Mike Caen - Mike Caen (Foghorn Records)
The media release is cagey, avoiding too much specific information on Caen’s background. He’s fronted bands, played in bands (to quote the bio: "such as Mental as Anything, Dragon and Jenny Morris … played hundreds of shows … from big city stadiums to outback mining towns").
At this point the diligent, well-paid reviewer on a daily paper should do their homework and look the man up, perhaps at www.mikecaen.com.au, to find out more. But I am a lowly scrubber at the I94-Bar zine and I have a mountain of CDs to approach (some with caution) and I am going to quail, claim I don’t have the time ("I don’t have the time for this, dammit" - see what I mean?) and go along with the between-the-lines message from the screed: Don’t look at the man’s history, listen to the bloody songs.
So, I will do that. Me being me, however, if I’d bumped into Caen at a party and we were talking music and he’d mentioned that he’d played with "Mental as Anything, Dragon and Jenny Morris" in the first few sentences, or that his new LP "sounds like Church/Radiohead", I think I’d have discovered an urgent need to step outside (possibly to leave). As the bio also advises us that Caen is a "jobbing guitarist" it makes more sense. If you’re not running your own outfit, you play where you’re paid to go and do your best (even Robert Quine had to do this, and not a week goes by that I regret that man’s death at his own hands).
Before we start, however, another phrase Mick Caen could do without, poor bugger, is "jobbing guitarist", which makes the recipient of the term seem a cross between a mendicant, a jogger, and an odd pervert - because where I come from, a "job" or "jobby" is a poo, and "jobbing" of course means "poo-ing". And none of those terms reflect this album at all. (EDITOR: Adelaide is such a strange place.)
While I’m here and in an irritable, where’s-my-coffee-oh-that’s-right-I’ve-given-it-up mood, telling anyone that they sound like the bloody Church or the nasty Radiohead strikes me as a deep insult. I mean, I’m sure the band members are jolly good folk, doing what they can for the band leaders, but please. In a year when so many superbly talented, rightly-worshipped performers (from Victoria Wood to Prince to Alan Vega) have been unjustly taken from us that Robert Vennum of the ** Bell-rays coined the term "twentysixteened" (and got away with it) and those of us with any sense still mourn the presence on God’s blue earth of such bumboils as Ozzy, or that berk from the Church, or those turds on those Nobody’s Got Talent shows (honestly, why they don’t do a show called Nobby’s Got Talent, I don’t know. It’d be far more honest, and spectacularly funny and far more successful).
Where was I? The cover is a painting of Caen, brilliantly executed by Loribelle Spirovsky, from a photo by Andrew Trayner, and sadly makes Caen look rather old, ugly and inside himself, which is probably not the intention. I can tell you straight away that very few people under 30 will pick this CD up on the basis of the cover, because that old thingy about not judging the content by the cover is very true: that’s why some covers are designed to positively insist that you buy the thing in the shop, only to find you are now the owner of a rather large black frisbee. As I suspect many unwitting AC/DC, David Bowie and Rolling Stones fans have discovered.
Quoting the media release for the last time; "I suppose this is a collection of one-offs and there are 11 of them so maybe [Caen] should have called the album ‘Eleven-Offs’ but they really do reflect the artist himself…". Well, that’s from a mate of Caen’s, and he’s wrong. There are multiple themes and threads pulling this lp together; it may have been recorded all over the place but the album itself is as coherent and sharp as you could wish. It’s a damn fine listen and I’m telling you as someone who hates mainstream radio: "Mike Caen" pisses all over anything I’ve ever heard by the Mentals, Jenny Morris and (especially) Dragon.
"Mike Caen" is an often reflective, beautiful CD. "Only Love" opens the record and although this music is not something I’d ordinarily pick out, it’s the hearing of it which you respond to, not the media release or the cover. I would say that this is one of the few times where I really do want to read the lyrics, even though the journey into the album is one of those pleasures that repeated listening warrants. You really do want the lyrics, by the way. Get the CD then pester the man. He’s on Facebook.
Caen has a huge, rich voice and his choice of piano parts to accompany the songs is mighty fine. The album itself is one of those which grabs you early on, but you can’t drive this in the car as it has many quiet, delicate, beautiful building moments and you don’t want to spoil them by shouting at other drivers and their screeches of pain.
"Feel Like Letting Go" is where our intrepid hero realises things about himself (and his situation) and they’re not pretty. But instead of yowling like pointless punker, he simply puts the realisations to good use. "The cops seem so familiar" is a great ironic line … you laugh in recognition and sadness. Well, I do. Then I get all sad and thoughtful. "I get happy in my prison" … good grief.
"Ache" is the single, and it’s a cracker. Gorgeous, haunting and, far from reminding me of the empty berk at the helm of the Church, or Radiohead (an Irishman I know currently uses the band’s name as an insult - as in "you radiohead") it reminds me of Wire at their most melodic and rapturous.
"Sirens" (not the Garry Gray and the Sixth Circle song) also gradually builds, hums and yearns as it leads you right down the garden path and into the fairycircle. The way Caen structures his songs is rather magnificent, by the by, and Sirens’ slow, patient whorl is a world in itself. The next song, Beeps, is clearly about the tenuous nature of our miserable existence, but it’s rather uplifting and lightly amusing nonetheless; his refrain of "everything’s cheap, everything’s cheap" should be sung by schoolkids and old gits in homes everywhere. But not on those Nobody Talent shows, because that would really give the game away.
You know what? I’ve taken you into the woods and I’m going to leave you here. There are six more songs and I’m sure you’ll enjoy them as much as the first five. "Mike Caen" is a damn fine CD, and it surprised me by how moving, smart without being smug, clever and artless and down to earth and wryly amusing it all is. You need to listen to it, though, because it’s not rawk or even RAWK; but it is a rather brilliant, soaring, lovely album. If you haven’t reached for the plastic or the computer to check this music out right now I can only assume you’re a cheapskate with no love of music.
Mike Caen has a huge talent, and I’d love to see more of it. If he’s playing anywhere near you, whether on his own or even as part of Mental as Anything or someone similar, go and see him. He’s clearly a neglected treat, and if I’m ever lucky enough to meet him, I’ll buy him a drink.