Music Review – Voss: The Inland Sea

15 February 2010

Written by: Tom Cowie

So we sin while we’re sleeping, our necks wrapped in sheeting–the dancing has ceased, and the beaches lie still.

Most of us have a migration story. A family, a country left by boat. Stories told through years of reflection, wonder and indebted prosperity. Most of us marvel in the resilience of our elders exposed in these stories.

But the charcoal has been seeping through a hole in the ceiling—it sucks the paint of these walls, and lifts the sun from these shores.

It’s a psyche that Canberra band Voss has tapped on its debut record, The Inland Sea. These are stories narrated by a new generation, and delivered with the gusto of a migrant past.

“I was interested in making something without artifice,” says guitarist and vocalist Owen Carrol.

“All the stuff I’d done in the past I’d sort of hid behind poor recording qualities, noise, and the ‘it’s experimental’ tag  and with this recording I wanted to have no effects, nothing.”

“To try to create something that was meaningful rather than thrown away. It’s a weird dichotomy where I’m terrified of doing this sort of thing but it feels like I have to.”

The results are striking. Recorded locally across two studios (lounge rooms count as studios these days right?) with minimal production fuss, The Inland Sea sounds like a band of travelled road veterans rather than four twenty-somethings bashing out a debut.

“We were lucky, Sam (King, the record’s engineer) really picked up on what we were after, it’s quite dry, there’s very little going on, we didn’t want a lot of dynamics, or for it to be too compressed.”

The Inland Sea opens with the alt-country ditty ‘Little Fears’; a gentle male-female vocal; a calm chord progression and a bare rhythm accompaniment.

‘Plum Dagger’, ‘Crow’ and ‘The Brittle Drum’ establish the records’ presence with strident acoustic stabs; rollicking verses hyped on 50s swing; sleek basslines; wild guitar swirls, beautiful vocal harmonies and gripping salvos delivered with heralded weight.

‘If I catch you coming back again/Well I’ll not be so forgiving then/I worked like a dog for you/ I worked like a dog’ – ‘The Brittle Drum’

The acoustic and vocal deliveries for the three minute verse ‘Leichardt’s Mask’ and album title track were recorded live in one take.

The results are remarkable considering the timeline from the band’s inception to the records completion was a slender eight-twelve months, with gigs scattered sporadically in between.

“We wanted to record everything we had played, to see how it would sound,” says Carroll.

“The main reason we recorded so much stuff, and there was a lot of stuff recorded that didn’t make it on the CD, was because Jed was going overseas, so we were motivated by this time frame, real or otherwise”.

Voss’ first show was a favour for a friend and featured Carroll, bass player Henry Keenan and drummer Jed Stone.

The set included a cover of the Songs: Ohia track ‘Steve Albini’s Blues’ and featured classically trained violinist, Elyane De Fontenay, singing the female vocal.

De Fontenay sat in on a few practices, embellishing the songs with relative ease, becoming a fully fledged member soon after.

The band has since added a second guitarist Sam Mcusker, who has fleshed out Voss’ sound with his arsenal of lively guitar flourishes.

Some tracks were co-written between Stone and Carroll, while De Fontenay contributed the graceful melodies featured in ‘Foxholes & Lodestones’ and ‘Little Fear’ (amongst others).

The band as a whole also take simple ideas, riffs, melodies and develop them into cohesive tracks.

“We wanted it to be transparent and the arrangements do change from gig to gig. It’s purposefully obtuse and overly lyrical I suppose, if you listen to it, it’s a terrible fear of having any instrumental passage without any singing.

“Most of the electric stuff on there is pretty sloppy, there was no sort of process; I guess we all had an idea at all of what we wanted it all to sound like. We actually streamlined back and took out a lot of guitar.

The moniker Voss is taken from the fifties Patrick White novel of the same name; Carroll was intrigued by its perceptions of landscape.

‘I dream you are drifting/through some dam that can’t exist/Headfirst listing through wine-dark abyss’

‘And I will pull you down to me/with a coral-cut and weighted line/tied ‘round your collarbone so tight’ – ‘Plum Dagger’

“Voss is a person with incredible charisma, and this weird sort of power despite not being an attractive person in any sort of way.

“He has this power to lead people away out into the middle of fucking nowhere on this ideal that may or may not be real.”

“It’s not a great book, it’s a good book. There are certain elements I like… I really like Moby Dick as well and to me Voss in a weird way is like an Australian Moby Dick.”

“Nothing on the album is about Voss (the book),” adds Carroll clearing up any misinterpretation.

“There’s nothing from Voss or about Voss really, the song ‘Leichardt Mask’ is the only reference to it.”

The packaging for The Inland Sea was inspired by the elaborate releases from indie band Microphones.

Each disc is individually wrapped in a sleeve of discarded maps; includes a hand numbered lyric sheet and is embedded in an A0 sized poster featuring the provocative illustrations of Carroll’s sister Alice.

While Voss are modest about The Inland Sea’s reach, they are content to live within the bands means.

“I didn’t even think about making demos or even send it to street press, I didn’t even know what to do when it was finished. I just wanted to make it a nice package and give my sister some illustration work”, says Carroll of the artwork.

“We’ve had little victories, you can buy it on Dream Damage (an online independent record label), and a guy in New York bought one and then a guy from Germany emailed asking for one.”

You can catch Voss at The National Folk Festival, Exhibition Park. Canberra, April 1.

www.myspace.com/vosstheband

www.dreamdamage.com

www.hellosquarerecordings.com/pieno.html

Luke Robert is a freelance writer who lives in Canberra. See more of his writing on his sport and culture blog Litres of Ink.