Last year, when the music business began to notice the number of strong, new rock acts emerging from Australia and breaking into America, there was much talk about an Australian Invasion, the '80s equivalent of the British rock explosion two decades earlier. But it never came to be, despite an ongoing influx of distinctive and noteworthy bands from Down Under, and the biggest reason is that there is no such thing as an Australian sound.
It was possible, for instance, to notice a similarity between the Rolling Stones and the Animals, or the Kinks and the Who. Resemblance of Men at Work to INXS, however, cannot be so easily argued. If anything, the majority of Australian acts have more in common with musical movements in America and Britain.
The Church, for example, boasts enough neopsychedelic trappings to fit in comfortably with either the L.A. revivalists or the Liverpool revisionists. Bits of both can be heard on "Remote Luxury" (Warner Brothers 25152-1), but on the whole, this Sydney-based quartet (which appears at the 9:30 club on Nov. 23) goes well beyond the boundaries of either movement. "Maybe These Boys," for example, is built around a swaggeringly catchy chorus that would have done Mott the Hoople proud and that songwriter Steven Kilbey presents with an Iggy Pop snarl. Yet the song's arrangement is purposely muted, swathing its savage aggression under a heavy gauze of keyboard and guitar. The resultant incongruity ends up intensifying the song's menace.
There is a similar underlying disquietude to much of the Church's canon. Beneath the warm harmonies and synthesized cello of "Violet Town," Kilbey paints a picture of small-town paranoia shutting out reality and, eventually, real life. The lyrics are clever enough, but what ultimately puts the point across is the dispassion of his delivery, suggesting ineffable sorrow. Even "10,000 Miles," guitarist Marty Willson-Piper's dream of forgotten love, makes its point as much through the disparity between its upbeat chorus and his own saddened singing.
Above all, the songs on "Remote Luxury" are unremittingly tuneful. That, more than anything else, seems to be the constant for Australian rockers, because regardless of their particular stylistic interests, they never underestimate the importance of the music's pop content.
That's particularly true of another Sydney quartet, the Hoodoo Gurus, who appear at the 9:30 club this Saturday. As represented by the group's American debut, "Stone Age Romeos" (A&M SP5012), the Gurus' sound is a cheerful amalgam of rockabilly raunch, glitter gaucherie and surf-rock silliness. For all that, though, their emphatically quirky approach is still long on melody. Even something as completely wacko as "Leilani," the outrageous and rather overworked saga of a girl and her volcano, ends up sounding like a hit thanks to the hummable nuggets embedded in the vocal and guitar lines.
Granted there's an awful lot of other stuff hanging around those melodies. The Hoodoo Gurus are eclectic in the extreme, and while that occasionally frees them from convention, it just as often mires them in their influences. If you don't mind tripping over bits of undigested Ramones, Gary Glitter or Boomtown Rats, that's not a problem; if you do, then it would pay to be picky with "Stone Age Romeos."
Then again, there are times when sounding like another, better known band can be an advantage. Consider "Heaven," which opens the Eurogliders' first American album, "This Island" (Columbia BSC 39588). In the opening phrases, this Perth-based sextet manages to mimic Fleetwood Mac right down to the Stevie Nicks/Lindsay Buckingham blend of Grace Knight's husky alto and Bernie Lynch's tart tenor. Even the dynamics of the song, with its wistful verse and buoyant chorus, recall the Fleetwood Mac formula. Yet by the time it reaches its conclusion, "Heaven" has moved beyond mere imitation to become something distinctive enough to assure the Eurogliders of their own identity.
Electronics are central to that identity. On "No Action," for instance, Knight's vocals are given the bulk of the melody, but share the mix with a swirl of synthesizers and snarling guitars, a treatment that adds an exciting edge. "Cold Comfort," by contrast, layers synthesizers and guitars behind Knight's vocals to create a mood of sorrow and regret that suggests Siouxsie and the Banshees' "Israel," but manages a far greater range of subtleties.
Overall, "This Island" is lightweight but demonstrates a pleasant pop sense, a feature that may well be the most enduring characteristic of Australian rock.