Australian cult power pop singer-songwriter John Dowler, best remembered for his groups Young Modern and the Zimmermen (and their classic 1985 single “Don’t Go to Sydney”), returns with his current outfit. The new album 12 STITCHES includes ten new band originals that combine melody, invention and wry humour with compacted guitars and drums, as well as a Brian Wilson tune and stunning interpretation of Split Enz’s 1975 classic “Time for A Change”.
Half A Cow is proud to present the second album by John Dowler’s Vanity Project entitled 12 Stiches. To be released May 1, digitally and on CD, the album is the second by the Melbourne-based vehicle for singer and songwriter John Dowler, a man who was a key figure in Australia’s alternative rock’n’roll scene of the ’70s and ’80s. The Vanity Project are a culmination of his previous work, one that touches on the art-pop rock of the first band Spare Change and the pub folk-rock of his ’80s band the Zimmermen, with the melodic pop rock/power pop of his late ’70s band-most-likely, Young Modern, at its heart.
In his 1981 feature on John Dowler in Roadrunner magazine (recently anthologised in Roadrunner book The Big Beat, itself named after a song Dowler made popular with Young Modern) Melbourne rock writer Adrian Ryan commented on Dowler’s then-new band, the short lived Everybody’s So Glad. He said they played with a certain kind of soul, and a type of sound that hadn’t been heard in town since Paul Kelly & The Dots underwent a line-up change too many, and since the Saints were last in town. It was the kind of sound that “had nothing to do with horn sections and screams, but rather with jangling guitars, a passionate beat, allusions to something half forgotten.”
Everybody’s So Glad certainly had the jangling guitars that Ryan was referring to. And it wasn’t some insipid jangle-pop sound; hell, he made reference to the Saints! Granted he was talking about the second incarnation, but classic Bailey tracks likes “Simple Love” and “In the Mirror” are some pretty tough jangle. As Ryan alluded, something similar could also be heard in the early Dots, a band that Dowler had ties to via his first band Spare Change, who moved from Adelaide to Melbourne in the mid-’70s and who provided an early home-base for Paul Kelly when he did the same a couple of years later. Indeed, Spare Change guitarist Chris Langman was in the Dots, and a bit later he and Dowler reunited in a band called the Glory Boys, who recorded the first version of the now-classic “Leaps & Bounds”.
While Spare Change’s impact faded (although another member, Bob Kretchmer ended up in Icehouse), and the Glory Boys never really got started (although their bass-player Nick Seymour ended up in Crowded House!), John Dowler made a solid impact with the two other bands interlaced in his first decade or so of making music. Young Modern were “Australia’s first power pop group” according to California’s Bomp! magazine. Their sound was born of the Beatles, Bob Dylan and the Byrds – “Mr Tambourine Man” – and galvanised by the grit of the Velvet Underground, Television and the Stones. They were the biggest thing in Adelaide before being picked up by Cold Chisel and The Angels’ agency and moving to Sydney, where they crashed and burned. Melbourne ’80s folk-rockers the Zimmermen had the scything but joyously melodic mid-’80s indie-chart topper “Don’t Go The Sydney”. They received much love in international roots-jangle circles alongside the likes of the Long Ryders and early R.E.M. before signing to Mushroom.
Of course, the Zimmermen gave up a couple of early members – Steve Connolly and Michael Barclay – to the nascent Coloured Girls, and also featured former Dot Mick Holmes. To those in the know, John Dowler and Paul Kelly may have seemed, for a while, linked as purveyors of this soulful jangle. While Dowler is not quite its sole proprietor these days – a fine string of bands, from Even to Charles Jenkins’ various outfits to the Livingstone Daisies (featuring Michael Barclay) to the Girlatones have all worked it – he certainly remains its elder statesman. He’s the guy who saw the Byrds in Europe in his teens and was covering the Velvets, solo John Cale, MC5, Flamin’ Groovies and first album Springsteen back in ’74 with Spare Change. He’s the guy who was talking about Big Star in Young Modern interviews in 1978. And these days, he’s the guy with boundless knowledge, exquisite taste and fine song writing chops who’s bringing it all together in one of Melbourne’s best groups.
