Remaking the old into new

9 September 2017

Review: Jen Cloher –
Mojo’s Bar, 3 September –
Review by Kevin Runions –

Jen Cloher’s songs speak of real life, and real love, and love (in particular) of music.  Songs written about the Dirty Three. References to Darren Hanlon.  The guitarist in a Smudge t-shirt fashioned from the Modern Lovers first album.   It may not be a coincidence that Cloher’s haircut has a circa-1972-Keith-Richards-x-Joan-Jett vibe.  The music is a similar cross-Atlantic hybrid of classic postpunk interlock of overdriven rhythm guitar, bass (“Bones” Sloane”) and drums (Jen Sholakis).  The three hold down a tight, late-70s NY punk thing and its subsequent echoes (Television, Wire, Elastica, Parquet Courts) as well as anyone does these days. Jen loves music, and her music is steeped in rock’s past.

Cloher is engaged in the same world we are, as we await the results of an opinion poll that may or may not compel our government to allow folks like Jen to live life as she would.  She sings – with unfakeable affect –  about waiting for a nation of strangers to decide if she can have a wife (“I’m paralysed / in paradise / while the Hansonites / Take a plebiscite / to decide/ if I can have a wife” (“Analysis Paralysis”).   Real life via real music.

Over this foundation, the lead guitarist is free to pull squalls of atonal but highly musical moans of feedback and clusters of improbable notes from a Marshall amp.   Hunched over, hair obscuring her face, in a pose well known to fans of Dinosaur Jr and countless other 90s indie bands, it’s not inconsequential that the left-handed Jazzmaster is wielded by Cloher’s wife (if she can have a wife, of course) Courtney Barnett.   There is no lack of press out there wherein Cloher speaks openly about struggling with the meteoric rise of her wife’s career.  There is no forgetting that one of them is about to release an album with Kurt Vile; no forgetting the tyranny of distance of waiting at home for your wife to return from her smash tours of North America and Europe.  Perhaps, like Bowie playing keyboards to Iggy Pop, Barnett chooses to studiously leave the spotlight to Cloher.  Anyway, Barnett says little, the banter is all from Cloher.  Whatever you may think of Barnett’s pun-heavy lyrics in her own work, it’s hard not to come away a bit gobsmacked by her sheer talent with her instrument: a perfect absorption and re-expression of Robert Quine and Thurston Moore’s noise innovations.  

I did wonder if the line-up (3 women and a male bass player) is not itself a music-nerd joke, as Cloher would know well the history – and stereotypes – of Kims (Gordon and Deal) in late-1980s college rock bands.  

The songs sound great – no less so because the musical stylings are familiar.  Cloher is creating fresh, fun, vibrant and thoughtful rock music out of and immersed in the long and rich history of NY-punk and post-punk guitar rock.  As rock’s influence wanes, it’s great to hear and see people making something so new and so good out of it.  

Jen Cloher’s new album “Jen Cloher”, is out now on Milk Records.

Top photo: Milk Records

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