Graded on a Curve:
Blank Realm,
Grassed Inn

Brisbane Australia’s Blank Realm has been active for roughly ten years, but only in the last few has the sibling-dominated four-piece received substantial and well-deserved attention outside their native country. While the band’s last LP tread along the borders of first-class contemporary sounds, their new disc lands smack dab in that region, holding eight songs displaying a considerable increase in skillful pop design while retaining ties to their non-slick personality. Grassed Inn is an excellent album that solidifies Blank Realm as one of the best young rock acts currently on the scene.

Blank Realm early spate of productivity revealed them as a decidedly exploratory underground affair with a sizeable batch of multi-format small label releases to their credit, but 2012’s Go Easy found the band tightening their focus and combining elements of ‘90s indie rock with strains of contempo garage, loose/non-polished pop motion and few key flourishes of experimentation making clear it was all indeed a progression rather than a clean break for bigger leagues.

Lots of folks (including this writer) mentioned Royal Trux in relation to Go Easy, but the similarity was never heavy-handed and was importantly blended with other points of comparison, so the results never felt like Blank Realm was striving to make the cover of Heroin Chic Monthly. Instead, this band of three siblings (Daniel, Luke, and Sarah Spencer) and their “spiritual brother” Luke Walsh connected like four people who had simply grown up listening to some records, with the time spent inspiring them to make their own.

For those attuned to its murky and at-times ramshackle scale, dipping into Blank Realm’s early work provides a nice number of worthwhile moments, but the real tipoff to the emergence of Go Easy didn’t really shape up until the release of 2010’s Deja What? It first came out via the Arthur’s Basement imprint in a CDR run of 54 copies, so not a whole lot of people noticed initially, but after getting picked up by their hometown label Bedroom Suck, it reportedly kicked up some major Aussie dust.

And based on the success of Go Easy, Fire Records reissued Deja What? last August, so the progression Blank Realm has made from those discs to their especially fine new one Grassed Inn is quite easy to absorb. On Deja What?, the thrust of their experimentalism started shaping up as directly rock taggable, with environments often psychedelic and increasingly popish (comparisons have been made to ‘80s Flying Nun bands) though with fidelity appropriate to labels with the words basement and bedroom in their titles.

Along with that occasional Royal Trux-like aura, Go Easy flaunted moments that recalled Geffen-era Sonic Youth and featured synth playing (via Sarah Spencer) that made me think of Pere Ubu’s Allen Ravenstine. Plus, their garage bent was fleetingly in synch with the new breed of San Francisco acts Thee Oh Sees, Ty Segall, and White Fence. So the psychedelic edge was still tangible, but it also mingled with further manifestation of their budding pop side.

And upon first listen to Grassed Inn, the dominant impression is the continued growth of Blank Realm’s melodic sensibilities. While Go Easy possessed some hook-filled winners (in particular the Stones-ish title track and the excellent “Cleaning up My Mess”), the new LP’s opener “Back to the Flood” is just a spirited guitar-pop gem.

Immediately establishing an uptempo pace and an ambiance that’s finely balanced between cloudy and crisp, the song unwinds like a mixture of the scrappier ‘80s New Zealand bands and the more guitar and momentum-focused participants from the UK’s C86 scene. Daniel Spencer’s lyrical swagger is infectious, Walsh’s insistent guitar playing quickly gets lodged in the memory, and Sarah’s contributions on synth, remindful of the post punk era without ever sounding like a calculated style reference, bring a sly erudition to the tune.

What it ultimately feels like is a hit single, though there are a few reasons why that descriptor will in all likelihood remain figurative rather than literal. For starters, the lack of polish; while “Back to the Flood” is far from lo-fi, it’s also not exactly dripping with pro-like production sheen. Second, its instrumental hook is based upon a sort of guitar pop classicism that’s never exactly stormed the pop charts (college radio playlists are another matter, however.)

