It’s never been a deliberate thing but I tend to support the underdog, or as I prefer to think of it I like ‘little’ bands that create quality music and wait for everyone else to realise, at which time they occasionally become ‘big’. And sometimes – but not often – ‘BIG’.
Died Pretty never really made it, sure they were a Triple J staple in the 90s, Trace sold a bunch and saw them enjoy/endure brief recognition overseas and Doughboy Hollow will forever be acknowledged as an Australian classic, but Died Pretty were a hooky song or two away from being You Am I or even Powderfinger.
Unfortunately they just never had that hooky song at the right time.
Died Pretty Discography
In the 90s there were three ways to learn about your favourite non-mainstream group:
1/ Listen to JJJ all day every day hoping for a snippet of info.
2/ Buy Rolling Stone or Juice magazine and hope they mention them or
3/ Trawl the local street press, X-Press was and is the source in WA
That was it. There was no internet available, no blogs, no Twitter and no homepage. If you wanted to know something you really had to want to know something, and then you had to go out and find out.
So where Died Pretty are concerned I knew everything that maybe three articles in a decade could tell me, or what I could glean from the liner notes of half a dozen albums.
But that was probably a good thing, by not knowing much I had to rely on the albums and the music. Where Lady GaGa and a multitude of ringtone rappers ask you to ‘look over here’ while they turn you upside down and fleece you of your hard-earned before 6 months later you play one of their songs and ask ‘what the hell is this crap’, most groups in the 90s – especially in Australia where the buying market is so small – knew unless you heard their stuff and liked it they weren’t making a cent. Stage shows, personas and intricately spun stories meant squat.
Sell it to Oprah sister.
So here’s what precious little I know: The core of the group has always seemed to be lead singer Ron Peno and lead guitarist Brett Myers. The Died Pretty sound differs from many other alternative rock (whatever that is) groups due to the washy organ sound that underpins many of their songs, and over the years they had interchangeable drummers – so much so that in the end most of the Died Pretty drum beats are so formulaic that you can air drum along to a song the first time you hear it the beats are so predictable.
Here’s what else I know: Brett Myers is a big guy – as in tall. Maybe 6 foot 5. He is lanky and dresses and acts low key. He sings lead on perhaps 10% of DP tracks and has a non-descript voice. His guitar work is underrated but I think this is largely his fault as he seems content to stay in the background, leaving flashy riffs and solos to others.
Ron Peno is the lead singer, he doesn’t play an instrument. And he is small. Diminutive in fact. Size doesn’t matter here though, as his performances suggest that prior to hitting the stage he steals one of Homer’s Guatemalan insanity peppers of Quetzylzachatanango. While performing he is a Tasmanian Devil cartoon, a whirling dervish of arms and body convulsions, often at a rhythm at odds with the song’s tempo (my favourite is when he takes an arm and flaps it behind his head, leaving it hanging at the wrong angle for seconds at a time). His stage show act perhaps a carefully plotted distraction from the fact that Peno often utilises an eerily beautiful falsetto – big dumb guys in sweaty pubs raised on Acca Dacca and Rose Tattoo don’t think much of tiny guys with pretty voices in these here parts.
The rest of the band weren’t flashy at all, some of the early publicity shots look like a couple goths and three accountants that happened to be standing next to them. In fact they were so very beige that after a show you recalled the antics of Peno, the stature of the guitar guy and the music.
Pre-Deity: I’ll give quick mention to this EP. A compilation of early singles and B Sides the 7 tracks hold together surprisingly well. Out of the Unknown leads off and Final Twist closes proceedings in strong fashion, but the two highlights must be Peno’s first recorded attempt at showcasing his more tuneful stylings called World Without, and a 10 minute grimy stomp called Mirror Blues.
Worth tracking down if you can find it, though the entire EP is included on the special remastered edition of…
Free Dirt: A solid debut album, with ‘album’ being the watchword, Free Dirt only suffers from not having that one standout track, the 5* jawdropper that demands attention. Blue Sky fades in and jangles its way through a januty three minutes, Just Skin extremely effective in a non-Died Pretty standard way, but the highlight must be the menacing opener Landsakes, with a determined drum sound that seems to demand Peno raise his voice just to be heard, and a piano almost subliminally tinkling away in the background for much of the time.
The rest of the album is again solid but unspectacular, with only Wig-Out missing the mark, but the essential (what would become the) Died Pretty sound can be heard in the formative stages, dreamlike soundscapes punctuated by incisive guitar work and ever catchy choruses.
