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Holy Hell! Telegraph Turns 20

Holy Hell! Telegraph Turns 20

Before Portland went twee, when it was mired in grunge, Richard Davies wound up there from Australia.

Before Portland went twee, when it was mired in grunge, Richard Davies wound up there from Australia. His half-hour recording with Eric Matthews, as the duo Cardinal, married pleasant guitar pop with orchestral arrangements. This sounded little like the group’s contemporaries in the 1994 Sub Pop Northwest. A few fans elevated this self-titled modest release— first via the psychedelic-friendly Flydaddy label and later on Fire Records—to the expected cult status. It certainly sounded livelier than Matthews’ solo work and smoother than Davies’ previous band.

Flydaddy also distributed the Moles. Originally guitarist-singer-composer Davies and three Sydney compatriots, they came nowhere near Cardinal’s affinity to Belle and Sebastian’s tart lilt, the Clientele’s moody meditations or Jason Falkner’s affable tunes. Instead, they blast off. Flashbacks & Sequences collects the first stage of the Moles. Instinct (1994) flew through nine songs in 23 minutes. The Clean’s Hamish Kilgour appears among many supporting musicians; that New Zealand trio’s influence reverberates along with the Chills into the Moles’ shimmering, wobbly, chiming and crunchy sonics. So does Van Dyke Parks, classic rock and the Beach Boys. Critics acclaim this as the band’s best. However, turning back to Untune the Sky (1991), The Moles dig up a drugged, intensified and committed (in more than one sense) unhinged treasure. Flydaddy’s edition adds tracks from this raw phase, when Davies channeled his talent into louder, crankier but catchy blasts. These may baffle newcomers, but repeated exposure rewards with lyrical insights he embeds into this volume.

Another brisk half-hour recording proved Davies’ first solo outing. There’s Never Been a Crowd Like This (1996) builds on the dense construction pioneered by the Moles. Songs cram shifts in decibels, directions and melody. It’s as if, instead of the three dimensions of space, aural equivalents manage to convey what a later Moles reunion disc summed up in a song title: “Head in Speakers.” The rush of so many studio experiments into a flurry of dirges, celebrations and detours can bewilder, or even exhaust, a casual listener. The brevity of this album seems to play with the space-time continuum. Temporal relativity expresses itself in the odd sensation that this album takes far longer to play than its duration.

This sets up Telegraph. Its title may promise concision, messages terse and blunt. But it’s the richest production yet from Davies. Davies having opened on tour for his admirers in the Flaming Lips, it makes some sense that guitarist Ronald Jones dropped out of that band to join Davies in an expansive, dignified and handsomely arranged collection. It may not jell around a concept as did Parks’ suitably christened Song Cycle (1967), but it captures the introspective shift of the late-‘60s period, as dissatisfied rock stars slowed down and began working on their albums as artistic and holistic.

Sung in a thick Antipodean accent, Davies’s evocations of cantinas, a Confederate cheerio call, an “eye camera” and the Main Street Electrical Parade integrate imagery from his adopted American residence. The juxtaposition of his native land’s gruff vocals with his aural recreations of past cultural landmarks, real or imagined, filter the thoughtful, articulate legacy of those like Parks, who meandered onto the less-beaten paths where quiet can be savored among the ambiance, away from loud rock’s arena. In 1998, Telegraph deserved more acclaim.

After this success, arguably Davies’ peak performance, the 33 minutes of Barbarians (2000) explore his newfound America. The cover features a large Uncle Sam hat, in a tacky style and font design. Unassuming, its casual approach underwhelmed in comparison to what came before. Jones’s absence looms. Davies opts for a subdued, streamlined presentation, which lyrically reflects Telegraph more than it refines that standout album’s dynamics.

Thirty years after the Moles retreated Down Under, they popped up for the 24 tracks of Tonight’s Music (2016). But by this deferred incarnation, it was Davies handling the songcraft over an extended period, with cameos by members of Sebadoh, Sugar, Free Time and Woods. It deftly sustains the experimental lurches between pop and the jam, freak-out and folksy musings that his discography documents in its better moments. If Richard Davies had never dropped out of law school to pursue his muse as a composer, the indie music scene would’ve been deprived of a clever character indeed.

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