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Crafted by Sydney 6-piece and Hottest 100 laureates Ocean Alley, Chiaroscuro is a big, spacious record. 12 tracks arrive crammed full of hooks and loaded with riffs. A radio-friendly rock sound with funk and reggae undercurrents.
‘The Comedown’ is the group’s breakout single. It anchors the album. The track courses with texture and musical colour.
It’s not difficult to see how these crashing riffs bore this desolate hangover epic into triple j’s 100. “I’m so wasted,” frontman Baden Donegal sings. His lyrical style somewhere between vacant truism and universal sentiment rendered to emotive breaking point.
But dialling back. It’s ‘Corduroy’ which kicks things off. Angus Godwin’s ‘Breath (In the Air)’ guitar licks accompany Baden’s soulful growl. A mass of spacious jams, the idyllic opener projects majestic rock into the back of the skull.
“This is just a space town.” Ocean Alley’s lyrical simplicity could be – is – the group’s greatest asset. But there’s times where it works against them.
Chiaroscuro veers into man-serenades-his-girl narratives which don’t easily sit within the hip lyrical parlance of 2018. Take ‘She’s Always Right’. Here, the group take aim at that woman, the one that always has to be right! That witch, darn her smart mouth. As for ‘Man You Were Looking For’, the title holds a few hints.
These are time-tested themes. Musicians shouldn’t be shafted for simply refusing to be of their moment. But rather than a welcome break from the present, these anachronisms can shake the listener out of the beguiling pull ‘The Comedown’ works so hard to create.
Yet even if Chia loses a few points here, it’s still swinging with the same vital energies as debut Lost Tropics. Strollers ‘Happy Sad’ and ‘Confidence’ stray a little into cod funk, sure. But equally, they’re laid-back party breezers of the highest order. Alley play to their strengths with these polished and easily catching songs.
Ocean Alley can be un-selfconsciously over the top, but they’re no cartoon. Chiaroscuro is what rock is supposed to be. The music of that radio station, the one that’s neither community nor triple j and just a flick of the dial the other way. Classic rock, ‘80s smash hits, chill reggae and bluesy ‘70s chops. Goldies, oldies and goodtime groovers. Instantaneous music you can shake your head to.
Look at it this way. How many people do you think went out and laughed at This Is Spinal Tap in 1984 and then bought one of the millions of Van Halen, The Police or INXS albums which sold that self-same year? Rock is full of contradiction. The greatest of which is, that for all its pretences of depth and maturity, it’s a universal simplicity that defines it.
Simplicity is these Northern Beachers’ medium. Ocean Alley are laid back yet flashy rockers. They’re fun. You’ve got to have some guts to play that line in ’18 and more so than any other, they’re an Australian outfit pulling it off with finesse.
These six own clichés. People love it. The world demands it. If you crawl out of a cynical headspace for just a moment and wrap an ear around it, you might just find that you enjoy it too.