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MEDIA: Reviews: Firecracker


by Chad Watson - Newcastle Herald, 9 January 2003

Thirteen is unlucky for some but this 13th solo LP from Melbourne veteran Stephen Cummings is a boon for rockabilly fans. The former Sports master dedicates the album to pioneer teen idol Ricky Nelson. But he could easily have nominated the Million-Dollar Quartet. It's got the gospel fervour of Johnny Cash, the kiss-curl romance of Elvis Presley, the wild-eyed country of Jerry Lee Lewis and the blue-suede wonder of Carl Perkins, not to mention the falsetto melodrama of fellow Sun Records rising star Roy Orbison. Younger listeners may think Cummings was inspired by Chris Isaak. But older fans will know that this sound goes way back to the 1950s if not further, with Firecracker also featuring a splash of Muddy Waters. This is a CD of `uh-huhs', `oh yeahs' and `babies' over chugging guitars and primal drums, reminiscent of his pre-Sports days with the Pelaco Brothers. As soon as you hear the double-bunger beats courtesy of the kit-pounding Peters (Luscombe and Jones), you know Firecracker lives up to its title. Cummings' stellar guest list would ignite any jam: Ross Hannaford (Daddy Cool), Shane O'Mara, Rebecca Barnard (Rebecca's Empire), Ross McLennan (Snout) and Chris Cheney (The Living End). But it's not all noisy throwdowns with friends. There's also slow-burners such as One Kiss and Why Doesn't She Want Me?


7 out of 10

by ????? - Sun Herald (Sydney), 12 January 2003

Shy, gifted Melbournian Stephen Cummings dedicates Firecracker to 1950s star Ricky Nelson. Both the tunes - all but one Cumming's originals - and the sparse arrangements owe plenty to Nelson, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, Johnny Cash and Elvis. The result is a reverb soaked rockabilly, doo wop and jazz flecked delight.


7 out of 10

by Shane Nichols - Financial Review, 18 January 2003

Stephen Cummings is good but frustrating too. He has hard-won standing as an Australian recording artist and now commands an audience in a particular mature age group where we don't really have many contemporary artists. Yet it's hard to understand why an artist with this opportunity sort of squanders it on records that speak plenty about how to make records and a certain hipness but rarely seem authentic.

Musically, this set dedicated to Ricky Nelson moves consciously around country, rock'n roll and associated styles - masterfully and quite captivatingly thanks also to guitarist and engineer Shane O'Mara, for which this whole disc is a virtual showcase. And while it's a pleasant and interesting journey, you can't help wondering where Stephen Cummings calls home.

Other artists like Joe Henry record stylistically diverse albums which are readily understood, and accepted as, artistic felicity consciously dipping its toes into different waters. Cummings doesn't quite achieve the same effect. Though this remains a highly crafted and quite audacious record, I do think there are better albums in Stephen Cummings yet, particularly if he can avoid such a swamp of abstract lyrics. Yes, it's harder not to be vague, but that's good writing.


by Trent Dalton - The Mercury (Hobart), 22 January 2003

Uninspired by what he calls the "disengaged state of today's pop industry", the former Sports frontman has looked back rather than across. This rollicking rockabilly collection was written in a six-week creative spurt with the ghosts of Elvis, Ricky Nelson and Muddy Waters looking over his shoulder. Cummings hiccups and "woohoos" throughout songs like Gone Baby Gone and Baby What's Come Over You? At times other efforts such as I Want You To Want Me and One Kiss rocket into the sky, darting and twirling and exploding in a fountain of colour, while elsewhere the album is like a cheap tom thumb - a good bang but over all too quickly.


3.5 out of 5

by Peter Wilmoth - The Sunday Age, 26 January 2003

Cummings' long time collaboration with bassist Bill McDonald and guitarist and producer Shane O'Mara is getting better and better, and on this we hear the superb talents of all three at their best. There's a jaunty feel in the rockabilly mood of The Popular One and the old-style Carl Perkins-esque feel of Sweet Saturday and Gone Baby Gone. I can almost hear echoes of George Harrison doing Perkin's Everybody Wants To Be My Baby on "Beatles for Sale". But fans of Cummings' late-night mood pieces will not be disappointed. It's no accident that it's dedicated to Ricky Nelson: Cummings, the great balladeer, gives us I Want You To Want Me which radio should pick up right now and play.