Also, the way they drive that hook is emblematic of what’s becoming one of Blank Realm’s defining traits, specifically the desire to extend. All but two tracks here are at least five minutes long, and none clock in at less than four. And on “Back to the Flood,” the tactic reminds me of the Wedding Present. Though they don’t overtly sound like David Gedge and company, they do partake in upping the song’s intensity without altering it structurally.

But with “Falling down the Stairs,” they take a turn into a shambling jangle zone, the cut aided by Sarah’s up front indie pop keyboard presence and deft songwriting shifts. Fire’s promo lit mentions similarities to Big Star, The Zombies, and Echo and the Bunnymen, but out of the three it’s the first that resonates most to this ear.

While Grassed Inn is a markedly different record than Go Easy, Blank Realm still manifest the kind of casual looseness that feels inspired by tipping a few back and playing for the sheer pleasure of it. Their stuff stretches out like a band that’s simply relishing the moment and letting it last for a while. Also, while I’ve mentioned guitar pop, post punk, and indie pop in this review, Daniel Spencer’s vocals still ooze rock ‘n’ roll, though any similarities to Royal Trux are, at least for this album, basically undetectable.

And overall that’s a good thing, one that’s reflective of Grassed Inn’s variety and growth. For instance, “Bell Tower” is a real psyche-pop nugget, though it lacks the forcefulness of the opener and the jangly nature of its predecessor, instead striking me a little like something from the late-‘60s UK, except edgier and with hints of cerebral glam hovering in the mix.

From there, “Bulldozer Love” hits upon a slowly building (over eight and a half-minute) melodic groove that’s suggestive of the back-to-basics character of the more Velvets-influenced early Flying Nun acts. Those not smitten by its charms will surely find the length problematic, but its duration, lyrical simplicity and well-executed dynamic shifts are key elements in its success.

“Violet Delivery” might be Grassed Inn’s most fully realized pop tune, and up to this point it’s the LP’s biggest stylistic detour. Opening with a drum machine rhythm that screams synth-pop (or at least a demo of an unreleased early-‘80s Talking Heads song), the cut’s understated catchiness, sturdy construction, and relative succinctness at 4:18 show that if they desired it, Blank Realm could make a legitimate stab for full-blown commerciality.

But for all that, “Violet Delivery” still offers a surplus of unusualness, with copious synth squirts, Daniel’s impassioned vocal delivery, and a prevailing atmosphere of the low-tech in evidence. And happily, when united with Walsh’s expert guitar strokes, these aspects help the track in easily avoiding any collisions with the flagrant retro vibe that the mention of synth pop can suggest.

In some ways, “Baby Closes the Door” is the Grassed Inn cut that’s most in keeping with the sound of Deja What? Touches of their earlier experimentation rise to the surface in its opening minute, and even after a solid level of approachableness sinks in through an unperturbed guitar strum, bursts of electronics pepper the entirety.

“Baby Closes the Door” highlights the secure progression of Blank Realm’s rapid evolution, and it increases the appeal of “Even the Score,” which is a sweet mass of VU-descended ache. Additionally, it positions the band’s intertwining of tried-and-true guitar and understated electronics as not only attractive but downright refreshing, mainly because it registers as organic rather than contrived to secure a built-in audience.

And like Go Easy, this latest effort closes with a terrific example of their pure songwriting abilities, though unlike the last album’s Stones-like title tune, “Reach You on the Phone” is an expression of relationship ills that should greatly impress longstanding indie pop fans. But please give it a few listens, for the cut, like Grassed Inn as a whole, is a real grower.

Upon initial inspection, this LP impacted me as strong and likeable but slighter than Go Easy. After over a dozen spins however, Grassed Inn has emerged as Blank Realm’s best record yet. Once notable for their expansion via the personalization of smart influences, with this one they’ve proven capable of sustained brilliance. Not a disposable or lesser track is located amongst its trim if expansive number and the icing on the cake is a lingering feeling that full maturity is still waiting in the distance.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


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