The Cactus Channel – Stay A While (Hope Street Recordings)

The new incarnation of this ever-evolving Melbourne based seven-piece collective sees The Cactus Channel flexes their soul/lounge influences whilst searching for, and sometimes successfully landing on, their own planet in this vast musical universe. 

For them, number ‘3’ is certainly the magic.  Unloosed from their earlier incarnation as an instrumental soul and funk band they’ve morphed into something wilder, a little darker and heavier, diving in deep to dreamlike soundtracks, electrifying wig-outs and woozy meditations.

Those familiar with Shayne Carter’s Dimmer project may draw some parallels, if they draw a long bow, that is.  More silvery in tongue, frontman Lewis Coleman’s softly sung and almost ethereal approach turn his voice into its own instrument in this multi-layered cannon.  Although, at times I found his delivery somewhat muddy.  Bad diction always drives me nuts, especially when I can’t understand the lyrics.  And Coleman almost seems a little shy, hiding behind a carpet of bass, synths and reverb in places.  Ironically, you get it at its worst, or most effective – depending on your perspective – on the track How People Speak.  Sadly, I’ve no idea what the track was about.

However, there are some good things.  What I really like about the video for their new single Storefront, which is the trailblazer for their third album, Stay A While, is how dinky and un-glamourous it is.  This stands out against the plastic beauty of every other Brittany and Kanye wanna-be model-fest currently polluting our music channels.  The band’s flick shows the band living in an alternative universe set against Lewis Coleman fussing around his girlfriend, driving her to work and generally doting upon her.  His girl is the opposite of swanky or bitchy.  A real ordinary down-home type.  Someone you’d meet on any street.  Coleman is equally banal.  Plot wise, there’s a contrast between this twee domestic scene.  He’s also married to the band, a bunch of scruffy musos who play him for the fool, demanding his attention and the roof of his antiquated auto as he’s forced to haul them between house and rehearsal spaces.  Dreamy, calm and slightly cheesy, Storefront is a great metaphor for every band dedicated to their craft.  The juxtapose between love of person and music.

The album proper begins with a delicious instrumental lounge number, the title track, held together by understated strumming, pipe-like keys and brassy punches from the horn section.  It’s not too subtle, nor are these guys the Memphis Horns, but it’s pleasant enough with the anticipation of some vocals that never come.

Then you get the afore mentioned Storefront and another, About Time.  It’s a pretty good pop song, and oddly upbeat compared to its predecessors.  Midway through you get a more urgent instrumental, with undertones of James Bond and Surf Music in the guitar licks.  This is the ‘old Skool’ variant of the band, which I kind of prefer.  Just prior to this new release the band collaborated with Nick Murphy and Chet Faker.  The resulting Ball Park Music had a real presence of funk and a great jam atmosphere.  I wish they’d saved their pennies and rehired those two again.  It would have lifted this tune, and maybe others from just being ‘ok’ to something much more vibrant.  I’m not saying the band can’t live on their own but I think a little bit of held to lift up these recordings from flat to fully pumped may be required.

The dirge-drone of Corn Chips was probably written as an intro for live shows.  It also pops up in the centre of the album, just prior to the way-more groovy Leech.  But it’s filler and does nothing to enhance the track.  With Leech, it feels like we all finally woke up.  If you were at Melbourne’s The Night Cat, where the band hat a recent residency, it would be this number that made you finally down your G&T and stumble to the dance floor.  Again, it’s brassy, with more soul strumming and Coleman’s ethereal vocals.  But then the mood changes when they play the blurry instrumental And Then They Rubbed Their Tired Eyes (Brilliant title by the way).  All too soon you’ll have to return to you seat though, unless your girlfriend’s close by, for the romantic and broody waltz with 50’s bandstand horns mixed with tweaky 60’s Star Trek blipping from the keyboards and a generous jungle tom-tom beat to remind of those Go-Go club scenes in TV shows like I Dream Of Genie.

We get more sci-fi twang with Look Behind You, another instrumental.  Although it’s not hugely different from others on this disc, you can get back up, adjust your bouffant and dance around your handbag again while your boyfriend heads back to the bar for another Mai Tai.

If there’s any fat to be cut, then Stop Me is probably the one.  It’s just too much like all the other tracks and really doesn’t offer much new or interesting.  Likewise, the closer Over And Over wants to show it’s differentials, especially in the cleverly laid drum work, but ultimately sinks into banality all too quickly.

Stay A While shows potential but sadly suffers from being too patchy and homogeneous.  The instrumental tracks are all well executed and likely their real comfort zone, based on past material.  Still, these tracks feel like incidental music for some unwritten film score. I like Coleman’s vocals, if only he’d get the mix more up front and move out of the doomy clouds.  And I can’t fault the musicianship, even if they a still holding back somewhat.  Perhaps next time around they’ll really push the boat out.  Then that will be the ride to catch.

Tim Gruar