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The Wry Stuff

by Andrew Tanner

24 August 1994 - In Press magazine

Stephen Cummings meets me in the foyer of his Melbourne record company's office. We are heading into the boardroom to begin the interview when he turns and says, "Is it okay if we do this out the back? I'm dying for a fag." So it is that we end up perched on the Polydor fire escape, puffing contentedly and musing over the vagaries of pop music, commerce and the latest slice of Cummings' excellence, Falling Swinger.

It's a metaphor, all too fitting for the talented Melbourne songwriter. He's been churning out melancholic pop gems for near on a decade now, yet despite overwhelming critical acclaim and a slew of industry awards, he's still existing out on the fringes of the big game. One more article on the obvious injustice of this state of affairs will probably do little, but here goes anyway.

Falling Swinger is Cummings' first album since the days of The Sports to include a separate producer in its credits. Cummings contacted Steve Kilbey from The Church to do all the honours.

"I wasn't good friends with Steve or anything. We kind of knew each other's work. I wasn't a huge fan of all The Church's stuff, but I did appreciate the work he'd done on other people's albums. He's great at using atmosphere and he's got this ability to get classic guitar sounds. I was at a point where I knew I wanted to do a different sounding album.

"I wanted the usual cast of musicians I normally work with to approach the songs differently, to be shaken up a little. A producer was an easy option - he could take all the heat for pushing people in different directions. I guess in a sense it was a risk, but there was also a freedom about letting someone else add their interpretation to what was going on. I enjoyed that."

The Kilbey influence is marked. The songs on the new album are unmistakeably Cummings, but there's a lushness in the production, notably in the treatment of guitar and vocals that betrays the head Churchman's involvement. I wonder whether the singer found it easy to let go of his new songs in entrusting them to his producer.

"Steve was funny. He said at one point 'You're not really that attached to the songs are you'? I said 'No, if these don't work out I'll just write some more.' We're pretty similar in that sense, both committed to just continually producing stuff for ourselves or with other people. I think it pays to not be too precious about your work, just keep turning it out and hope something takes."

I'm always curious how artists in Cummings' position deal with the yawning chasm between critical delirium and mass acceptance. Surely, I ask, there must come a point of overwhelming frustration?

"Many, many times. There was a point after the last record Unguided Tour, where I was well and truly ready to chuck it all in. I guess I resolved it partly by deciding to take pleasure in the work itself; to have fun doing what I do, and trust that somewhere, somehow it'll find it's own way"

Falling Swinger is an album that concerns itself with ambience. Not just socially, courtesy of Kilbey's production, but also lyrically. Songs like Big Room, White Noise and Sliding Across A Blue Highway have a cinematic sweep and eye for detail that defy conventional pop orthodoxy. Whilst Cummings has always been able to create a sense of place in his material, this album distills that talent most potently. As always, the writer's irony antenna is hoisted again. The Big Room details exquisitely the atrophy and anti-climax of a love gone missing, whilst Fell From A Great Height has a gospel style to articulate a less spiritual fall from grace. What is it about the melancholy side of the street that makes it so ripe for his writer's pen I ask.

"It must be my miserable life," Cummings chuckles. "All the songs are autobiographical to an extent, I guess. I'm just drawn to the sounds of certain chords and progressions, which then suggests lyrical ideas or scenarios. I suppose the scenarios that appear in my songs are ones that just occur to me naturally.

Ours is not a music culture that often rewards intelligence, understatement or quality. Falling Swinger is all of that. If this album gets overlooked, it'll be a bloody disgrace.

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