Before Julia Jacklin became one of Australia’s biggest singer-songwriters and released one of the decade’s preeminent indie-folk / alt-country records with Don’t Let the Kids Win, she fine-tuned her craft on a little band called Phantastic Ferniture. For a couple of years, they were best-kept secret in the Blue Mountains, where only those really tuned into the Aussie music scene had heard about them. After her solo success, Jacklin regrouped with her mates Ryan K Brennan (drums) and Liz Hughes (guitar) and relaunched the group. Ten days ago, they unveiled their self-titled debut album, which is a largely euphoric, coming-of-age concept album reminiscent of the great music of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s.
Nods to everyone from Blondie, Pat Benatar, The Cardigans, Belinda Carlisle, The Pretenders, and Nirvana are heard throughout the LP. Opener “Uncomfortable Teenager” eases listeners into the record with a mid-tempo, jangle-rock approach that echoes the Melbourne music scene of two decades ago. Summertime vibes fill the air, yet Jacklin’s lyrics reveal the uneasiness and nervous energy of a young person seeking greener pastures. She calmly sings, “Get the fuck out / Move to the city baby.”
Contemporary retro vibes continue on the swimmingly groovy “Bad Timing”. The uplifting and energizing vibe, highlighted by Brennan’s steady drumming and throbbing bass line, is perfect for a late summer road trip or a joy ride along the coast. Getting into one’s car and moving on is at the heart of the track, as Jacklin mentions:
“Should you go or stay and expire,
But you keep on waiting for someone,
To get the courage to run.”
Dreamy escapism is the focus of “Fuckin ‘n’ Rollin”, which is superb piece of breathtaking, indie surf-pop. Jacklin transforms into a younger version of Stevie Nicks, as her vocals reach levels that transcend gorgeous. The throbbing bass line and Hughes’ chiming guitar, however, steal the show in the song’s second half, as the two create a Cloud 9-like environment. As Jacklin sings, “Just feels right”, you can only nod in approval.
Beyond the jubilation are darker and grimier tracks. The grunge-y “I Need It” recalls Black Rebel Motorcycle Club in their prime, where the iconic alt-rock band created anthems meant to be heard in dark chasms. Hughes’ trembling guitar stars again, sending tremors down our spines. Meanwhile, “Take It Off” is a heavy and dark methodical rocker that is more appropriate for Halloween than a late summer’s evening. However, Jacklin’s lyrics are both seductive and mysterious, as she describes a small-town girl’s arrival in the big city. These experiences form her new identity as revealed on the stop-and-go brooder, “Parks”. Without remorse, Jacklin sings, “You will see that the dark is a part of me“.
The tantalizing anthems, however, are what make Phantastic Ferniture memorable. One of the band’s earliest songs, “Gap Year”, is given a makeover and turned into a driving pop-rock anthem that resonates with the exhilaration and splendor of Blondie’s greatest tunes. The pulsating rhythms, the chiming guitars, and Jacklin’s soaring vocals make the song the perfect addition to any end-of-summer soundtrack (or coming summer for those in the southern hemisphere).
It is on “Dark Corner Dance Floor”, however, where the trio deliver the finest output. Disco, pop, and rock assemble together to form a hypnotic, edgy, and dance-able number. Jacklin’s vocals effortlessly swirl in the air while Hughes’ steely guitar and siren-like vocals blast in the background. Holding it all together are Brennan’s steady rhythms and a ringing bass line, and the two mimic the pounding heard in our chests. A pounding that reflects the freedom and rejuvenation a person feels when escaping the shackles of one’s prison and starting anew. “I’m on my own” and “I’m just gonna dance, dance baby” could be the slogans for the next generation of upstarts, thought-leaders, and artists.
For that matter, they could be the taglines for Julia Jacklin, Ryan K Brennan, and Liz Hughes. The days of playing shows solely in Katoomba, Blackheath, or Lithgow are over. They’re now just like the people they describe in each of the songs – innocent, small-town folks who have grown up quickly. Who have come of age and now are about to conquer the world.
Phantastic Ferniture is out now. Caroline Australia (AU/NZ), Polyvinyl Records (North America), and Transgressive Records (Europe) have released it. Streaming and purchasing options are available here or go directly to Bandcamp. The trio are playing a few shows in Australia, although most are sold out.
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