Given the revival of early ’90s indie-rock, it’s already becoming apparent that we’ll start finally digging through stacks of used compact discs to find those effusive gems that escaped us simply because they were released upon the world under that massive genre umbrella. Little did we know when we were hawking back albums by Beatnik Filmstars, Bevis Frond, and Number One Cup for beer money that absolute classics were slipping through our fingers, promptly being filed away as relics nobody claimed. Funny to think that I was a casually observant fan of Richard Davies as a post-grad but had never taken the time to explore the wonders of his first band, the Moles. Labels like Flydaddy at least had the prescience to preserve the Sydney, Australia band’s debut, Untune the Sky, for future generations. But then again, you let me know when you find a healthy stash of releases from that failed and completely folded imprint. (I’ll pay top dollar.) Luckily, thanks to this efficiently packaged double record from Kill Shaman, Untune the Sky (and all of the album’s preceding singles) is given another chance to astound with its somber kaleidoscopic pop.
Davies, the undisputed leader of the Moles, is usually hailed as just another misunderstood songwriter with enough distinctive quirks and Brian Wilson obsessions to keep him in conversation with similar orchestral madcaps like the High Llamas’ Sean O’Hagan and power-pop progenies like Jason Falkner. With the Moles, all of that ambition was on display and then some. The variety through which the Moles cavort on Untune the Sky is exhaustive and can easily throw off even the most seasoned pop-psych listener with its ever shifting mood. Within the first two songs alone one can point out such extremes. “Bury Me Happy,” the epitome of Aussie heat-stroke melancholy, aligns the Moles with any number of extant Flying Nun troops from New Zealand. Shuffling guitars, trebled and sparkling, bubbling organs coding out parade routes, sunshine harmonies met with sobering lyrics—all find some connection to the Chills-Bats-Clean axis. But just as much comfort is found in Davies’ meadow traipsing psychology. “Tendrils and Paracetamol,” a raging stampede of motley free-range Sonic Youth histrionics grazing on the Southern Hemisphere, eventually descends into even stranger climes as the tempo goes awry, distorted and pitched to sound like the band is getting tangled in their own tape reels. Further depth charges come in the form of the proto-grunge dirge “The Crown Souls” and the fuzz-crusted endless hooray of “Surf’s Up,” though in all of these searing moments of bleak devastation there’s a beacon of melody that always rises to the surface.
Expecting a modal flux between pastoral pop and blistering lysergic riffage would be doing Untune the Sky a disservice. While much of what makes the Moles precious exists within that modest display of knick-knack spontaneity on catchier than the plague nuggets like “Rebecca” and “Europe by Car”—the equivalent to “Tally Ho” and “Oddity”—what makes the Moles influential lies in Davies’ condensed chamber orchestra. “Lonely Hearts Get What They Deserve,” begins as either hymnal or shanty depending on perception, but slowly, piano is added, vocals are treated, guitars intertwined, movements met and raised, and a small choir comes onboard to finish the whisky and the elegance of Davies’ crescendo. That attention to detail and compositional chops, no matter how scruffy the recordings or the band, is why Untune the Sky remains an anomaly even today, and likely (but hopefully not) to burrow back into obscurity for a third time.
Kevin J. Elliott