Graded on a Curve:
Tame Impala, Lonerism

Those with an interest in psychedelic pop who haven’t already checked out Perth, Australia’s Tame Impala should surely spend a little time getting acquainted with their not yet voluminous discography. Lonerism is just their second full-length release in fact, and it’s an impressive enough slab of the classic meeting the current to engender a little bit of worry concerning the continued musical growth of leader Kevin Parker.

Tame Impala’s debut LP Innerspeaker appeared back in 2010, and presented an act that was working solidly in the non-retro ‘60s psychedelic pop-rock tradition, though they clearly fell to the melodic side of the spectrum, sounding at times like a non-bubblegum descendant of the Elephant 6 collective and at other moments a smidge akin to the aura offered up by The Flaming Lips, though the Aussie combo were far more tidy in execution then those Okie oddballs.

Much of the comparison to the Rob Schneider camp came through a shared Beatles-derived disposition, and the latter similarity was related to Tame Impala being mixed by Dave Fridmann, the man in the chair for such major ‘90’s efforts as Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs and the Lips’ The Soft Bulletin. However, Innerspeaker wasn’t conceived as an intricate and expansive psych bombshell, lacking the lushness and ambition inherent to those works; much of Innerspeaker’s running time was occupied with fairly well-mannered rocking filtered through a prism of light fuzz, woozy keyboards, and other accessibly far-out additives.

While far from a mindblower, Tame Impala’s debut was a strong one. Maybe it’s most impressive characteristic was in sounding so obviously contempo while harkening backward so openly for the sources of their inspiration, another similarity shared with The Apples in Stereo and early of Montreal.

But instead of forwarding a twee agenda Tame Impala often sounded like a band that was attempting to wed a little bit of heavy-psych crunch and momentum (ala Blue Cheer or MC5, say) to the inspiration found in Revolver (and maybe a hint of Piper at the Gates of Dawn), and then hooked it all up with Fridmann to insure that nobody would mistake them for a throwback, a tendency that occurs fairly often with Down Under bands both large and small.

And Tame Impala fall to the large end of Australian acts, winning widespread popularity and awards in their home country and becoming a buzz band all over the rest of the globe. But the biggest question Innerspeaker proposed in my mind was that of longevity.

A fine first album sure, but to me it seemed about equally likely that they would either capitalize on its success or squander it. But just who is they? Tame Impala is generally thought of as the vehicle of Kevin Parker, who amongst other achievements can list multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, self-producer, and a set of pipes uncommonly similar in sound to that of John Lennon.

It’s the kind of voice that’s readymade for pop vocalizing, and an instrument that could tempt its owner down the path of relative normalcy. But while Innerspeaker was far from flagrantly odd, it was indeed a psyche record; while Parker’s songs were a big part of its appeal his writing wasn’t so impressive to convince me he had the goods to connect in a more overtly pop mode.

If Tame Impala’s appearance on the recent Fleetwood Mac tribute Just Tell Me That You Want Me felt like a huge and blunt clue regarding Parker’s future direction, it was pleasantly complicated by the choice of cover, “That’s All For Everyone” from Tusk, easily the oddest (and in my estimation, the most rewarding) of the Buck/Nicks-era Mac’s stuff.

So here comes Tame Impala’s follow-up disc Lonerism, bolting out of the gate with an opening track positively gushing Beatles influence while significantly upping the weird quotient; “Be Above It” begins with an urgent vocal chant blending into an insistent rhythm as Parker conjures up one of the better “Tomorrow Never Knows” grabs that I’ve heard in quite some time. Fridmann is again enlisted to help mix and the rapport between the two pays instant dividends; if kissed with eccentricity, “Be Above It” is also pop-polished to a fine if not glaring gloss (it’s often overlooked that Fridmann has manned the boards for such pop-savvy acts as Luna).

