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MEDIA: Reviews: Love-O-Meter


4 stars

by Shaun Carney - eg, The Age, 14 October 2005

More than 30 years after forming his first band, the Pelaco Brothers, and after 11 solo albums of original material, the challenge for a performer with the sort of career longevity that Stephen Cummings enjoys is to maintain the element of surprise.

Beginning with the funky, urban-sounding Senso in 1983, Cummings has toured through lush pop, wide-screen soundscapes (courtesy of Steve Kilbey), raw acoustic balladry and guitar rock. His previous album of new songs was Firecracker in 2003, a boisterous collection of Ricky Nelson-style rockabilly pieces unlike anything he had done before.

For Love-O-Meter, Cummings has taken another sharp turn, putting together a song suite - let's not call it a concept album - that tracks the break-up of a relationship and attempts of a heartsick man to rekindle the flame.

It's dramatically different to Firecracker, resembling in places a mid-1960s beat group, in others exploring a mildly psychedelic sensibility. Cummings' vocalising is different too; it's often raspy and aggressive as he drives home the pop hooks and, along with producer Shane O'Mara, he hasn't been afraid to apply studio treatments and multi-tracking to his voice.

In some respects, Love-O-Meter bundles up Cummings' stylistic tics. The jazzy, clubby element of his writing comes to the fore on the central song, the pained, dreamy Once Upon a Time We Were Mad For Each Other.

It seems fitting that Cummings, whose natural shyness always precluded him from forcefully promoting his writing abilities, cites his favorite Beatle as George Harrison; there's a spot-on Harrison tribute, Punch Drunk, here.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the album is that, courtesy of its narrative form, it takes Cummings out of himself. For years he struggled with the tension caused by his tendency to write autobiographical songs, something that's left him emotionally exposed and occasionally mired in a quiet-ballad cul-de-sac.

Perhaps it was the experience of revisiting his older material for his Liberation Blue series album Close-Ups that's let him loosen up enough to inhabit a character for a full album as he does here. All told, it's quite adventurous and one of his strongest albums.


by Michael Dwyer - The Age, 22 October 2005

Taking over the agonies and ecstasies of love in the balance has occupied much of Stephen Cummings' post-Sports career and many of that band's best moments too: Reckless, Tired Of Me and Can't Ever Decide nailed a desperate kind of romantic insecurity that still haunts.

The wryly titled Love-O-Meter retraces this obsession as a blow-byblow narrative that reads like a record of recovery, complete with medical consultations, recurring sleeplessness, schizoid layers of assertion and denial, and ultimate deference to something Frank Sinatra said in 1969. The inner monologue is darkly comic on Simplify My Life, desolate to the point of madness on Something Else and as beautiful as Garret Costigan's pedal steel on You Are So In The Past and I Told You So. He has expanded his usual intimate, acoustic spectrum with plenty of rock electricity too, with his favourite Beatle, George, a recurring ghost.

Lyrically Cummings repeatedly draws in the walls with tiny, housebound details. Dwelling on urine stains on his boxers, children playing frisbee across the street and deadend fantasies (Once Upon A Time We Were Mad For Each Other; I Was Wondering What It Would Be Like To Kiss You), he gets in the lonely guy's head with almost scary empathy.


4 1/2 stars

by Sean Sennett - Timeoff, 24 October 2005

Stephen Cummings returns with another fine collection of lovelorn adult pop songs. His best album in 15 years, Love-O-Meter recalls the glory of his earlier triumvirate: This Wonderful Life, Love Town and A New Kind Of Blue.

The records in the intervening years have all been top-drawer, but Love-O-Meter peddles a certain kind of magic. The former lead singer of The Sports opens the set with the delicious "I Need You Tonight". With former Ferret Billy Miller on backing vocals, the song is a three-minute slice of aural heaven.

Elsewhere, Cummings changes tact from world-weary crooner to a man obviously lost in the thrall of this modern-day concept album. In Cummings's liner notes, the artist sets up the premise of two lovers breaking up, with the protagonist feeling alone and "looking for meaning in his life". Produced by Shane O'Mara, the results have led to a fine cache of songs. Highlights include "Simplify My Life", "Once Upon A Time We Were Mad For Each Other" and "If You Wish To Be Loved". Superb.


by Bernard Zuel - The Sydney Morning Herald, 5 November 2005

Your average love affair may well last 12 or 15 months; your average marriage may well last three or four years. Short, if not always sweet.

