Sydney veterans celebrate life and mourn loss on comeback album
David James Young
Sixteen years on from their last album, the multi-platinum piano-pop band show they’ve lost none of their charm or grace
The last time an acclaimed Australian act returned with new music after 16 years (a niche category if there ever was one) was The Avalanches’ 2016 comeback ‘Wildflower’. The difference between the plunderphonics pioneers and Newtown mainstays The Whitlams, however, is the latter never truly went into hibernation.
Up until recently, for obvious reasons, you could catch them undertaking national tours every year. Be it a night out with the orchestra or a traditional theatre gig, the Sydney band seemed content with rolling out their greatest hits for audiences practically raised on them. It may well have stayed that way too, were it not for the sudden and untimely passing of the band’s road manager Greg Weaver in 2019.
Weaver’s death prompted bandleader Tim Freedman to begin work on his first collection of new songs since his 2011 solo album ‘Australian Idle’. The end result, ‘Sancho’ – so named after Freedman’s nickname for Weaver – is a worthy addition to The Whitlams’ illustrious canon. It’s both a timely reminder of what made the group such a charming prospect to begin with and proof that Freedman has lost none of his finesse as a songwriter even after over a decade away.
Curiously, for a project with such personal origins, ‘Sancho’ is bookended by songs and stories that are not Freedman’s. The album opener, ‘Catherine Wheel’, is a cover of a highlight from Washington’s 2020 album ‘Batflowers’; the closer, ‘Ballad of Bertie Kidd’, is a retold yarn from a chance pub encounter who claimed to be roped into a failed heist by the titular criminal.
It’s testament to Freedman’s quintessential persona and decades of storytelling, though, that he is able to inhabit both songs with ease. ‘Catherine Wheel’ requires vulnerability, while ‘Bertie Kidd’ tos-and-fros with innocence lost – two aspects of music that are certainly not lost on a performer as seasoned as Freedman.
‘Bertie Kidd’, in particular, is one of the best showcases of the four-piece as a collective: guitarist Jak Housden pits atonal snarl against spy-movie dramatics as the song’s mood shifts, while Warwick Hornby (bass) and Terepai Richmond (drums) know exactly when to lean in and out accordingly as the story unfolds.
Loss and grief have served as the muse to some of The Whitlams’ most beloved songs, the ‘Charlie’ trilogy from 1997’s ‘Eternal Nightcap’ and ‘Blow Up the Pokies’ from 1999’s ‘Love This City’ among them. When it comes to the title track and its prequel ‘Sancho in Love’, however, Freedman defies the grim overtones of his past work on the subject and instead forges a celebration of Weaver’s life.
As such, ‘Sancho’ fondly recalls boozy tours full of in-jokes and sing-alongs, jaunty piano and waltzing drums underscoring the whole affair. ‘Sancho in Love’, a few tracks later, ups the energy even further as Freedman portrays a young Weaver finding his calling atop a bustling arrangement that’s about as pub-rock as the collared-shirt Whitlams are likely to get.
The world surrounding The Whitlams has changed drastically since they released 2006’s ‘Little Cloud’. Perhaps the best thing about ‘Sancho’ is that the world it’s inheriting feels that little bit warmer and safer due to its presence. A wistful, endearing collection of songs from a seemingly-evergreen band, ‘Sancho’ will have fans feeling thankful that such a triumph has arisen out of such a tragedy.
28 January 2022
THE AUSTRALIAN ★★★★
Andrew P. Street
Given the name and artwork of Sancho you might be expecting that Tim Freedman and co spent their lockdown hours channelling their inner Calexico and exploring some south of the border Tex-Mex flavours for album No.7. However, Sancho sounds – well, exactly like the Whitlams. That’s because the Sancho of the title is the band’s former tour manager, Greg Weaver, who died unexpectedly in 2019 but returns to inspire two of the album’s finest songs. The title track is a loving ode to a life spent on the road and Sancho in Love is an upbeat, stomping rocker appropriately tailor-made for exactly the sort of sweaty live rooms that Weaver spent 20 years putting the band into. It’s almost redundant to say that this is yet another lockdown album made under the ever-changing circumstances of the pandemic; former Wolfmother bassist Ian Peres subs on a few tracks when border closures prevented the full band from convening. Yet most of the songs still sound like a band effortlessly playing live together.
