If You Am I had decided to call it a day somewhere between 95 and 98 they would be considered Oz Rawk immortals, with a brief but incredible career that rose to the stratosphere and created some of the most transcendent pub-rock on record… literally.
But as fate would have it they decided to soldier on, continuing to release albums that steadily declined in both quality and commercial success. Tim Rogers was no longer seen as the inspired larrikin battling inner demons, but the grumpy ‘older’ guy who can’t handle his piss and doesn’t seem to understand that he may just no longer have ‘it’.
That’s not to say that the output of the last 15 years or so has been awful or that they have sold out a la the Black Eyed Peas or Eskimo Joe – I don’t listen to new music at all so I find it hard to give a more timely reference that isn’t either G-Ga or Bieber – but when compared with Hi-Fi Way or Hourly, Daily, two All Time great albums… let’s just say comparisons to their younger selves are off the mark.
Let’s examine the output of one of Australia’s more enduring units.
18 + years.
1 personnel change and 1 addition… Tim Rogers, Andy Kent and Russell Hopkinson (subbed in for Mark Tunaley after debut Sound As Ever), and David Lane for a decade and counting…
120 + album songs, dozens of other B sides and ‘bonus disc’ tracks.
Very few let downs…
My first intro to You Am I was actually before their debut album, when a video for ‘The last thing you can depend on’ started gaining some regular play on rage.
It was late 1992 or early 1993, I had just found my first paying job, and I had some folding cash for the first time in my life and but three vices to blow it on after my exorbitant – to me – $30 per week board. These were booze, music and a nasty Nintendo habit (Duck Hunt! Dragon’s Lair!).
Believe it or not at 18 I wasn’t a huge drinker so a chunk of my surplus went to CDs, with Rage being my prospecting ground.
You Am I was one of the first big nuggets that I found there… (De La Soul, Wu-Tang and The Hives were others over the years). So I actually was one of the few to actually pre-order the great You Am I’s debut prior to its release. You might be correct in assuming that I am a little smug about that fact.
By the way although it never appeared on a proper album ‘The last thing you can depend on’ remains in the top 5 of You Am I tracks. At least to me.
Even then it was obvious that this hairy trio were indisputably capable of big things, in between the neu-grunge and frenetic drum propelled tracks were a few songs with obvious pop sensibilities, though without the usual ‘baby, baby, baby’ cooing and concessions to inane lyrics.
The terrific and underrated trio of songs starting with the sublime and understated ‘Jaimme’s got a Gal’ and ending with ‘Ordinary’ gave a hell of a lot more than a hint as to at least some of what was to come.
I don’t need to go on about how good ‘Berlin Chair’ was and is. Trainspotting is a bouncy track, I could listen to ‘Jaimme’s got a Gal’ all day – and I think at points in the 90s I might have, and ‘You Scare Me’ also holds up. Only ‘Off the Field’ doesn’t cut the mustard on what remains a superb debut set.
Exit Mark Tunaley.
Enter Russell – Rusty – Hopkinson.
Cue the band embracing the poppier aspects of song-writing, drawing inspiration perhaps from the power pop of the 60s, only with an Australian bent and a refreshingly crisp non-grungey sound.
Enter – Awesomeness.
After the pseudo soundcheck and radio voiced count in the listener is blessed with 44 minutes of wall to wall quality. I can’t nominate highlights without rattling off a tracklist, suffice to say if I had to cull two songs it would be ‘Handwasher’ and ‘Ken (The Mother Nature’s Son)’. Not that I don’t like them I just couldn’t do without the others…
With numerous songs harking back to tales of Rogers’ childhood and frequent personal (oblique) references that mean little to anyone who wasn’t there or doesn’t already know, Hi Fi Way is nonetheless a singalong classic even to those who have no idea what they are crooning about. The sense of fun and energy that pervades the album is overwhelming and with brevity being a constant even the slower tracks are merely a brief pause between catchy head nodding freakouts.
I remember picking up this album from the local video shop / music shop in the town where I was working, having pre-ordered it some weeks earlier. I also remember countless Sunday arvo beers slumped in the old chairs on the front verandah with Hi Fi Way blaring away from inside the house, and my older, cooler, more influential housemate toe-tapping appreciatively, to my immense satisfaction…
Hi Fi Way is nothing less than a high water mark in music history, and should be studied and admired in perpetuity, ideally over many beers and a bowl of chips.
