Aussie Air

Ten reasons why The Sleepy Jackson's 'Lovers' is the best record you didn't hear of 2003

The thing I hate most about the annual task of compiling my Top 10 records of the year is that I know there are so many records I've yet to discover. And, inevitably, I'll be introduced to something from the previous year halfway through the next year that makes me wish I could go back and erase my words.

Some records take time to make their way into your life. The Sleepy Jackson's Lovers is one of these records. Here are 10 reasons why I wish I'd heard this record the year it was released:

10. The way I found out about the band

Eddie Vedder once pointed out that you can't really learn about music by just reading about it in a magazine; you have to hear it. This is why it's good to surround yourself with people who have similar tastes in music. You never know what someone might dig up. Kris Kerry, who books shows at Plush, told me one day about this great band that I should really hear. He burned me the CD (music piracy is a great way to learn about music, albeit highly illegal) and gave it to me (along with a bunch of other records by bands who were playing at Plush in the near future); I didn't end up listening to it until several days later. But when I did, it was love at first listen.

9. The band's name

The Sleepy Jackson is the musical vision of Luke Steele, with numerous other musicians lending their expertise, including Malcolm Clark and Justin Buford. The band is named after a drummer they used to have who was narcoleptic. (Why is it that narcoleptics seem to do things that require the utmost alertness--such as playing the drums, or being a driving instructor?)

8. They've been nominated for awards

The band was formed in 1999, and released two EPs--Let Your Love Be Love and Caffeine in the Morning Sun--in 2002. Before releasing Lovers in the United States in 2003, they recorded another EP, Good Dancers, and a self-titled, U.K.-released EP. After their U.S. tour in 2003, they were nominated for Album of the Year, Best Rock Album, Best New Artist Album and Best New Artist Single at the Australian ARIAS (like the Grammys, only with a musically-relevant name).

7. They wear their influences on their sleeves

Song to song, Lovers is a tangled web of sounds, ranging from hipster rock a la The Flaming Lips or Super Furry Animals to hipster country a la Whiskeytown.

"I lost my mind; it was blowin' in the wind," sings Steele on "Old Dirt Farmer" in a lyrical summation of what has happened to music since the heyday of Bob Dylan; the answer, my friend, may be blowing in the wind, but it's not necessarily the answer we thought it would be; Sleepy Jackson's answer is to open the windows and let in all that air.

6. Child labor is rock and roll

The Coogee Bay Kids Choir lends one of their own for "Morning Bird," a weepy piano number sung solo by a little kid. Usually, when kids sing on a rock record, it's not a little bit annoying, but when the kid sings "don't cry my morning bird" off-key, you really, really don't want that morning bird to cry. The choir can be heard elsewhere on the record, including at the end of "Old Dirt Farmer."

5. There's a sitar

"Good Dancers" starts the record with shaking percussion and a wailing guitar melody, with Steele's high-pitched voice singing in front of a bunch of background vocals. Nothing very special, but then, at the very end of the song, in comes a sitar, and the record becomes something else entirely.

4. This is music that should be played loud, along with moving lights

"Vampire Race Course" pulses in on a punk-rock drum beat, turning into a crazy rock fest of fills before the song ends with the standard, "Yeah!" "Tell the Girls I'm Not Hanging Out" has all the elements of a good club single: echoey synth noises, a good mixture of quiet and loud, and "na na nas" in the chorus. And heavy breathing.

3. They're from Australia

Perth, Australia, to be exact. You can't go wrong with a country that is mostly uninhabitable and was populated by criminals and people who didn't like it in England. The very will to survive seems to have created some great songwriters over time--and good wine, too.

2. The songs are brain food

"Rain Falls for Wind" starts with an acoustic guitar and then swells into a grandiose smile of a song, with an "ah ah ah" vocal melody line that the electric guitar mimics as the song floats out of the sound frequency able to be picked up by human ears. Three songs in and it seems Sleepy Jackson has used every trick in the book, but it ain't over yet; there are still plenty more echoes of the ghost of rock and roll past that will get up and kick their gauzy, opaque, decaying feet back into life. Sleepy Jackson, like the Kinks and Byrds before them, can cast out hooks that sink and embed and glide in on sparsely placed guitar lines and twisting structure.

1. The lyrics are good, too

Some musicians can write music that's so interesting and captivating that you forget to pay attention to what's being sung, but when you do, you're just as impressed.

"If I were a girl, I'd wear a miniskirt into town," sings Steele on "Miniskirt." "The pretty ones seem to get fucked up all the time."

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