I’ve been meaning to write-up this album for a while, but the delays and procrastination may have been for the best, as The Shifters’ first full-length release, Have A Cunning Plan, has proven to be a real grower for me. The Shifters are based in Melbourne and Have A Cunning Plan was recorded at the home studio of Al Montfort (Total Control, Dick Diver, UV Race). The album’s ten songs only run to thirty minutes, so it’s easy to miss some of the finer details on the first few listens, but its relatively short length encourages repeat listens, especially as the album is well-sequenced.
At least for someone that has never been to Melbourne (or read this book), the scene that has grown there over the last decade seems to be bound together by attitude and aesthetics as much as actual cohesion within a particular sound. There may be something about the distance of this community from the American listener that makes it so intriguing as well, I imagine it might be akin to how American listeners felt during the British invasion in the 1960’s in that there was probably a comforting familiarity in the music overall, but enough difference to lend the bands and records a certain mystique. One side effect of the near constant stream of quality bands and records produced by the Melbourne scene in recent years is that the Australian dialect has become one of the most consistent representations of garage and punk ethos in the present moment. The Shifters continue this trend on Have A Cunning Plan and there’s a good chance that this will be a record that succeeds in getting the band greater recognition overseas.
The album opener ‘Molasses’ begins simply, then slowly builds into a more dense and layered arrangement, but lyrically only offers the mantra ‘molasses differs every time.’ The next track (and first single) ‘Work/Life, Gym Etc’ quickly establishes a different tone, primary vocalist Miles Jansen sounds like a happy-go-lucky Mark E. Smith as he reduces professional work and family life to a sequence of inevitable motions:
I just couldn’t wait to have kids
Make some more little versions of me
For I am the perfect specimen
They can vote and think like me
The Shifters show themselves to be diligent students of the three R’s (repetition, repetition, repetition) throughout Have A Cunning Plan. Restraint and simplicity are also used to great effect on ‘John Doe’s Colleague,’ where instruments move mostly in lock-step between two notes. There’s a great sense of unity and shared purpose in these tracks, to the extent that the shared vocal duties, despite considerable differences in timbre, almost blur together to reflect a singular entity.
While at times the songs here seem sort of unremarkable, there are interesting touches throughout the album that feel more impactful and resonant on repeated listens. Subtle or unsubtle, these details give the record (and band) a more unique signature: the sound on ‘Molasses’ that resembles something halfway between a harpsichord and a flicked spring doorstop or the organ groove in ‘Pyramid Scheme’ (which for reasons I can’t explain evokes the Spy Hunter version of the Peter Gunn Theme).
The album also has impressive range, the band moves seamlessly from the shambling pop of ‘Straight Lines’ to the repetitive and driving groove of ‘Boer Hymns’ without any jarring transition or room for doubt as to whether or not you’re still hearing the same band. ‘Andrew Bolt,’ by far the longest track here at nearly seven minutes, is a strong closer for the record with a narrative supported by a sustained psych groove.
The songs are straightforward and confident reflections of a band that is comfortable with its own sound. While it’s hard to say if Have A Cunning Plan will ultimately stand out among the many strong records produced by the garage/punk scene in Melbourne, the reservation, consistency, and the realization of the band’s sound are likely to keep the album fresh regardless of the context.