Bitterness, in rock 'n' roll, does carry some currency, particularly when you're young and hung over (and frequently stupid) with a bunch of angst axes to grind. (Just ask Elvis Costello or Courtney Love -- or Korn's Jonathan Davis, for that matter.) As time moves on, however, one learns to refine one's bitterness, and even though some musicians never quite resolve things -- there's no character more seething than the failed '60s garage rocker who woke up one morning to find he was stuck with a fat wife and bratty kids, a double mortgage in a crummy neighborhood and a dead-end job at an auto supply shop -- those less smitten by their own egos learn to adapt. Lately we've seen a whole new breed of bitter-come-lately emerge, the pop artist blessed with impeccable musical taste (he owns all the Beatles and Beach Boys bootlegs) and oodles of talent saluted in all the right places (everyone knows a great review and a buck twenty-five will buy you a cup of coffee) but who can't get arrested in a world not so much nonplussed as unimpressed by taste and talent (switch on your local modern-rock radio station for proof).
Australia's Richard Davies, on his third solo album, isn't quite ready to swallow the bitter pill. All the preludes are there: impeccable résumé via his early-'90s combos the Moles and Cardinal and rave reviews by the likes of Magnet, Rolling Stone and even Entertainment Weekly for 1998's magnificent pop epic Telegraph, yet he's seemingly stuck in a holding pattern recording for medium-level indies like Flydaddy and, currently, Kindercore, for whom a healthy budget means a self-produced four-day rush job in a Boston studio.
Rather than chambering a bullet, however, Davies has channeled whatever private emotional spectrum he's currently favoring into his most aggressive, and perhaps most satisfying, effort to date. Barbarians begins on a deceptively serene note with "Coldest Day," a glacially paced, jangly/chiming ballad reminiscent of Tom Verlaine's post-Television solo work. Then Davies kicks things into high gear: "Palo Alto," with its taut, brisk strums and clipped vox, is biting, economical folk rock at its best, while "Great Republic" is a full-on barn burner sparking with electric fretwork and vocals amped up to the point of distortion. And even though he's careful with his album's balance, mixing in elements of edgy psychedelia and moody shanty-pop, the underlying vibe here is forward movement, with no looking back at any of the classic British Invasion-style pop he made his early mark with.
As per tradition, Davies' lyrical subjects remain obtuse: in "May" he sings, "Computer paper -- that's what they want, like yesterday's wine," but whether he's railing against the contrivances of ultra-modern life or something less specific is open to interpretation; and in the aforementioned "Palo Alto," he appears to be commenting on a locale's gradual loss of its extant charm ("Don't you know it's just a scene/A scene in between/The concrete and the codes/Down near Palo Alto"), but the tune's snapshots-from-the-street quality might just derive from notes taken on vacation, so who knows? In rock, penning straightforward commentary isn't necessary a requirement.
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At any rate, Barbarians is a hugely rewarding album that grabs you by the ears upon first listen, then seduces with successive spins. Maybe there's not even any bitterness behind it at all -- it might just be a case of a songwriter growing older, maturing and becoming at ease with himself. Lord knows we need more artists who don't feel compelled to chronicle every personal affront, social mishap or bad mood.