John Dowler began his Vanity Project in 2014. They’ve played every so often in small inner-city Melbourne pubs ever since. They’ve evolved into something very special, quite possibly Dowler’s finest project.
Key to the band are the two guitarists. Mark McCartney first played with Dowler some years back in a regrouping of the Glory Boys and has also worked with the likes of Mick Thomas and Barb Waters. When it’s time for them to do “Don’t Go to Sydney” at their shows, he picks up an electric 12-string – something that was lacking from the original – and helps make this group’s version the definitive one. Justin Bowd has played with Cinema, Jim Kane and with Middle Age Fanclub, and has contributed a handful of fine tunes to the new group.
The two guitarists play Gretsch’s and play as loudly as small rooms will allow, cutting the jangle with some grunt and noise. Drummer Michael Stranges, who has also worked with Kim Salmon, drives with a light touch and punctuates perfectly, and new bass player Stephen O’Prey underpins things sweetly, helping to keep everything aloft; he’s busy but never over plays. Dowler’s voice, wry and mellifluous, has aged incredibly well, and is immediately recognisable.
Having released the wonderful Splendid Isolation on Half A Cow a few years ago, the band entered Audrey Studios with producer Craig Pilkington (Killjoys, Archie Roach, Little Murders) in mid- 2019 to record what became their second album 12 Stiches. Michael Barclay, Barb Waters and the Killjoys’ Anna Burley popped in and provided backing vocals.
A harder sounding and more diverse release than the first album, 12 Stitches covers the full breadth of Dowler’s musical inclinations and his emotional responses to the beating the world constantly deals us all. If “Time to Leave” and “Work of Art” are the man at his melodic and pithy best, “Fucked If I Know” is perhaps the kind of sardonic overload he’s always promised. It’s a lot of fun. Taking a harder turn, ‘Centipede” and “The Next Voice You’ll Hear” have the kind of darkness and wit you’d hear on a ’70s John Cale or Lou Reed record. “Stranges in the Night”, a playfully stomping glam ode to their drummer, is lighter and it rocks. Bowd’s “Free of Wine” and “Billy’s Pizza” are pensive (verging on desolate) character profiles with an open strumminess that brings back memories of the Zimmermen. A plaintive cover of long time Dowler hero Brian Wilson’s “That’s Not Me'” is a gutsy move that pays off; an unexpected version of “Time for A Change”, a Phil Judd tune from Split Enz’s 1975 debut Mental Notes even more so. With guitars replacing the spare piano accompaniment of the original, and McCartney unwinding a wicked fragmented solo, it perhaps echoes another Dowler fave, Big Star’s Sister Lovers album, and John replaces Tim Finn’s arch indifference – which is usually one of his default settings – with something a little more angsty. There’s more and it’s all good. In an age awash with sound bites, single track downloads and “curated” playlists, it’s an album that demands to be listened to from beginning to end.
Throughout the whole record, you’ll hear something of that sound that Adrian Ryan was talking about back in 1981. “Jangling guitars, a passionate beat, allusions to something half forgotten.” It’s all there. And more. If you’ve ever enjoyed John Dowler’s music before, you’ll love this album. If you haven’t, but like the idea of that soulful jangling sound, 12 Stitches has it in spades.
*** Fans should also check out the pre-album EP release, A Certain Reputation, featuring first single “Billy’s Pizza” and three non-album tracks, including superb new versions of Spare Change’s acerbic and artful “Let’s Get Rich Together” and the Zimmermen’s chiming “Ordinary Man”. Get it here.
12 STITCHES IS OUT MAY 1 2020 ON HALF A COW.