Folks who revel in the notion that love-rock means never having to tune your guitar will no doubt grow weak in the knees upon first exposure to the Cannanes. The fluid Australian combo is willfully amateurish and occasionally a bit too cute for its own good, but the utterly unpretentious purity of the band’s output is hard to deny. Their closest American corollary would probably be Beat Happening, but the Cannanes are slightly folkier, less prone to outbursts of rock primitivism. The band’s debut EP is charmingly unsteady on virtually every level, from the cracks in Annabel Bleach’s sweet warble to the audible string squeak that accompanies each acoustic guitar chord change. The informality only adds to the charm of songs like “You’re So Groovy” and the quietly caustic “I Don’t Want to Talk About Your Problems.”
By the time The African Man’s Tomato was recorded, the Cannanes had already experienced the first of what would be many lineup changes — and consequent shifts in direction — with the vocal onus largely placed on Randall Lee. Slightly more fleshed-out (some of the songs recall early Go-Betweens) and darker in tone, the album still focuses on life’s simpler pleasures and pains in whimsical inventions like “Corn Chips,” “We Drink Bitter” and the tender “Love Takes Only a Minute.” The African Man’s Tomato and Bored, Angry & Jealous were later combined on Witchetty Pole, an anthology that also includes the utterly daft “Felicia,” a theme song of sorts that essentially concedes the Cannanes have no reason to exist. The early incarnation’s finest moment.
Perhaps as a result of Lee’s departure, A Love Affair With Nature brings a return to the more shambolic charm of the band’s first recordings. The vocals are shared by bassist Frances Gibson and guitarist Stephen O’Neil, both of whom are given over to fits of pique and melancholy — or, in the case of O’Neil’s “Take Me to the Hotel Johanna (and Let’s Trash the Joint),” both. For better and worse, the album is imbued with an omnipresent sense of nostalgia. The trio is certainly adept at conveying the frame of mind, but the reference points are specific enough that non-Antipodeans will probably be left scratching their heads. The 1995 reissue adds a dozen previously unreleased tracks, some performed by the Lee-fronted lineup, others (including the long, loopy “Marco Polo Suite”) featuring Susan Grigg’s superb violin playing.
Both Stumpvision, which contains the (comparatively) lush “Singing to Satellites,” and Caveat Emptor follow the same pattern: Gibson’s sweet, regretful wisps of song contrast with the edgier contributions from O’Neil and drummer David Nichols — with the bonus of more trumpet playing from O’Neil. On Short Poppy Syndrome (like all the band’s records, annotated with self-deprecating caprice), the core trio is joined by bassist Gavin Butler. More intricate arrangements and electric instruments don’t detract from the bedsit intimacy of songs like “Perfect Light” and “Chosen One.” As usual, there are moments when the studied unsophistication gets overweening: Butler’s vocal on “Cocaine” is all but unlistenable, and twinky toy instrumentation doesn’t exactly advance “Red Smoke Across the Square.”
In comparison, the self-titled disc is positively professional. From the appropriately woozy strains of “Drug-Induced Delirium” (a sort of pharmacological children’s round) to the jittery, Feelies-styled rocker “Asleep,” there’s surprisingly little shamble. Fortunately, the band’s newfound interest in conventional quality control can’t outweigh the charm that emanates from eminently joyful songs like “Swing, You Little Red Devil.” The Cannanes’ steadfast refusal to acquiesce to commercial mandates (they’ve toured but once and have pledged to never do so again) may make them an anachronism, but at least they’ll never be accused of being dilettantes.
After leaving the Cannanes, Randall Lee formed Nice, a professional-sounding trio rounded out by bassist Susannah Stuart-Lindsay and drummer Jo Packer. The gist of the band’s debut is very much the same as the Go-Betweens or Verlaines: baroque, romantic pop songs punctuated by odd lyric flights. (“Dear John” finds Lee musing about stealing away to a distant mansion to make babies with a fantasy man.) Stuart-Lindsay also writes and sings; her dark-hued songs steer the band into choppier waters that recall the Velvet Underground’s third album. Apple Pie sees a more even division of the spotlight, with Stuart-Lindsay moving to guitar (new bassist Mark King gets into the act, singing his own “Fucked Around”). While there are certainly standout tracks — Lee’s “On My Back in the Madhouse,” for one-the album has neither the piquancy nor the distinctiveness of Nice’s debut.
After Nice, Lee began splitting his time between Sydney and Chicago and, to entangle the family tree even further, formed and maintained a separate-but-equal incarnation of his new band, Ashtray Boy, in each city. The Honeymoon Suite, which features the American lineup, is colored by David Trumfio’s stately double-bass playing as well as guest backing vocals by Liz Phair, who helps out on the wry “Shirley MacLaine” and “Infidel.” The album is remarkably diverse, ranging from the Fairport Convention-styled allegory “How Charles Destroyed the Inland Sea” to the funk-tinged gore-cartoon “Hit.” Mighty odd stuff. The somewhat schizy Macho Champions is split between the two combos, with the Aussie version (rounded out by Thomas Tallis and Neil Johnston) sticking more closely to typical local jangle-folk — with the exception of the enjoyably surreal lounge-pop “Amy Grant Super Number.”
Homesickness apparently got the better of Lee, and he recorded the bulk of the meaty Candypants Beach down under. As time goes on, he’s more prone to explore his voice’s powerful lower register — witness the Beat Happening-like “Dead Body in the Surf” and the Gallic-tinged “She’s Taken Up Snoring” (which bursts with ancillary noisemakers like accordion and xylophone). Lee has always been like a fascinating character actor; the continued evolution of Ashtray Boy is pushing him closer and closer to leading man status.