Jaunty lead single (You’re Making Me Feel Like I’m) 50 Again is another tongue-in-cheek, Freedman-perspective love song, replete with demographic-appropriate 1980s synthesiser stabs. Another highlight is the epic closing crime drama Ballad of Bertie Kidd, a musical short story about a Reschs-fuelled art heist gone terribly wrong, and the aside that “they’re all sharks and leeches and lawyers” heard during In The Last Life is an effortlessly vitriolic slam worthy of the late, great Warren Zevon. Some of the other decisions don’t work quite as well. It takes a lot of nerve to start a record with a cover, especially when it’s of a recent and not especially well-known tune; and the lush strings of Catherine Wheel pales in comparison to the stunning, stripped-back, heart-in-mouth original by Megan Washington on 2020’s Batflowers. Some of the codas stretch out longer than they perhaps absolutely must and it’s interesting to wonder whether this album would sound the same had these songs been given the Whitlams’ typical road-testing and winnowing, but honestly? Hearing the familiar voice of Freedman reassuring us that “the worse that it was, the better it will be” might just be what we need in these uncertain times.
28 January 2022
THE MUSIC ★★★★
‘Sancho’ doesn’t disappoint the faithful.”
It’s been over a decade since a new release from The Whitlams, and Sancho doesn’t disappoint the faithful. The album’s title track, written for the band’s late tour manager Greg Weaver, is a six-minute mini-epic that evokes a collection of memories mashed together from different parts of a big tour (or big night). It’s a morbid genre, the musical obituary, but singer-songwriter Tim Freedman shows again that no one does misery-tinged pop piano better.
Of course, there’s always been much more to The Whitlams than the tragedy of losing dear friends too soon, with specialities in love songs and cheeky pop ditties (sometimes combined as well as separate) also present here. Those here for the love are served well by openers Catherine Wheel and Nobody Knows I Love You, while the cheekier side of things move in with (You’re Making Me Feel Like I’m) 50 Again. With its glorious retro keys and older and wiser ‘ooh oohs’, is this a sequel to I Make Hamburgers, getting ‘all the girls’ but now with sensible shoes?
Songs that are upbeat without being saccharine are also still Freedman’s speciality – here Man About A Dog and Cambridge Three both take that mantle, hooky as well as familiar without being old hat. Listen hard, lyric lovers, there are some crackers in here too. In the same vein is Sancho In Love – although with some quirky time changes to keep the listener on their toes (or perhaps to give life to a different set of stories to the title track). The outro in particular here is epic – dear listener, try and keep your air guitar in its case, I dare you.
Freedman and his band have also always been great deliverers of story songs, although this time tales of wayward drummers and girls who got away are replaced by legit criminals with Ballard Of Bertie Kidd. Another six-minute track, over successive verses the narrative goes south and the story ends, sort of, with a capture – deliberately unresolved (and apparently with the blessing of the real-life Bertie, now in his ‘80s).
Overall, a mixed bag rather than a themed album, and while there are flashes of the different ‘types’ of Whitlams of the past, Sancho carves its own path.
28 January 2022
The Whitlams back from exile after 16 years
Tim Freedman did just enough that we never thought to search for him. It’s been 16 years since the last Whitlams album, 2006’s Little Cloud, and nearly every year since, the loquacious Newtown fixture would put his indie-rock outfit back on the road for a two-month national tour. A setlist punctuated with hits such as No Aphrodisiac and Blow Up the Pokies kept fans happy and the name prominent. Freedman had a career without obsessing over it.
Sancho is named for the group’s long-time tour manager, Greg “Sancho” Weaver, who passed away from a heart attack in 2019. Losing his travelling companion got Freedman writing again. “It’s a confidence game, you know,” he sings on the title track, “they’ll come along to see a man who believes in himself.” What applied live carries over to the studio – this album is the sound of a songwriter seeing if he still believes in himself.
The Whitlams were always outliers in the alternative rock years, with Freedman singing conversational lyrics filled with grand gestures and late-night carousing; when everybody was summoning Black Sabbath, it was Randy Newman that Freedman evoked. Time’s passing has only further unscrewed his aesthetic. Cambridge Three, which skips around the Soviet spies infamously lodged in the British establishment, has the bounce of 1970s AM radio and an elegiac lead guitar break from Bowie’s Berlin days.
In the past decade, Freedman has intermittently worked in the theatre, including co-writing a Whitlams jukebox musical in 2014. That interest has filtered back into his songwriting, adding to the tangle of influences. The string-sustained Nobody Knows I Love You has the crisp stage enunciation and melodic instincts of a Broadway musical, while the rousing In the Last Life, a song of second chances that spills over into the celebratory, puts Freedman alongside the likes of Ben Folds as a bracket between distant songwriting eras.
Even odd moments feel endearing – the keyboard fanfare that opens (You’re Making Me Feel Like I’m) 50 Again recalls Irene Cara’s 1983 pop smash Flashdance… What a Feeling – and much of Sancho has an instrumental warmth and idiosyncratic ease, whether Freedman is telling tall true-crime tales or memorialising his own past. This is plainly a Whitlams album, but it’s not merely a recreation of prior glories. That’s as good a way as any to come back from exile.
28 January 2022