It was entirely possible that You Am I has shot their proverbial bolt with Hi Fi Way, there was every chance that their best was already behind them and that their crystal ball showed two decades of bumbling through lazy renditions of ‘Jewels and Bullets’ and ‘Cathy’s Clown’ to balding guys that remember the year or two that You Am I were momentarily cool.
Having a truly Great album under the belt is no small feat and deserving of merit, but it could also be a lucky coincidence, a fluky one-hit wonder.
It’s fair to say that while the follow up was much anticipated, probably no-one thought seriously that You Am I would issue two absolute classics within 18 months of each other, let alone the fact that in many ways Hourly Daily was in fact superior to Hi Fi Way.
Hourly Daily took the core elements that made Hi Fi Way such a success and embellished them, adding strings on some tracks – *Danger* self-indulgence alert – and including a potentially momentum sapping stretch of slow tempo tracks that in less skilled hands might alienate the blue singlet stubby holding set. Hell there was even a ‘hidden’ track lurking after 5 or 6 minutes of silence after the album proper – a track I might add that is often rated as one of the band’s finest efforts.
Hourly, Daily is perhaps less bouncy than Hi Fi Way and seems to tell more adult stories than the ‘through a child’s eyes’ predecessor, but even the adult tales remain simple and mundane. A night in the life of a cab driver, a morning in the life of the milk man (namechecking Kintail Road, which is 5 minutes drive from where I sit…), a young woman who worries if she might as well ‘settle’ rather than bother with anything more complicated.
All this could be humdrum and ho-hum, but Rogers lyrics were never stronger, and the instrumentation was never simpler or more fresh.
Every You Am I album that followed contains at least one or two stand out tracks, here and there you might find a minor classic, but from 1995 to 1996, Hi Fi Way and Hourly Daily introduced over 20 instant classics to the world. The issue would inevitably be could they sustain the magic?
So the difficult (in this case) 4th album.
It seemed that at some point between Hourly Daily and this release that the band took a deliberate step toward changing the sound and style that had seem them rapidly ascend to the top of the alternative set and momentarily into the mainstream stratosphere inhabited by silverchair and Powderfinger – and later very briefly The Living End.
Maybe it was the unexpected adulation and fawning that went against the ‘us against the world’ mentality of a true RAWK band, where bands are supposed to sell albums despite a lack of understanding from the public, not because they are readily embraced. Maybe it was exhaustion, declining inspiration, too many drugs and alcohol. Not enough drugs and alcohol…?
Whatever the reason #4 Album is noticeably lacking in many of the intangibles that rendered the previous two albums immortal, gone are the poppy moments and tunes about everyday folk, lost in favour of a series of wholly credible yet unremarkable tracks.
Sure the highlights are very worthy, with ‘What I don’t know about you’ and ‘Heavy Heart’ standing tall alongside almost everything else that the band has created, but the remaining tracks are a blur of sameness, decent enough but lacking that spark. It’s all too clean. Too sterile. Too… manufactured.
I can listen to #4 record and enjoy it, it doesn’t make me cringe at all, but I’d probably like it a lot more if it wasn’t made by the same group who only years prior made stuff that would leave this in the shade.
Enter David Lane on guitar.
After a long hiatus – by their standards – of 3 years the band released Dress me slowly, another perfectly competent album that saw the quality only decrease marginally from prior output, yet decrease nonetheless.
Again this is all perfectly comfortable vaguely countrified rock music interspersed with a few slower tracks. But the rockin’ is slightly less effortless and a little laboured, and the mid-tempo stuff hasn’t got enough to differentiate it from the myriad other similar tracks by a myriad other You Am I pretenders.
‘Damage’ stands out like dog’s balls from the other dozen or so tracks, and ‘Gone, Gone, Gone’ boasts an excellent chorus, but little else demands attention.
