It’s incongruous to think that Heads Up is only The Stems’ second full length album, and the band’s first new release in twenty years. Incongruous not just because The Stems remain one of Australia’s most virtuous garage and power pop bands, despite a playing and recording history that lasted a mere few years in the mid 1980s, but also because Heads Up is so pure, fresh and potent that it could have been recovered from recording sessions shelved at the height of the band’s original popularity or – better still – found lying dormant on tapes discarded at the apex of the halcyon days of the 1960s garage rock era.
Whereas Iggy meandered through the motions on The Stooges’ The Weirdness, and David Johannsen and Sylvain Sylvain mocked band branding reality on One Day It Will Please Even Me to Remember This, on Heads Up The Stems – comprising original members Dom Mariani, Richard Lane, Julian Matthews and Dave Shaw (sometime drummer Gary Chambers is, by some reports, farming potatoes in rural Western Australia) – are as vibrant as the day they first donned stove pipe trousers, flopped their fringes over their eyes and went in search of fuzz laden lands.
Mariani’s opening line on the stomping Leave You Way Behind – “I’m feeling so much better/All of my pain has gone away” – is significant. The Stems imploded in the late 1980s under the weight of a relentless touring schedule and egos unable to manage the pressure of burgeoning national and international fame. Twenty years later the band has rediscovered the basic ingredients of the rock’n’roll form, sans all the industry bullshit that smothered their original zest and enthusiasm. She Sees Everything gives a power popped Loved Ones flavour to the wild eyed perspective on matters of the heart, and the Dave Shaw penned Surround Me is positively drenched in the sunny eyed optimism that none of us should ever forget (and neither should we ignore Mariani’s spin on Roger McGuinn’s Eight Miles High solo that appears late in the song).
For a healthy dose of garage attitude, ’60s fashionista style and a slick sound to die for, you’d be insane to go past What’s Your Stand, while Hellbound Train finds Mariani rediscovering a brutal riff he left lying around the studio after the recording sessions for the last Stoneage Hearts album, and discovering his band mates love it just as much he does. The rock’n’roll perfection that characterises Get to Know Me puts the seal of authenticity to the rhetorical statement that forms the song title – why would you do anything else but embrace contemporary The Stems after hearing this song?
Richard Lane’s Only if You Want It shows what you can do with a bit of garage spice on a simple pop tune, and Liar is as down and dirty as much of the rest of the album is brimming with sunshine and beauty. Finally, Mariani is at his power pop best in Get So Bad – a tale of adolescent emotional dysfunction, a simple and catchy melody, and a guitar solo that slices and dices the air like a razor sharp Ginzu steak knife.
The ironic beauty of rock’n’roll is its seemingly infinite interrogation of simple riffs, melodies and specious narratives. If you need an antipodean example of the intrinsic attraction of garage rock and its close cousin power pop, look no further than The Stems – and if you need proof that rock’n’roll is an attitude, not a date on a birth certificate, check out Heads Up.