarks of a cosmic psychedelic eccentric are stamped on the surface of Jake Webb’s career: hailing from Tame Impala’s birthplace, Perth, the former bedroom recorder possesses the knackered aesthetic of a 70s rock star, his lyrics like curious muddle-headed meanderings and his music singed with a sonic quality that alludes to acid-casualty excess. However, the songs on Oh Inhuman Spectacle, his trio’s debut album, keep one foot rooted in reality – perhaps to its detriment. Its opening handful of tracks are robust – the doomish disco of Idée Fixe, the crepuscular melancholy of Shadowboxing, the Johnny Marr guitars that inhabit Rogues – but soon the record wears out.
The debut studio long-player from the Aussie psych-pop collective headed by guitarist/vocalist Jake Webb, Oh Inhuman Spectacle bridges the gap between the dreamy, dance-pop meanderings of Tame Impala and the off-kilter indie rock of MGMT. Decidedly more restrained than either of those acts, Methyl Ethel, whose name is derived from a colorless, sweet-smelling organic compound frequently used as an industrial solvent, paint in the kind of broad strokes that suggest a predilection for lucid dreaming over beat-driven euphoria. The 12-track set's front half is its most rewarding, serving up a trio of solid, late-afternoon, beach-ready daytrippers in "Idée Fixe," "Rogues," and "Twilight Driving," with the latter providing the most earworm-heavy chorus.
Australian multi-instrumentalist Jake Webb explores a fascination with texture, arrangement and mood on his debut album. 4AD's patronage makes perfect sense: Webb's songs straddle the line between electro-pop and screwy psychedelia, and he'd find a welcoming crowd, you suspect, at both Reading and Creamfields. Even though Rogues, with its clean guitar lines that recall 80s alt-pop, and Twilight Driving (a hint of NZCA Lines) are not identikit dance-pop, they benefit from a feel and a groove that's smarter than your average indie kid tinkerer.
Despite yearly pronouncements of its demise, the power of the album remains undimmed. Even if its commercial viability has slipped for now, its significance for a band is as acute as ever. The challenge for a band on their debut is to deliver a distinctive tone of voice. Methyl Ethel’s singles from Oh Inhuman Spectacle, “Rogues” and “Twilight Driving”, are alt-rock par excellence on which I based the assumption their debut would be a great thing.