The band were apparently railing against the more commercial album that the label asked for – probably looking for a return to Hourly Daily type sales – and Tim Rogers has said in interviews that an album’s worth of more ‘mainstream consumer-friendly’ stuff was scrapped, never to see the light of day. But if this was the final version of what the band really wanted to release, I can’t be sure who really won…
By this stage I was still buying each You Am I album within days of release, regardless of the quality of the lead single or radio released tracks. But I no longer held high expectations.
Deliverance is another dozen You Am I songs to be sure, instantly recognizable, tuneful and with a distinct Rogers vocal and set of lyrics. However you couldn’t slip any of these tracks among a handful from Hi Fi Way or Hourly Daily and expect no-one to notice. In fact for the most part this album sounds almost like a group of mildly talented artists trying to replicate a 90s You Am I album.
The mid tempo numbers are still quite good, the confidence to include a ballad or semi-acoustic track long since gone, and in keeping with every album since #4 record the faster numbers are basically paint by numbers filler.
If I had to take one track from this to add to a best of it might be ‘When you know what you want’, a slightly sad down-tempo track that closes the album, but it seems that in their constant struggle to separate themselves from the mainstream, You Am I eventually forgot what it was that made them special in the first place.
There is no shame with copying *Ahem* providing homage to the greats, it’s less admirable when you are the actual once Great band yourself…
Hailed as the return to rockin’ form for Timmy and the gang – I read one review which labeled the first 6 songs on the album the ‘strongest set of songs in the group’s career’ – Convicts is indeed looser and more ragged than the anything the group made prior. The jury is still out as to whether that is such a good thing though.
What is a plus is the fact that the album eschews the indulgences, no longer do the band even try to proffer up anything comparable to a Mr Milk or Berlin Chair, it seems even the amazingly self confident Tim Rogers has admitted to himself that those songs are simply no longer part of his arsenal.
Convicts is essentially an album of rapid fire songs that come and go so quickly that they merge together, all in an album barely lasting a half hour. Like The Hives but without the hooks and goofy sense of faux-braggadocio (Timmy’s is all real baby!).
I admit to liking a few tracks on the album, only truly disliking ‘Explaining Cricket’, but the remainder of the album, while momentarily pleasing, slides by and is swiftly forgotten like an EP released between albums proper to keep the group in the spotlight.
Convicts shows that the group are still more than capable of making loud, listenable music, but gone are the unforgettable tracks of the past (except in reviews, which almost always start with ‘You Am I, the group responsible for Hi Fi Way and Hourly Daily, return with…’)
There’s a reason everyone mentions the early stuff first, and it isn’t because the more recent stuff is better folks.
I actually like Dilettantes more than anything since Hourly Daily, but it suffers just a little by not having that one track that elevates it from ‘very good’ to ‘nearly great’. That one song that you immediately reach for in your brain when you see the album cover…
After a solid first track the next few songs muddle along with songs that sound a little too familiar to other You Am I songs (most notably ‘When Yer Sad’), other songs that provide us with misguided bragging (ummmm “You ain’t seen the best of us yet!”) and some wanky filler, including one song that has a decent chorus ruined by a faux-poncy voiced chorus.
None of the above is that bad mind you, just not as good as what follows.
What follows starts at Track 8, ‘Givin’ up and Getting’ Fat’, a track streets ahead of anything else on the album, though strangely tracks 8 through 12 are without doubt the strongest on the album. Aren’t albums usually supposed to start out strong and end with filler??
In any case Dilettantes is the easiest album to listen to since You Am I’s heyday in the mid 90s, and remains only one memorable track away from possible greatness.
As an aside: Around the time of the release of Dilettantes YAI went on a bit of a tour, seeing as I hadn’t seen then for a while I summoned a couple fellow fans and hot-footed to the gig at the excellent Fly By Night venue in Fremantle.
The crowd were mostly similar to me and my mates, mid 30s, balding, slightly fat, there for the most part as a gesture of respect – kind of a career achievement award – rather than because of the new album. Yet that said the only guys there to spruik the new tunes were the band themselves, You Am I have a vast collection of hits and more than a few downright classics, yet they played nothing that highlighted the back catalogue for the entire gig, save for ‘Moon Shines on Trubble’ in the encore. Not a bad song granted, but THAT’S IT???