4 out of 5

by Sean Sennett - Time Off (Brisbane), 4 February 2003

It's been a quarter of a century between drinks since Stephen Cummings last tore up a rockabilly song. After The Sports cut Reckless, Cummings changed tact and wrote classic pop. Over the last decade, he's earned his stripes as a world-weary troubadour. A shift occurred in Cummings, and he's out of the starting blocks with one of the best solo albums of his career. The songs were written in six weeks, and guests include Shane O'Mara, Chris Cheney (Living End) and Ross Hannaford (Daddy Cool). The ghost of Ricky Nelson was hanging over the sessions, and Cummings alternates between the Bo Diddley inspired opener The Popular One and delicate ballads Why Doesn't She Want Me? with ease. A record that rewards with repeat listens, Cummings is inspiring as a singer, has a deft way with a lyric and has added a renewed urgency to his oeuvre.


by Michael Smith - Drum Media (Sydney), 4 February 2003

Be prepared - this is not the Stephen Cummings that has been releasing sombre, lowkey, occasionally nostalgic, sometimes spooky albums the past half dozen years. Maybe he's in love, or the success of his literary career has triggered a renewed enthusiasm for his other career. Either way, the opening cut, The Popular One, of his latest album, Firecracker, literally jumps out of the speakers. It's pure '50s rockabilly raunch complete with twin drum kits and Living End guitarist Chris Cheney adding the hot licks. From there on, you're well and truly inside a love affair Cummings is obviously currently having with the sounds of the '50s, whether it's straight ahead rock (Baby, What's Come Over You?), or country/gospel (Love's Coming), or Frankie Avalon! (One Kiss) Either way, it's not the brooding, balladry of Cummings' last album Skeleton Key, and its immediate predecessors.

He doesn't keep the mood consistently across the album however. His more serious (and contemporary) muse isn't entirely suppressed by the general whimsy, which makes Why Doesn't She Want Me stick out as, a) a welcome relief, or b) an incongruous aside, depending on how you're dealing with the rest of the album. The problem, if you choose to take it as such, is to either take Firecracker in the obvious spirit of fun in which it seems to have been conceived and executed, much like any cheeky psychopunkabilly combo working any inner city pub in the country, or dismiss the whole thing as all a bit silly for a singer songwriter who's old enough to know better. Considering the fire power with which Cummings has surrounded himself - the aforementioned Chris Cheney, duelling drummers Peter Jones and Peter Luscombe, guitarists Shane O'Mara and Ross "Daddy Cool" Hannaford - you know that for all the fun, the intention is to make a strongly musical statement "in the style", suggests we take the former position, kick back and dance around the lounge room in an appropriately idiotic manner. Metaphorically of course. And particularly to the voodoo sounds of Ross McLennan's Farfisa organ that drench the closing cut, The Keys To Her Heart. I of course refuse to do any such thing - on the outside.


4.5 out of 5

by Shaun Carney - Green Guide, The Age (Melbourne), 6 February 2003

Stephen Cummings' opening lyric on his new album is "I'm sitting here feeling sorry for myself" but it comes only after a cymbal crash and two drummers pounding out a relentless tattoo. Yes, lyrically this is typical, introspective Stephen Cummings fare but musically it's not. This is a rockabilly record, plain and simple, and it's the most consistently energetic work Cummings has done since his days out front of The Sports. Firecracker carries bright cover artwork and a picture of the singer grinning, and continues his practice of surrounding himself with Melbourne's best musicians. This time around the Living End's Chris Cheney and Ross Hannaford provide some lead guitar, as well as Cummings' long-time collaborator Shane O'Mara, who offers his career-best work here, especially on Love's Coming. It's a neat trick that Cummings has pulled off here. Essentially, he continues his preoccupations with romantic disappointment and existential emptiness but by transplanting them to a more traditional musical format, one that relies on standard rhythms and instrumental exuberance, the songs carry an intriguing twist. The spin-off is that Cummings, almost 20 years after making his first solo album, moves to a higher level as an artist.


by Lucky Oceans - The Planet, ABC Radio National, 7 February 2003

FIRECRACKER is the 13th solo album from STEPHEN CUMMINGS, who just may have Australian pop's finest male vocal chords. The CD rocks. It twangs. Gleefully rocking melancholy abounds. As the publicist declares, it's "much more a guitar record than Stephen has done for some time".

