Saudade - Mark Steiner and His Problems (Plug Ugly)
The battle-lines used to be clearly drawn between Sydney and Melbourne. Sydney was the home of high-energy guitar rock in its many variants, many of them Motor City-derived, while Melbourne spawned an artier, darker strain of music with one foot squarely planted in territory that became known as junkie rock.
These days Sydney’s musical crown is less faded than displaced. Melbourne is in the ascendancy. Its thriving music scene retains an artiness but it rocks as well. The place still does darkness better than most but its palette seems broader. Its tentacles seem to spread further than any other scene in Australia.
Norwegian-American Mark Steiner has visited Melbourne and gulped hard on water drawn from its musical well. He did an Australian tour a few years back but the influences were obviously already in place. There’s a Bad Seeds/Rowland S Howard/Wreckery streak several kilometres wide running right down the back of his bluesy music, but it’s marked by poise rather than self pity.
Recorded mostly in Norway, with overdubbed contributions from Portugal, Switzerland, New York City, Scotland and, yes, Melbourne, “Saudade” is a substantial album of richly measured blues rock.
Steiner’s sonorous baritone vocal presence is strongly pervading and recalls Hugo Race. Musically, “Saudade” sounds as St Kilda as that Acland Street cake shop or matching ensembles of all black clothing and sunglasses. If you were from Europe, you might say it was Gothic.
It’s not just the cover of “Dead Radio” or the presence of guests like Mick Harvey and Rosie Westbrook. (The take on the Rowland song is pretty good, but gallops a bit and lacks the smouldering edge of the original.) It’s the wonderful “after dark” feel that Steiner and friends bring to every one of this baker’s dozen of songs.
The album’s title - it’s roughly translated from Portuguese and means a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing - fairly sums it up. Steiner and co-producer Henry Hugo have built this sound from the ground up. Rich, melodic bass and unobtrusive feel drumming is overlaid with guitar and other contributions. It might have been recorded in disparate locations but it’s the sound of ensemble playing.
The rolling menace of “Fortitude” and the displaced melancholy of “Don’t Explain” are strong points. Most of the songs are Steiner’s with a smattering of mostly lesser-known covers. Tempos rarely get out of second gear but they usually don’t need to when armed with these levels of intensity. Steiner’s a storyteller and it’s important to hear the words.
And on the subject of covers, can you believe the audacity of tackling “Venus In Furs”? It’s not played straight though - Steiner duets with Oslo singer Celile Stille and re-arranges it substantially. The skewed re-working goes down a treat and it’s a wonderful lead-in to the leaden guitar and cello wash of “A Compass Will Do You No Good Here”, a vocal collaboration with co-writer and NYC author Tricia Warden.