Where would Australian music be without You Am I? Their presence and influence has informed and dictated the state of alternative rock in Australia for almost two decades. The strength of their back catalogue speaks volumes but their footing isn’t as sure as it once was. For an album mooted to be called “I Love My Dead Gay Son”, You Am I saved face and turned around their most impressive release in recent years that succeeds without having to rehash the same old moves.
You Am I still have claims on being one of the greatest Australian rock bands of the last twenty years. There’s few other performers that can compare with vocalist/guitarist Tim Rogers in the classic frontman stakes. He’s Jagger and Richards, Townsend and Daltrey, Westerberg and Stinson rolled into one. Prolific as can be as both a solo artist and with You Am I, his songwriting over the year has suffered from spreading himself too thin, with too many average albums and too few great ones. Dilettantes works hard, very hard, to address this imbalance.
It’s a promising move, using a quiet acoustic track to begin the album, something they haven’t done since the glory days of Hourly, Daily. “Diletanttes” the song has that same austere quality that “Hourly, Daily” the song did. Both are stunning in their simplicity, using strings to create a mood and both follow with an expected upbeat You Am I track. An Andy Kent bass rumble heralds the beginning of Dilettantes proper, but the muted rock of “Disappearing” wrong-foots the listener. Roger’s vocal is noticeably low-key with the rest of the band showing restraint on this mid-tempo track and it’s a good thing, because you feel that You Am I are starting to play by a different rule book.
Stylistically, it’s a different sounding You Am I from the one that made 2006’s Convicts. In Roger’s case, it’s his lack of physical presence that is the most noticeable. His wild proclamations and heavy hand that would often trivialise a song has been buttoned down to where you’d expect a riff, there’s an accented rhythm. When you’d expect a “Hey Yeah, Woo Alright” there’s an attitude check. They’ve tempered their tone and cut down on excess, giving a track like “Beau Geste” a dark, western feel without telegraphing it, and it’s that kind of dynamic shift that adds much to Dilettantes charm.
The absence of guitar riffs lasts as far as track four with the regular Roger swagger of “Frightfully Moderne” that slides into the fun, glitter band stomp of “Wankers” and the foot-tapping rock of “The Big Wheel”. A trio of songs that round out the old-school side one with some vintage You Am I action. Side two gives more treats by way of “Erasmus“ which condenses every You Am I song ever written into a three minute thrill, and the quickfire hoedown of “Davey’s Gone Green Again”. Closer “The Piano Up The Tree” feels like a distant cousin to Hi-Fi Way‘s “How Much Is Enough”, pulling down the curtain with some more of Rogers wise words and a touch of strings building into a suitably epic track.
Dilettantes isn’t so much a comeback but a validation of the genius of Rogers and the skill and temperance of Messrs Kent, Hopkinson and Lane. It’s been a long time coming and we’re all thankful for it. It’s unlikely to win over new fans, but will at least meet the expectations of those who’ve faithfully stood by them. As Roger’s sings rather optimistically on “Frightfully Moderne“ – “You ain’t seen the best of us yet”. Well, count me in for another round then, boys.