Dedicated to Ricky Nelson, "Firecracker" is full of echoes of early Elvis, rockabilly/honky-tonk & Chicago blues, but as expressed through a definitely post-modern, literate Melburnian state of mind. There's LOTS of reverb, lots of twinned-drumkits & the nicely rampaging electric guitars of longtime associate & producer SHANE O'MARA, with cameo guitar hero roles for ROSS HANNAFORD (still a cool Daddy!) & CHRIS CHENEY.


by Keith Glass - Sunday Herald Sun (Melbourne), 9 February 2003

Welcome return: Stephen Cummings rediscovers his rougher roots with a thumpin' Melbourne rock band

In short: double bunger

There was a time when the urbane Mr Cummings - author and man about town was a bit of a punk. His first group, the Pelaco Brothers, and the more commercially viable the Sports trod a fine line of rockabilly and angst-ridden new wave.

A slew of solo work expanded his musical palette.

Now the rougher, rockin' side of Stephen is back. Not only is he singing with renewed conviction, but the selfcomposed songs are gems and the Melbourne musicians sound great.

Old hands such as Shane O'Mara (who also produced), Bill McDonald, Peter Luscombe and Peter Jones are joined by the Living End's Chris Cheney for some incendiary workouts.

However, the ears really prick up when guitar master Ross Hannaford adds his brilliant and unpredictable style to proceedings. Inspired also are O'Mara and Jeff Burstin, and Cumming's teentype ditties (influenced by Ricky Nelson) are the perfect foil.

There is a sense of soul and fun here that deserves a large audience.


by Keith Glass - Capital Country News, February 2003

Citing Ricky Nelson as inspiration Cummings has penned 14 songs that may make up his best work ever. A slew of great guitarists join him including veterans Ross Hannaford, Jeff Burstin, Shane O'Mara (who also produced), plus younger Living End upstart Chris Cheney.

Chris Isaak would be the closest touchstone to what Cummings is doing here with a slab of The Big O on 'One Kiss'. 'I Want You To Want Me' and 'Why Doesnt She Want Me' add a soul quotient that brings focus and substance. Cummings is singing great too.


4 stars

by Michael Dwyer - EG, The Age (Melbourne), 14 February 2003

For a dozen-odd solo albums now, Stephen Cummings has remained a living illustration of style as distinct from fashion. His surprise rockabilly return misses every new musical bandwagon by his customary half-dozen suburbs, but it's a safe bet his phone call meant more than another hit single to Chris Cheney. The Living End guitarist augments a lean, snare-thwacking combo on a handful of songs here, notably a wild, trouser-seat solo on 'Gone Baby Gone'. The new kid's flair is matched by regular guitar-slinger Shane O'Mara, whose presence on acoustic, electric and lap still is more thrilling than ever in the upbeat circumstances. But whether hiccupping over the twin drumkit slap of 'The Popular One' and the gospel-edged 'Love's Coming' or crooning the last-dance blues of 'One Kiss', it's Cummings' sense of fun & genuine feel for '50s rock that gives 'Firecracker' its spark. Titles such as 'Go Right Ahead And Break My Heart' and 'Why Doesn't She Want Me' identify his usual barstool perspective, but it's a blast to hear his lovelorn losers come out swinging.


by Bernard Zuel - Sydney Morning Herald, 15 February 2003

In Stephen Cummings's sure hands, rockabilly is heavenly.

The scariest words I'd heard in a while (outside being told that Uncanny X-Men were reforming) was when Stephen Cummings announced last year that he was recording a rockabilly record. To me, rockabilly has always been rock's bastard, if kinda loveable, older brother, kept in the upstairs bedroom for being just a little too simple. That kind of old-time rock'n'roll never looked like music for grown-ups.

But there are no such worries for Cummings, who had a rockabilly past in the Pelaco Brothers before he formed The Sports. And, Lordy, if he hasn't given us a rockabilly record for grown-ups. Not by being all serious and worthy but by reminding us how much pleasure you can have by stripping things back - and showing how you can be smart while doing it.