“Enders Toi” continues to flaunt increased melodicism, but it’s no less unusual in execution, and the song’s essentially half over before Parker’s vocals enter the fray. Synths and a strumming acoustic skate along while drums rattle around busily only to momentarily drop out as the voice enters breezily and briefly only to vanish, making way to a dollop of smudgy electric guitar. And it’s all done in just a shade over three minutes.

And while a few of the tracks here flirt with hitting the six minute mark, Parker never really loses a handle on pop’s need for structure and discipline; the exception would be closer “Sun’s Coming Up (Lambingtons),” which ends with some uninspired sound collage, sounding like the stuff that often ended CDs back in the ‘90s (presumably so they would simply top the 70 minute mark). But again that’s atypical of Lonerism’s norm; “Apocalypse Dreams” stretches out a little bit but lacks self-indulgence, a reality that extends across the majority of the record. And “Mind Mischief” begins to drive home a palpable shift in focus.

If this sophomore long-player still qualifies as psyche, Tame Impala no longer feels tethered to the ‘60s. It’s clear the following decade now plays a primary role in Parker’s scheme of things, and indeed he’s cited Todd Rundgren’s A Wizard, a True Star as a big influence on this record, going so far to enlist the man behind Nazz and Runt to deliver a remix of “Elephant” from this album.

“Mind Mischief” does bop along like something that could’ve been cranked from a Plymouth Duster’s overtaxed AM radio while out guzzling gas at any point during the Me Decade’s first half. And “Music to Walk Home By” flashes elements that are of the same vintage, particularly in a synth/keyboard sound that burbles, bloops, chirps, wheedles, and moans in a manner analogous to a lot of pop tunes of the era. Utilizing a tactic employed by Steve Miller during his uninspiring (if very popular, go figure) ‘70s chart run is a dicey proposition, but for the most part Parker pulls it off.

The impact of the Fab Four is still present, but it increasingly feels at least once removed; if “Be Above It” directly recalls the Smart Beatle in voice and in songwriting, as the LP unwinds Tame Impala frequently sound like an act stirred by extension through groups that were clearly inspired by the world’s most famous Liverpudlians. And the way Parker uses his voice on Lonerism actually reminds me more of Sean Lennon than his daddy. “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” for instance mildly recalls something John’s son might’ve come up with while mulling over the qualities of another son of John, that being Mr. Shuggie Otis.

Some might sneer at the above as a stretch, but it’s a far more honest impression than just falling in line with the comparison to Rundgren. Frankly, I don’t think Lonerism sounds much like ol’ Todd. It does very much feel like Todd, however, and that’s a cause for worry. To elaborate, Tame Impala aren’t a “band” in the true sense of the term. But if the work of one really talented guy, Innerspeaker found him making a concerted effort to come off like an actual band. Lonerism does as well, but in the end it can’t help vibing that it’s really the studio creation of one really talented guy.

By no means is that a bad thing by itself. But Lonerism’s low point “Elephant” kinda sounds like something that could’ve been cooked-up in a three-way songwriting collusion by members of ELO, Pink Floyd, and Supertramp. That is to say it’s faux-heavy (like so much later Floyd) along with being overbearing (the ‘tramp, natch) and a mite too obvious (which is where Mr. Lynne comes in). Yes, all three of those bands did quality work in the ‘70s, but it was a decade of extremes; when things were not good, they could be very not good.

The longest track on Lonerism also holds the wordiest title, and “Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything We Could Control” steers the ship back on course. But I can’t deny the lingering impression that Parker’s best step forward would be to find an assertive collaborator. Sometimes even token band members can come in handy. They just might drink one or two too many and express that you’re barking up the wrong tree.

Kevin Parker’s talent isn’t in doubt. It’s just that nobody’s creative compass in infallible. So far Tame Impala’s batting average has been relatively high. But so was Rundgren’s around 1972. Flash forward a decade or so and the situation was quite different. Here’s hoping Tame Impala don’t find a similar fate.

GRADED ON A CURVE:

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