Phosphene is the visual sensation produced by applying pressure to the eyeball beneath closed lids. Open your eyes and you see spots, stars and halos. We all do this as children, prodding and poking ourselves, to see how we work. It’s one of those cheap highs we try at school – like sniffing liquid paper, or inhaling the fumes of felt tip pens. Phosphene evokes the magic of childhood, a place where the deep-seated desire to create art is born. On the other hand, ‘The Phosphenes’ is a suitably offbeat name for an offbeat band: these guys don’t mainline smack, they press on their eyeballs for a trip.
‘Finally, a Friendly Shore’ is the second album from this Melbourne quartet that builds on their wonderful 2013 debut, ‘Halflight’. ‘Shore’ is a more assuredly adventurous album, the band taking some exquisite musical risks that pay off handsomely. Lead single, ‘No Through Road’, kicks off proceedings. It’s an immaculate pop-rock song that brings to mind Ash’s, ‘Girl from Mars’.
After that, things get eclectic. ‘I’ve Been Waiting for Her’ is a woozy waltz that revs from 33 1/3 to 45rpm and back again, there’s the tropical bossa nova of ‘Sleep all Day’, the Buddy Holly Doo-Wop of ‘Mouse Room Girl’ (complete with honeyed-voiced backup gals), the slowpoke twang of ‘Crazy’, and the Van Halen-esque guitar solo that erupts on the rocking ,’You Have Mail’. Album highlight, ’Lino’, is a funeral procession that never gives up its bleakness, the song’s protagonist staring at a square of linoleum – the saddest of floor coverings – mulling on true love lost.
This eclecticism does not detract from ‘Finally, a Friendly Shore’. Three of the band members each write and sing their own songs. The result is an album that sounds like an impeccably curated anthology. Guitarist/organist, Dean Lombard provides the more politically-hued tracks (‘Bitter Pills’, ‘America’), while guitarist/toy-pianist, Simon Stockdale, is responsible for the more solipsistic tunes (‘Lino’, ‘I’ve Been Waiting For Her’).
Both Lombard and Stockdale have that Australian knack of hitting a ‘bored’ pitch with their vocals, a tick that fellow Melbourne songwriter, Courtney Barnett, is already famous for. Their broadly-sung songs sound lived-in, lounge room-based, as if they are speaking to the listener, telling her a story. But it’s bassist, Jason Cutler, who steals the show here: like Neil Finn on a Split Enz record, Cutler gives the band a whole, other dimension, so distinct is his songwriting voice. His songs, ’Mouse Room Girl’ and ‘You Have Mail’, are wonderful anomalies that sound like they’ve come from another planet.
Australia doesn’t have its Berlin Wall, its usurped Totalitarian Dictator. The Phosphenes are a crew of contemporary Australian acts, from Courtney Barnett to Kirin J Callinan, Portal and Grave Upheaval, that find themselves in a similar bind: in a land with all the (relative) freedom in world, what does one do with oneself? Or more particularly – as Australian artists – what can we write about? With ‘Finally, a Friendly Shore’, The Phosphenes come through this existential mire, bruised but intact – with a set of smart, wry, brilliant songs.