by Noel Mengel
The last time Tim Freedman, singer, songwriter and driving force of The Whitlams, made an album, he hoped it would sell 8000 copies.
With the help of consistently entertaining live shows and the evocative melancholy of the pivotal track, No Aphrodisiac, Eternal Nightcap went on to sell 190,000.
Result: The Whitlams are no long just another promising band from the inner-Sydney indie scene and Freedman has the freedom and the budget to create the album that has been spinning around in his head for years.
And he succeeds beyond all expectations with Love This City (East West/Warner), a record destined to provide the soundtrack for the summer and, in years to come, be regarded as a high watermark for Ozpop in the ’90s, using pop, rock and soul ingredients for its distinctive Australian flavour.
There are a number of things that set Freedman apart from the pack. For starters, he is a piano player and Australia has almost no tradition of commercially successful piano-based singer-songwriters. In the United States you can pick from a crew including Tom Waits, Randy Newman, Jimmy Webb, Warren Zevon and Todd Rundgren.
The last one I can think of here was that bloke with the gap between his teeth who had a Countdown hit about 15 years ago. Anyone remember his name?
Freedman’s chief influences are from traditional songcraft – Burt Bacharach and Al Green obviously mean more in his world than pub rock ever did.
Neither are there many Australian rock writers who so often use the local and particular as the basis for their lyrics.
At the core of the album is a trio of songs inspired by events around the local pub at the end of his street in Sydney’s Newtown.
You Gotta Love This City is a lightly funky soul tune (with marimbas, flute and Marcia Hines, no less, on backing vocals) that tells the tale of a young man who loses his job and wanders drunkenly by the harbour on the night that Syd-er-ny won the Olympics;God Drinks At The Sando is a late-night piano-bar ballad; Blow Up The Pokies is an anti-gambling song written after poker machines took over the stage where this band played its first shows.
American soul plays an important part in the mix and not just because Made Me Hard and There’s No One were recorded in Memphis with a cast of A-team session players who were around when the classics were made in the first place.
Time, one of several hit-singles-in-waiting here, features sizzling ’70s sounds from jazzer Barney McCall’s Rhodes electric piano and Jackie Orszaczky’s pungent brass arrangement, and the same contributors underscore the hypnotic pulse of Pretty As You, which shows you can make soul music without having to go back to the source to record it.
Elsewhere, the sources are rich and varied. The bouncy brass, strings and piano arrangement of Thank You (For Loving Me At My Worst) falls somewhere between The Foundations’ Build me Up Buttercup and Jon Sebastian’s Welcome Back Kotter and surely must introduce commercial FM listeners to The Whitlams. Chunky Chunky Air Guitar is Freedman at his most playful on a throwaway dance-pop tune.
At the other end of the scale is the haunting refrain of 400 Miles From Darwin, the best song yet written about the Australian attitude to East Timor these past 24 years.
I’ve been listening to Love This City for a month and each time I go back it reveals new layers to me, the surest indication of an album with a long shelf life.
Tim Freedman would be the first to admit he’s no John Lennon as a singer, no Dr John as a piano player, no Randy Newman as a lyricist. But, like all great rock music, the sum of Love This City is greater than the parts, a collection of sophisticated songs that sounds all the better because it hits so close to home.
If nothing else, try to listen to it for the finale to the Memphis-recorded There’s No One, with Jackie Johnson’s gospel harmonies and Lester Snell’s soulful Hammond organ. Awesome.