Ah, if only the after-effects could be that contained. What if you don't want to let it go; if frankly you couldn't even if you tried? Is that obsessiveness? Hope?

Love-O-Meter is the story of a man who hasn't learned the fine art of moving on, of not caring any more. We don't know his name but he is all too familiar and in 12 songs he is not so much stripped bare as laid out before us exactly as he came.

He begs, he tempts, he pines and he hurts. He offers the plea "I need you tonight" at the beginning of this story/album. He teeters between confidence and crumbling as he says, "belly up, on the couch, beer in hand/dishes unwashed, beds unmade/at a moment like this, I think of you/must be something better to do." He may even arrive at an insight as he closes the album staring at the emptiness inside him muttering, "if you wish to be loved/you've got to give love."

Cummings is no stranger to the created world: his early solo albums featured recurring characters in the fictional Lovetown. But this is his most sustained creation outside his novels. Don't be put off by the possibility of nothing but boy lost girl/boy still has lost girl/boy is never getting back girl songs. For a start, Cummings is too perceptive a lyricist. There are no categories for writing this strong. Instead this feels like life, with all its hurts and dreams and messiness.

Musically, too, Cummings is working at his peak. His previous album, Firecracker, was an entertaining rockabilly jaunt but here he stretches out. There are drifting melodies, a la George Harrison, and punchy bluesy modes, there are gentle white soul moments and spare late-night ballads familiar to anyone who spent time in Lovetown. With You Are So In The Past, there's all the ache of a great George Jones heartbreaker; Simplify My Life could well be stolen by the Eels; while in I Was Wondering What it Would Be Like to Kiss You he moves smoothly into a hybrid of Boz Scaggs and Luther Vandross.

Stephen Cummings at his best? Better, I reckon.


by Jeff Apter - The Bulletin, 30 November 2005

Along with the squeaky-door croak of Paul Kelly, Stephen Cummings' expressive rasp is one of the most identifiable male voices in homegrown music. The excellent Love-O-Meter is the former Sports-man's 15th solo album and a welcome return for a guy who's spent more time in recent years deliberating over the written word. It's a concept album, of sorts, which Cummings describes as "a bittersweet account of two lovers breaking up". Just as crucially, Love-O-Meter brings together all the musical styles Cummings has explored over the years - ballads, twang, soul, pop - in the process proving there's a lot more to the Best Male category than blokes with names like Shannon and Alex. And thank God for that.

Fab for a case of lost love

4 stars

by Pete Best - Sunday Herald Sun, 4 December 2005

In short: a great moment from a good Sport

I don't know why, but Stephen Cummings plays a guitar with "1977" etched into it.

That was the year we first saw him fronting post-punkers The Sports. It was the year mystery group Klaatu tantalised us with the prospect the impossible had taken place with a suite of commendably Beatlesque songs.

Cummings has, intentionally or otherwise, recreated more than a handful of beautiful "Beatles" moments on this intriguing suite of songs charting a cracked love affair.

The supporting vocals - far too vital to be dismissed as background - come from two of Melbourne's finest voices - Rebecca Barnard and Billy Miller. They conjure the sound of Rubber Soul out-takes.

The spirits of George Harrison and John Lennon have been summoned on Punch Drunk and Crying Over You. Do You Still Love Me rings with essence of Harrison's Love You To while keeping pace with the urgent If I Needed Someone from the same era.

And yet these are songs of sparkling originality. They can challenge you, as good music should, yet quickly gain purchase on those neurons that act as gatekeepers to our musical tastebuds.

Cummings has matched his material to some impressive players - Peter Luscombe (drums), Bruce Haymes (piano) and Shane O'Mara, whose guitar lines often steal center stage.

This is landmark album for Cummings, one that will, of course, be criminally ignored by Melbourne radio. But at least the Australia Council got it right. The much-criticised arts funding body helped finance this project.

So this is the sound of your taxes at work. And they are working very well.

And the love affair?

"You've got to give love if you wish to be loved."

I think it's over.

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