by Mike Daly
(from The Age Green Guide, 20 August 1992)
Stephen Cummings plays the melancholia game more convincingly than any other Australian singer/songwriter. On Unguided Tour he is at it again, full of recriminations and regrets, addressing lost loves and shadowy memories. But his is a dry-eyed perspective in which, however gloomy the emotional landscape, a flicker of ironic humor illuminates the horizon.
On much of Unguided Tour he is accompanied by his writing and producing partner Shane O'Mara on acoustic guitar, Rebecca Barnard either duetting or augmenting the vocals, with drummer Peter Luscombe and bassist Bill McDonald, Graham Lee's warm pedal steel, and occasional keyboards by Chris Abrahams. Their playing reflects the intimacy of Cummings's songwriting, created in a kind of musical cottage industry affectionately known as Lovetown. Voices and instruments expand to fill the available space, reverberating in a delightful sonic swirl.
Like all good writers, Cummings leaves you wondering just how much of himself he really is parodying on songs about lost opportunities, such as the Leonard Cohen-esque Uncrowned, qualifying the title with the suggestively self-fulfilling phrase: "just playing around". Again, on Walk Softly, Carry A Big Stick, a chance encounter with an old flame is concluded superbly with this observation: "...ours has just been a growing together apart relationship".
One irritation - an increasingly frequent recording practice - is that on the CD of just under 50 minutes why omit Three Dead Passengers (with vocalist Dave Graney) and Bite Your Lip, the two songs accompanying the single CD release of Keep The Ball Rolling? The latter is one of several funk-driven tracks of which Rise And Fall is the outstanding example, with its self-confronting lyric, tasty blues guitars, understated organ and tight rhythm attack.
Other highlights include an achingly realistic blend of vulnerability and fatalism on Two By Two, a country-accented, marvellously dismissive ballad entitled She's Too Dumb To Care, and I've Got A Lot Of Faith In You, a paradoxically optimistic blues.
4 stars out of 5
Greg Taylor - Australian Rolling Stone magazine, November 1992, issue 476)
Several years ago 'The Sydney Morning Herald' polled rock critics about Australian artists; Stephen Cummings was one of the few common favourites. The reaction was a salutary reminder of just how much the wider public cares about those tossers' opinion: no sudden thousands raced to check out 1991's Good Humour, despite more widespread critical acclaim. The irony is that less recognise the name - it's more than a decade since he fronted the moderately popular Sports - than know the voice via the anonymous "Feeling So Much Better" health fund TV ad.
But that's their loss, for the handful of critics and a few thousand record buyers know that Cummings is one of the most rewarding singer-songwriters of the last ten years, and Unguided Tour pays out near his best.
For those close to the form guide, it's a return to the sparser preparation of 1986's This Wonderful Life, or Lovetown (1987) and the sublime A New Kind Of Blue (1989) as opposed to the funky gear on Good Humour. That last album's solid band sound remains, however. A few old comrades (guitarist Shane O'Mara, singer Rebecca Barnard), the odd guest appearance (notably keyboardist Chris Abrahams and Black Sorrows' drummer Peter Luscombe), assembled for no more than a handful of rehearsals. The theme of doubt ("Uncrowned", "I Hope She's Happy Now") persist, as do everyday life sardonic ("Walk Softly, Carry A Big Stick", "Everyday's Always Pissing in the Swimming Pool"), real life horrific (shopping mall massacres in "Rise and Fall"), and complicated joy ("Play It As It Lays").
The words are continued jottings without bold departures (yes, aficianados, "Love Town" gets another sly mention) - and so believable for that very reason - while the music could easily have been conceived for one of the earlier albums. Yet it's continuation rather than repetition when you've found a voice and keep having things to say.
Those who may have overlooked Stephen Cummings, backing flashier fancies and being disappointed by big starts and dreary finishes: get on this stayer. Perhaps it takes a certain number of years to realise beauty isn't easy but it's simple. One of the best recent outings, any weight, any distance.
One more album in the saga of Stephen Cummings. The darling of the critics and the subject of massive public indifference, this singular singer seems doomed to forever wander, looking for an appreciative mass audience. Unguided Tour sees Cummings returning to a sparser style than his recent, more funkier, albums. The songs range from sardonic views of the world to "Rise And Fall" (about a shopping mall massacre) and complicated joy ("Play It As It Lays"), but all the time it is the voice and the impeccable delivery that makes a Stephen Cummings album so special - and Unguided Tour is a very special album.