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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1716

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Tarmac Adam: The History Effect
by George Graham

(independent release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/27/2013)

Australia has been the source of a number of bands that were successful in the US over the years, such as AC/DC, Men at Work, INXS, The Little River Band, and Crowded House to name a few. This week, we have another interesting band from Down Under with an American release, Tarmac Adam, whose CD is called The History Effect.

Tarmac Adam has actually been around for a while -- the principles in the band, Matt O'Donnell, Steve Paix and Sean McVitty, started the group in 2001 in Melbourne and enlisted the help of the rhythm section from Crowded House, bassist Nick Seymour, and the late drummer Paul Hester. They released a CD called Handheld Touch in 2003, which was not officially issued in the US, but did attract some attention. They recorded partly in Australia and partly in Ireland to work with Seymour, who was living there.

Matt O'Donnell is the primary composer and lead vocalist, but he has a day job as a physical therapist, and between that and his becoming a father, Tarmac Adam got put aside in his life, though he would occasionally get out and perform as a solo acoustic artist. In 2007, O'Donnell started working toward reviving the band and getting back into the studio. His collaborator, Steve Paix rejoined, and Crowded House's Nick Seymour flew in from Ireland to Australia to participate, though Crowded House had also become active again. The rest of the Tarmac Adam lineup on the new CD is drummer Reuben Alexander and percussionist Josh Barber. Sean McVitty, who was a founding member in 2001, also appears on a few tracks, being listed as a "guest." As the new album was coming together, O'Donnell re-released the band's first one, adding some additional unreleased tracks and putting it on the group's website. Starting in 2008 they gradually put occasional tracks from the forthcoming album on their website as well.

Now, the new record is finally out in full. After recording in Melbourne, they went to Nashville for mixing. The result is an album of sophisticated pop rock that shows some of the group's influence by 80s and 90s rock, as well as hints of everything from acoustic singer-songwriters to progressive rock. It's a satisfying recording that has a lot of good ideas and tasteful musicianship, but there are few times that it seems to fall a tad short of its potential. But the band also aims to make a coherent album that has a variety of facets to keep things interesting. The arrangements can run from almost acoustic folkie to orchestral.

Leading off is a piece called Chalk on Slate, an upbeat tune that hints at 1980s alternative pop. <<>>

One of the highlights of the album is Bygones, a song of some lyrical introspection. The musically sophisticated pop side of Tarmac Adam is nicely on display. <<>>

You As Me is an interesting song seemingly about people changing places. There is a guest vocal by one Maddy Hay that is a nice touch. <<>>

Giving It Back is another of the musically creative tracks with a semi-a cappella opening section, and it's also where the phrase "the history effect" came from. <<>>

Matt O'Donnell is sometimes not the most versatile vocalist. On the ballad Stuck With This, which has some worthwhile lyrics, his vocals seem less appropriate in style. <<>>

The band's bouncy retro-pop side shows on the song called Window Pane, but the group adds some interesting elements to take it beyond just bringing back the sound of the past. <<>>

The high point of the album for me is a song called Stand, not to be confused, of course, with the R.E.M. song of the same name. Tarmac Adam's Stand is a something of a progressive-rock opus, with a kind of swirling 6/8 rhythm and a nice interplay between the distinctive music and the lyrics. The piece reminds me of some of the work of Duncan Sheik. <<>>

The CD ends with one of its most appealing songs, Home, about trying to find a place one can call home. It provides a just the right kind of musical finale. <<>>

The History Effect the new second album by the Australian band Tarmac Adam, is a worthwhile recording of intelligent, often sophisticated rock, running from attractive pop to progressive rock, and is nicely performed. About the only flaw comes in the vocals of principle songwriter Matt O'Donnell, whose sort of 1980s English alternative pop sound may not be the most appropriate for some of the songs. But most of the time, he rises to the occasion, and the quality of the material makes up for small shortcomings. Another strong point is that the album is well sequenced and forms a nice continous work, which is nice in these days when Internet downloads have largely severed albums into pieces.

Our grade for sound quality is an A-minus. The mix treats the instrumentation well, and the studio effects on the vocals are not overdone. The dynamic range, how well the recording reproduces the difference between loud and soft passages, is better than average for a contemporary CD, but hardly at an audiophile level.

It has been 10 years since Tarmac Adam, whose name by the way, is a play on the material used for paving roadways, "tar macadam," released their debut and only other CD. History Effect is also their first album to be officially released in the US. So for all practical purposes this is a band of veteran artists, including a member of the hit Australian group Crowded House, meeting American listeners for the first time together. They should find receptive audience among open-minded fans of eclectic rock.

(c) Copyright 2013 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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