My mates and I had two theories; either they were saving themselves for a bona fide ‘Best of’ tour that spanned the entire discography (likely accompanied by a best of CD and the news of their retirement), or Timmy and the gang – mainly Timmy we reckon – really are as jaded and petulant as they have been portrayed over the past decade in interviews and various stories.
(As a comparison from the same era, Hoodoo Gurus came, gave us a dozen or so tracks liberally sprinkled with new songs from their ‘bit of a mixed bag’ album. Then came back and played a 40 minute encore featuring many of their crowd pleasers and best known tracks. Once a band is on the down slope it’s only fair to reward the punters who continue supporting you with what they came to see…)
Well three years later and there has still been no ‘best of’ tour. What there has been is…
As you get older you are supposed to slow down, be more sensible, mature. It’s quite basic yet necessary, but not necessarily the best thing if you are a musician.
There is nothing sadder than the middle aged person jumping around at the festival telling one and all ‘it’s how old you feel kids!’, so it stands to reason that we should appreciate that our ‘once-rockers’ can’t be expected to be pulling off windmill moves on the guitar and performing the splits several times a night. Guys like Prince are the exception that proves the rule.
So believe me when I say that the following is not a diss: 2010’s self titled You Am I album wafts by with barely an impression.
11 tracks of consistent and reasonable quality, none of which remain with you or demand attention. It is an album that exists more than lives.
I guess there are a couple of ‘highlights’, the slow-burning ‘Crime’ meanders along, gradually building momentum along the course of its 5+ minute duration, and the inclusion of a female voice grants ‘Lie and face the sun’ with some warmth and a refreshing change of tone.
I played this album twice at home recently while pottering about the house, twice because the first run through ended with me having no opinion of the album whatsoever. When the second play through finished in much the same way I ferried the CD to my car and played the album through three more times over a week.
There is no escaping it. No matter how I – or others – spin it, the self titled You Am I album is a ‘wafter’. A couple reasonable tracks surrounded by samish sounded stuff that wouldn’t be out of place as the slow closing track on any You Am I album from the last decade, harmless down tempo songs that fill the last five minutes of the album pleasantly. Nice enough, but not so riveting when they are essentially the same 5 minutes as the first 40.
Should the fact that former ball-tearers and shit-stirrers You Am I have become easy listening for balding middle aged barbecues be a concern? That’s a discussion for another day. For now, I need my afternoon nap or I get cranky.
In Summation: So there we have it. Nearly two decades. 9 albums ranging from a minimum ‘solid’ to ‘All-Time Classic’. Countless live shows, dozens of classic tunes, a million and three self effacing quips from Tim Rogers followed equally swiftly by something that clearly shows he resents the lack of commercial attention…
Where does that leave You Am I?
Well in the Pantheon of Oz Rawk they inhabit a very lofty position indeed, above your Powderfingers, silverchairs, The Living Ends and such – at least in my opinion. This places them in the elite and esteemed company of the Hoodoo Gurus, Something for Kate, Hunters and Collectors and Midnight Oil.
But it would be remiss of me to not mention this position is granted due to credits earned in the 90s, specifically Sound as Ever through #4 Record.
This is when You Am I were simply transcendent, with B Sides and filler tracks that often placed the so-called ‘hits’ of the time in the shade. While the last five albums have done nothing to tarnish the band’s reputation as a creditable group with superior lyrics and a respectable output, they do serve as a reminder that the glory days are behind them.
If Timmy and co ever swallowed their considerable pride and decided to become a ‘Best of’ act, playing shows filled with back catalogue stuff including a liberal smattering from the 90s, I would be first in line every time.
By stubbornly refusing to look back and instead coming out every few years demanding that this latest album is their finest yet, they achieve the same result each time.
- / I go out and buy the ‘New You Am I album’.
- / I listen to it several times through, appreciating the better tracks, moving past the filler.
- / I drag out one of the first three albums and I am immediately transported to a better place.
I – along with thousands of others – love You Am I. Always have. Always will.
But if Timmy and the gang were serious and actually asked any You Am I devotee to list their You Am I faves in order as I have done here, they could either put their hands over their ears and scream “La-la-la-la-la-laaaaa” loudly until the voices stopped, or face the facts: A You Am I Best Of album would outsell their latest ‘masterpiece’ any day of the week.