At home in Australia, You Am I had three consecutive albums debut at number-one. In the US, the band struggles to land its CDs in record stores the same year they’re released at home (if they make it Stateside at all). This is a tremendous injustice. You Am I has all the best influences: the Who, Beatles, Replacements and, in its most recent work, the Stones. What really makes the band special is singer-guitarist Tim Rogers’ songwriting, enabled by a reliably propulsive rhythm section (bassist Andy Kent and drummer Russell Hopkinson, who replaced Mark Tunaley after the first album).
For its first four albums, You Am I was a trio. Produced in Minnesota by Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo, Sound as Ever shows signs of the band’s later glory, but the songs are mostly sub-standard, and the sound hints at Nirvana-itis. “Berlin Chair” and “Jaimme’s Got a Gal” are most indicative of what Rogers’ songwriting would become.
Hi Fi Way displays huge leaps forward in songwriting, production and performance. Rogers hits his stride with such endearing gems as “Purple Sneakers” and “Cathy’s Clown,” a tale of romance between a bodybuilder and a librarian (“You lift her to work just before your daily workout begins / She’ll stack up like you stack vitamins”). Ranaldo’s production and Hopkinson’s dashboard-smacking drumming strike that just-so pop/rock balance, a less aggressive but tighter version of the Replacements in their prime. Jon Auer of the Posies and Epic Soundtracks contribute keyboards to a track each.
Rogers’ Paul Westerberg intentions get an infusion of Paul McCartney on Hourly, Daily, which trumps Hi Fi Way in pop luster and rock bluster. The band’s first recorded-in-Australia album chronicles the day-to-day glory and ennui of living in the suburbs down under, which turns out to be nearly identical to living in American suburbs, except the seasons are inverted, as Rogers nonchalantly reminds listeners with such phrases as “the August cold” and “the Christmas tan.” The title track, a parent’s lament about a skinhead child, brings to mind XTC’s “No Thugs in Our House” but replaces that song’s bellow with a wounded string arrangement, more closely resembling “Eleanor Rigby.” Elsewhere, tasteful strings and horns call to mind the Beatles’ Revolver, a daunting benchmark the disc comes remarkably close to. The US edition features two tracks not on the Australian release, “Trike” and “Opportunities,” which happen to be the most thrilling songs on an altogether superb album. (Although the band self-produced the original album, George Drakoulias, who’s worked with the Jayhawks and the Black Crowes, produced “Trike” and “Opportunities.”)
Drakoulias took the helm for all of #4 Record, whose title is an obvious nod to Big Star’s #1 Record. The disc is a much more straightforward collection of would-be radio hits, featuring some of Rogers’ best lyrics. “What I Don’t Know ‘Bout You” is a charming articulation of the pursuit of love: “I wanna chase that rabbit right offa the rails / And rip this metal keeping my mouth in check,” culminating with the dizzy, yet accurate, conclusion, “I think I like what I don’t know about you.” The lonely ballad “Heavy Heart” bulges with crystalline metaphors: “I’m like a waterlogged ball that no one wants to kick ’round anymore … I miss you like sleep.” Although not as transcendent as its predecessor, #4 Record is every bit as brilliant in its own modest way.
Before the next studio album, the band released a live set, and Rogers put out a solo album. ‘…saturday night, ’round ten’ does a respectable job of capturing the band’s on-stage effervescence, but hearing it is just not the same without the sights of Rogers’ sexy swagger and Townshend-quality windmills and Hopkinson’s Animal-like drumming (as in the Muppet).
Rogers’ solo record, What Rhymes With Cars and Girls, filters American country, folk and bluegrass through his Australian perspective. The largely acoustic instrumentation includes upright bass, trombone, clarinet, banjo and accordion. The laid-back arrangements lend an air of humility to another sterling set of Rogers compositions. Highlights include the lyrically vivid, saucy duet “Up-a-Ways,” in which a woman dismisses Rogers’ rootless tendencies thusly: “As if your wandering ways don’t suit me spending the days / Thanking God you ain’t around while I’m painting my nails.” The equally splendid “Arse-Kickin’ Lady From the Northwest” is also on ‘…saturday night.’
Dress Me Slowly is the band’s first studio album as an official quartet, with the addition of lead guitarist Davey Lane. Accordingly, the sound is more muscular, with clear signs that someone in the band has been listening to early-’70s Rolling Stones. “Get Up” and “End o’ the Line” are among the hardest tracks the band had committed to disc up to this point. As a whole, the album is tasty and satisfying, but not especially divine, although the ballads “Damage,” “Weeds” and “Sugar” show Rogers’ spell-casting ability remains vital.
The Stones influence is even more evident on Deliverance; the guitars twang and grind, and the vibe is more spontaneous. Rogers is also looser, vocally, although his sanded-down Rod Stewart pipes thankfully maintain a certain distinctive You Am I-ness in the proceedings. The songs are appealing, but not all great. Unlike Dress Me Slowly, though, on Deliverance, the rockers — chief among them “Who Put the Devil in You,” “Ribbons and Bows,” and “Nuthin’s Ever Gonna Be the Same Again” — are the album’s standouts.