Free Dirt is the sound of a pub band growing more confident and looking further ahead.
Lost: Again there is little wrong with Lost as an album, but the early tracks suggest a band treading water rather than moving with a purpose, that is until Track 3 & 4 ‘As Must Have’ and ‘Springenfall’, a stellar double-play where the band ease on the throttle and slow the tempo, allowing Peno’s voice to soar above the more subtle sonic palette – he even indulges himself with a few half whispered cries and ‘oooohhhhs’.
Perhaps this was the moment where Died Pretty shed the lust for loud, understanding that they had a sound, a vocalist and lyrics that could stand alone without big fat riffs and ear splitting noise.
The album tails away a little before Towers of Strength and Free Dirt close it off beautifully, giving confidence that there were better things still to come.
Every Brilliant Eye
Every Brilliant Eye: The album that saw Died Pretty discover the secret of the killer track, this album contains no less than three; the ethereal 6 minute Face Toward the Sun where Peno strains to hit a higher than normal register without resorting to his signature falsetto, the ‘shoulda been a radio staple’ True Fools Fall and Whitlam Square, a track that harkens back to their earlier output from previous albums, only with a searing guitar solo that shows like it or not Died Pretty were hunting airplay and were learning how to go about getting it.
Another album with nary a dud track, Every Brilliant Eye had stronger songs than those dominating the airwaves of the time, but they were so close to the missing ingredient that they could taste it.
Doughboy Hollow: First I’ll mentioned the song Battle of Stanmore, a throwaway 3 minute track with distorted vocals that was apparently a homage to Led Zeppelin’s Battle of Evermore. Put simply there are 11 songs on Doughboy Hollow and this mis-step is the only one that will never take up space on my ipod.
The remaining 10 tracks range from exceptional to masterful to a couple “All Time Great”.
Doused is simply as good a Track 1 as you will find.
D.C. is simply brilliant pop and should be recognised as one of the great Australian singles.
Sweetheart is the most beautiful song about a serial killer that was ever written.
Godbless another insanely catchy mid-tempo jump around song, featuring a chorus that demands you sing along and a soaring guitar sol from Mr Myers.
Satisfied a slow burn that builds to a chorus that showcases the strength of Peno’s voice and his increasing confidence in it. (There’s also a nifty little organ breakdown half way.)
Stop Myself could be seen as filler if it weren’t so damn good, with strong backing vocals from (I assume) Myers that complement Ron Peno’s straightforward lyrics before another typically strong guitar solo.
Battle of Stanmore. Well as I mentioned above we don’t talk about the Battle of Stanmore.
Neither The Love Song and Disaster stand out for any reason, they are just both great sounding filler, no shame when even your low key tracks would be highpoints for other groups.
Out in the Rain as mainstream a pop song as I can recall Died Pretty attempting to this point, I can imagine some gormless wannabe turning this into a million seller, though it wouldn’t be as good as the version here.
Turn Your Head is as strong as anything on this incredible album, starting with a scratchy guitar and ending with the ‘just turn and walk away’ refrain, closing out the album on a depressingly beautiful note.
There you have it, 11 tracks and aside from the 1 dud nothing less than outstanding, with 4 tracks garnering the coveted 5* rating on my ipod (D.C., Sweetheart, Godbless and Turn Your Head.
Doughboy Hollow might not be the best Australian album of all time, but it’s most definitely in the conversation.
Trace: How to follow up one of the more critically acclaimed Australian made albums ever? Release an almost as strong album that finally broke Died Pretty mainstream – if only for a while.
The group made the strange almost anti-commercial decision to release the most difficult and abrasive track Caressing Swine as the lead single – a song about domestic violence no less – but once Harness Up, which is not one of their classics but is full of singalong goodness nonetheless hit the airwaves for the next few months it seemed Died Pretty were everywhere.
Perhaps a bit patchy in the second half Trace still manages immortality on the strength of the majestic ‘A State of Graceful Mourning’, only one of the most heartbreaking and beautiful songs ever put to disc and featuring as raw a vocal from Ron Peno as he may ever have warbled.
If music were the NBA Dunk Contest and it was song vs song. I’d rely on the better tracks from Doughboy to get me through to the final, where I’d bust out ‘State’ to a standing ovation and a perfect 50. Then I’d hold up the trophy. (That all made sense as I wrote it I swear.)
