Sunday, February 7, 2016

Tiny Ruins, All Our Exes Live In Texas and Palm Springs at the Curtin Band Room, Melbourne, Saturday 6th February 2016

Palm Springs refers to its front woman’s tendency to develop “clammy hands”. Performing without her band in the slightly stuffy upstairs Curtin Band Room, it could have been nerves, or the temperature, or both. Above an overdriven guitar she sang about a daydream had whilst walking her dog, the apocalypse (particularly as imagined after spending too much time on the internet), being a loner and what happened to her grandfather’s farm after he died. These lyrical themes recall Courtney Barnett, but fortunately they were delivered without the tuneless apathy that’s somehow brought the latter to the world stage. She occasionally broke out into brief guitar solos, which, sounding exposed without a band, brought some welcome edginess to her otherwise fairly well-worn chords. It was a tough crowd this early on, with most people having found “the nearest wall to lean on” as they watched Palm Springs “dying” in her “polyester dress”. More and more people also started to sit on the floor, which, for this loud performer, seemed more about reserving a spot for Tiny Ruins than a desire to listen attentively. Perhaps they were just cooling themselves under the air-conditioner.

The crowd warmed more to All Our Exes Live In Texas, whose clever name sums up what they mostly have to offer: humorous country songs about relationships. Less truncated than Palm Springs, three of the usual four band members made an impressive sound with ukulele, mandolin, accordion, a foot tambourine and lots of vocals. Their polished performance stood in contrast to Palm Springs, but it seemed to be more about nailing the conventions of the genre for entertainment’s sake than much else. (Harmonies swelled on the right lines; smiling faces were briefly averted to deliver evocative stabs of tremolo picking on the mandolin.) And they were terribly entertaining: when a song was narrowly rescued from near collapse due to an attack of laughter, it was aptly described mid-resumed-lyric as “fuckin’ seamless!” Apparently the amusement stemmed from a previous performance of the song in which one of the words came out sounding a little bit too much like “cunt”, particularly considering the children in the audience. “They’ve got to learn,” explained the offending vocalist, “… where they came from.” All of this made the room come alive, but it was an odd mood in which to then await Tiny Ruins’ subtle, emotional music.

Hollie Fullbrook took to the stage and unusually set about miking up her Fender amp, through which she played her acoustic guitar. The resulting bright, harsh sound contrasted with her recordings, but after the first few songs she seemed to relax into a subtler mood, drawing on the power of the setup for occasional dynamic attack. Opening with ‘Tread Softly’ from her most recent release, Fullbrook initially displayed a familiar habit that seems to be borne of nerves: she delivers certain lines like she’s been putting them off, nodding her head greatly as though terribly self-conscious about reproducing what her audience knows from her recordings. It seemed to go away in the two new songs she played, ‘Dream Wave’ and ‘One Thousand Flowers’; in the latter and newer of the two she seemed to retreat into herself a little, making less eye contact and smiling to herself as she sung complex lyrics that the audience didn’t know yet.

That’s the appeal of Tiny Ruins: there is something inward about her music which she is nevertheless able to share with others. Her lyrics are often drawn from not entirely remarkable moments in her life. ‘Me at the Museum, You in the Wintergardens’ drew a cheer from the crowd before it began, the song clearly having become part of their own lives, yet as Hollie explained, its lyrics are “very literal”: a fantasy arising out of a job she applied for, unsuccessfully, at the Auckland Museum. In the encore she brought out ‘Adelphi Apartments’ from her 2011 debut, which similarly was inspired by a real apartment complex of that name which she used to walk past every day. Fullbrook’s apparent self-consciousness sees her reach for these stories, which are often tinged with humour, in order to show rather than tell us directly her feelings. ‘Priest with Balloons’, also from her debut, drew a giggle from the audience on the line “Or did he just want to go out with a bang, so to speak?” You can almost imagine Fullbrook quite happily documenting and giving meaning to her own life by writing these songs and not showing them to anyone. But luckily for us, alongside her inwardness seems to be the urge to share, to perform. And that was on display last night in her voice, which seems to have grown more assertive even since her last recording.

The stuffy band room air that set Palm Springs’ palms a’ springing early on brought further problems during Tiny Ruins’ set, with her second or third song being punctuated by the sound of an audience member apparently collapsing. Fullbrook wisely kept playing to avoid unnecessary fuss, signalling for help and offering a bottle of water from the stage. This incident, apparently marking Hollie’s third fainting victim (“You‘re like a Beatle!” someone quipped), saw the venue staff bringing what eventually became an almost amusingly large quantity of water bottles to the front of the crowd, which people began to take as though having suddenly realised how hot they were. I found myself standing directly in the flow of the air conditioner and spent most of Tiny Ruins’ set hugging myself. All of these goings on are apparent at a Tiny Ruins gig, where quiet moments in the music reveal sounds that remind you where you are: last night it was the strange hiss of the smoke machine, at a previous gig it was the thump of a neighbouring nightclub every time the soundproof door was opened. You get lost in the music and then you’re briefly brought back to the mundane, only to have it remind you that that’s where the magic comes from: moments from real life set to music and transformed into something else. This was only my second Tiny Ruins gig, but there is already a defining moment in her performances for me. The chorus of ‘Reasonable Man’ was one of the first moments in her music that struck me, partly because the lyrics make a rare break from storytelling to deliver a line as direct as “Now my world is crumbling down”. On the recording, the chorus swells as the other instruments join the guitar and vocals, but performed solo, Fullbrook moves up the fretboard and the bass notes drop out: the music seems to float, ungrounded. Last night I felt like I’d floated up too for those twenty or so seconds, hanging by the air conditioner: steeped in reality and loving it.

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