Memories & Dust
s noted by countless undergraduates and everyone else with a fondness for heavy-handed rhetorical readings, dust is one of those verbs that means its own opposite. You can dust a cake with powdered sugar, after all, using for decoration what you otherwise might discard, or you can dust the shelves, wiping clean those neglected places. That in mind, Josh Pyke, the Australian singer-songwriter whose debut album Memories & Dust was released in the States this spring, seems to have chosen a serendipitously damning title for said album. If Memories & Dust were a breakfast food, it would be a waffle: the work avoids both lyrical and compositional extremes, shying away from the striking and cleaning up every pleasant little mess as quickly as it’s made. Memories & Dust is a mid-tempo recollection of some other mid-tempo album, the memory of something we’ve heard before, by some guy whose name we can’t remember.
Yet on “Covers Are Thrown”—one of the least memorable tracks among many—Pyke sings, “it could be much worse,” and he’s right. Yes, Pyke is the kind of guy who uses the word “numb” wholly unselfconsciously, but he’s also responsible for the title track, with its cheerfully spry guitar and oddly touching reference to pillows, and for the eerie “Middle of the Hill.” “Middle of the Hill” is not a unique song, by any means, but it is unique to the album, an innocuously creepy narrative ensconced by tracks that content themselves with vague evocation. Even the first notes are disconcerting: hollow and wary, they stand as a prelude to a litany of childhood terrors. Each one reels into the next—the syntax of the song, in fact, recalls the urgent, free-associative narrative style associated most often with kindergarteners and the young Stephen Dedalus—as Pyke tells of fires in vacant lots, a neighbor who is the daughter of drunks, and “a man with an axe” who allegedly sliced a dog’s voice box from its neck.
Pyke excels at capturing this kind of weird, dark mythology that haunts childhood—the almost-truths about the adult world that shadows early life—and consequently “Middle of the Hill” is the only track that is well beyond middling. The mysterious men in a white van, the “cold, cold hands” of an ailing mother: most of our stories are creepy stories, and when they’re not creepy they’re sad. Yet for the last thirty seconds of the track, Pyke chants, “I don’t pay enough attention to the good things when I got ‘em,” and this line, in this song, suggests Pyke is capable of far better work: most bad things, he intimates, turn into good things; most strange, gray shapes turn gold and hazy in the distorting light of time.
Reviewed by: Elizabeth Gumport
Reviewed on: 2007-07-05