The prevailing mood of Firecracker is fun. Firstly, Cummings is having fun with the form, toying with a dreamy, stranded-at-the-drive-in ballad (One Kiss, which Chris Isaak should steal immediately); swishing up skirts with a bit of New Orleans stepping (Love's Coming); getting a little hiccupy one minute (Baby What's Come Over You) and sweaty but nice, a la Ricky Nelson, the next (Nothing's Too Much).

He even knocks over a couple of Elvis sneers you imagine must have been sung in a pink sports jacket over black drape slacks (Gone Baby Gone, for one). The band are clearly loving it, too, while Shane O'Mara produced it with a very light hand that offers plenty of room around the instruments.

But among the fun there is still craft. As ever, the maxim is true that the simplest things can be the hardest to get right, and right they are here: Cummings is too good a songwriter for it to be otherwise. Even with the lyrics, which are deliberately pared back from his normal style, Cummings still pulls out some juicy lines. My favourite is in Love's Coming, which begins: "Quietly as lovers creep at the middle moon/Softly as players tremble in the tears of a tune/love's coming/talk to the thin air/love's coming/I knew not that it was there."

Firecracker hasn't persuaded me to buy some brothel creepers, but I have been cutting a rug while it's been playing.


by Sandra Bridekirk - Weekend Australian, 15 March 2003

AFTER a career spanning more than 25 years, rock stayer Stephen Cummings probably deserves a little midlife self-indulgence. So Firecracker, his rockabilly album, is shamelessly kitsch and retrospective, from its cracker-carton sleeve art to its chocolate-box lyrics and twanging guitars. It sticks out like a carnation on a lawn, but Cummings has never been one to swim between the flags, winging it here with a delicious sense of fun. Although there is arguably more merit in an album of more original material (and Cummings isn't short of a melancholy ballad or two), Firecracker gleams with simple, beautifully crafted songs that evoke the grateful ghosts of Ricky Nelson, Elvis Presley and others. Tracks range from energetic dance numbers (Nothing's Too Much) to optimistic shuffles (Love's Coming) and sad smoochers (One Kiss). It'll get 'em off the couch at your next party.

Blast from the past refreshes Cummings

* * * 1/2

by Noel Mengel - Courier Mail (Brisbane), 22 March 2003

NO-ONE has a long-term career, or a satisfying one, without finding ways to freshen up their sound.

In the case of Cummings, he has done it by looking back to the roots of rock'n'roll on Firecracker, probably the only album from 2003 - and 1993, for that matter - to be dedicated to Ricky Nelson.

In recent years Cummings has released a couple of quiet singer-songwriter albums. Firecracker is dipped in raucous rockabilly and '50s pop, that unaffected mix of country, blues and gospel that collided at the birth of rock'n'roll.

It's a style Cummings knows well even if he hasn't visited it since the days of the seminal Melbourne band the Pelaco Brothers, the group he fronted before forming The Sports.

The opening The Popular One sets the tone, with drummers Peter Jones and Peter Luscombe setting up the Bo Diddley rhythm for guitarists Shane O'Mara and Chris Cheney from The Living End, who delivers some of those lightning-fingered solos which might once have graced a Gene Vincent record. The sound is hot and sweaty on tracks such as Nothing's Too Much, propelled by O'Mara's searing lap steel guitar, and The Keys To Her Heart, which has the kind of Farfisa organ sounds more commonly found on old Doug Sahm singles.

But that is just one part of the sound, which also includes soft, silky (and Nelson-like) sing alongs such as Go Right Ahead and Break My Heart; the Elvis at Sun gospel-abilly of Love's Coming and sweet and soulful acoustic tunes like I Want You to Want Me, the kind of song Dan Penn might have presented to James Carr in Memphis in '66.

And so it goes: Cummings sings his heart out - he's been one of the best rock singers in this country for the best part of three decades and still is - on a bunch of tunes that recalls the days when rock'n'roll was not so much a career move as something fun to do on a Saturday afternoon.

Firecracker is a guitar player's treat, too. For starters, check out the joyous sound of Music Is In the Air, with O'Mara's steel locked in tight with Ross Hannaford's electric grooves sounding as bright and cheery as they did in the grand days of Daddy Cool.

In theory, a Cummings rockabilly record might sound like an unusual proposition. In practise, it goes off like a you-know-what.

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