By the way The Rivers and Headaround are also outright classics, just ‘State’ has a way of standing out even among giants.
Sold: Maybe the title refers to the fact that at this stage Died Pretty knew they were a bona fide commercial outfit, Sold almost finds them embracing the role. Almost.
Cuttin’ up her legs again finds DP leading off with a strange choice of first single but Sold has more than enough quality songs to be perhaps Died Pretty’s ‘nicest’ sounding album. Slipaway is bubblegum pop perfection and B. Loved is quite strong, but as the saying (sorta) goes ‘Nice albums finish… well not at the top anyway.
Sold is a good album and I wore the free T shirt that I got with the album until it was more hole than fabric, Torn between a commercial sound and what they perceived to be quality, Sold represents nothing more than a great band unsure of their place in an industry that never embraced them.
It should also be noted that around this time Died Pretty released a couple of EPs, one of which – Deeper – contained some of their strongest tracks of the Sold era, and for some reason they couldn’t crack the album. (Look it up – 4 songs – all killers.)
Using my Gills as a Roadmap: The final highpoint for one of Australia’s greats. Dumb title aside UMGAAR is again patchy but more typical of the sound Died Pretty aimed for during their heyday, the better tracks are more acoustic and numb you to sleep… in a good way. After the now standard off kilter lead single Slide Song the album’s key period is from Tracks 2 through 4 ‘She Was’ and ‘Stay’ are both very strong outings, though admittedly not a patch on their finest works, and both ‘Gone’ and ‘Away’ are hazy yet eminently listenable.
With experimental (read crap) ‘Paint it Black you Devils’ and a couple of middling filler tracks UMGAARM will never be seen in the same light As Doughboy, Trace or even Sold, but in nonetheless shows that they were still more than capable of crafting solid quality pop.
Everydaydream: I mentioned above that Died Pretty never found a regular drummer and instead stuck with session players and ring-ins, but at least this album proves one thing; drum machines weren’t the answer.
When Ron Peno busted out the falsetto over strong backing tracks the results were often incendiary, here over programmed beats, noodly sound effects and precious little guitar it comes off as a little thin and whiny.
I listened to this album dozens of times in the weeks after my purchase waiting for it to click with me. Alas it never did, something about generic backing tracks and formulaic lyrics just doesn’t do it for me.
As Ron opines on ‘Running Out’ “I just wanna scream and shout, and I no longer care”. Unfortunately after Everydaydream I could do little more than concur.
‘Here comes the Night’ is the ‘highlight’ if I must anoint one, the remaining tracks not a patch on even the filler from their best albums.
I have a theory that even the very best musicians and groups have a 12 year window in which to produce their best work before inspiration and opportunity conspire against them. Died Pretty released 8 albums between 1986 and 2000 (and a ‘sorta’ DP album as Noices and Other Voices, which was essentially Myers and Peno trying to resurrect long lost tracks into the DP sound – I have it. Didn’t really work).
Their creative peak started with Every Brilliant Eye and realistically ended with Trace, with Doughboy Hollow the inarguable highpoint. Among the 80 odd Died Pretty album tracks are 8 that I would rate as essential with another 20 odd as outstanding, more than enough to fill two best ofs, more than sufficient reason to consider Died Pretty one of the better Australian bands of all time, and I would argue reason enough to look up Died Pretty if you haven’t heard them before.
As a footnote I was also able to attend their ‘last show’ of their ‘farewell tour’ in 2008 on the Don’t Look Back series. I used the airquotes because they have since had a couple more ‘farewells’, not yet as many as James Brown, but when you think you are at the last one it ain’t that special when there are 5 more after it…
Anyway the gig was awesome – Doughboy Hollow played from track 1 through 11 – and a bunch of other classics as the encore. More than enough to provide suitable closure for me as a fan on the career of one of my personal favourites.
Died Pretty Discography
Pre-Deity – A bit rough and rugged but worth a listen.
Days – The better tracks ended up on Sold and the final song is filler but an OK effort.
Deeper – 4 essential tracks never included on any album or other recording. Excellent.
|Albums Released X/10|
|Free Dirt 1986 7.5|
|Lost 1989 7.0|
|Every Brilliant Eye 1990 7.5|
|Doughboy Hollow 1991 10.0|
|Trace 1993 8.5|
|Sold 1995 8.0|
|Using my Gills as a Roadmap 1998 8.5
Everydaydream 2000 6.0
(Noises & Other Voices) 2006 7.0