Luke Steele, the mastermind of Perth, Australia’s the Sleepy Jackson, has a serious George Harrison jones. The quiet Beatle’s influence, which colors much of his band’s work, is not a bad thing at all. Lovers abounds in Harrisonesque guitar and melodic country-tinged pop, with dashes of Robyn Hitchcock, the Flaming Lips and Perth legends the Triffids thrown in for good measure. The album is front-loaded with four exceptional tracks, running from the falsetto harmonies of “Good Dancers” to the soaring “la la la” chorus of “This Day.” Steele trips up when he detours into spoken word (“Fill Me With Apples”) and child singers (“Morning Bird”), but he more than makes up for it with the lilting country rock of “Miniskirt” and “Come to This.” If Steele wears his influences on his sleeve, like World Party’s Karl Wallinger, he weaves them so joyously into his own vision that it is far more creative tribute than rote imitation.
John Lennon’s ghost crashes the party on the unfortunately titled Personality (One Was a Spider, One Was a Bird). The leadoff track, “You Needed More,” sounds like an outtake from the Double Fantasy/Milk and Honey sessions (an impression reinforced by the cover of “(Just Like) Starting Over” on the God Lead Your Soul EP). Harrison returns with a vengeance on the superb second track, “Devil in My Yard,” and the rest of the album plays like a blend of Double Fantasy and All Things Must Pass produced by Brian Wilson. Few of the individual songs here reach the heights of the best tunes on Lovers, and at times Steele’s ambition gets the best of him (some of the lesser songs are swamped by their ornate settings), but as a pure sonic experience, it would be hard to top the extravagant orchestral pop here. (So what happens when Steele discovers Paul McCartney?)
Nations by the River is something of an Australian alt-country supergroup, combining Steele with members of Gelbison and Old Man River. The spare, sparse sound of Holes in the Valley is a major contrast to the gilded layer cakes of Lovers and Personality. Most tracks consist of little more than strummed acoustic guitars and harmonizing vocals, suggesting four friends gathered around the campfire having a singalong. It’s all good stuff, and it shows that Steele’s taste for the early ’70s isn’t limited to ex-Beatles, but extends (at least) to Gram Parsons.