ALBUM REVIEW: Jack Ladder & The Dreamlanders – Blue Poles

ladder blue poles

The sense of Jack Ladder’s career to date is that he’s constantly been searching for his lost soul sound. The early bluesy rock n roll to the introspective troubadour, the gothic synth sounds of Hurtsville to the brighter colours of Playmates. Blue Poles is named after the Jackson Pollock painting and yes it does draw on all manner of styles but this time around he pulls them together into a cohesive set of nine songs. It’s also the first record he’s self-produced, another clue as to why this feels like the album that is most uniquely and naturally his own sound and vision.

‘Can’t Stay’ is the first introduction and transports the listener back to the junction where post punk met pop art, immediately reminiscent of peak-era Thompson Twins with their twinkling synths and fascinating rhythms wrapped up in pop music. ‘Dates’ takes that scene setter and turns it on its head with a repetitive glam stomp, like prime Roxy Music with Ladder shapeshifting between Eno and Ferry. It’s infectious stuff, enough to induce self-indulgent lounge room strutting. Another song, another colour added to the canvas. ‘Susan’ is all dark and shadowy hues, Cohen circa ‘Everybody Knows’, but Ladder gets pleasingly perverse with a tale of a car accident fatality and and husband calling his wife to join him in the afterlife.

Bowie is never far from Ladder’s orbit and ‘I.N.M.’ is unabashed funk of the Thin White Duke variety, complete with skewed scattershot guitar courtesy of one Mr Kirin J Callinan. ‘Tell It Like It Is’ is of the same ilk, Ladder getting louche and mysterious, dropping great lines such as “Our love is like a door with no handles, you kick it down…”

‘Blue Mirror’ is an exceptional song. The mood it conjures, the nod to ‘Moon River’, the languid swirl and solemn pulse of the music that recalls David Sylvian, the crown prince of austere pop. Ladder finds the perfect backing for his soft bellow of a baritone. Sometimes it has sounded too knowing or a touch too sardonic in other settings. Here it meshes seamlessly. First single ‘White Flag’ is another melancholic highpoint of Blue Poles. Built on little more than a breakbeat and simple tremolo-laced guitar notes Ladder sings ‘I surrender, surrender to be free, in your chains is where I’m gonna be’, conjuring a mood of giving in rather giving up.

‘Feel Brand New’ feels like a respite from the blue mood of much that precedes it. It’s a good old fashioned rock n roll tune with guitars ringing high in the mix, throwing out unabashed and catchy hooks with the kind of optimism you get on a new morning that promises possibilities instead of weariness. Ladder leaves us with ‘Merciful Reply’. An Orbison-styled, solemn yet grand gesture. It harkens back to the lachrymose ballads of yesteryear, yet in Ladder’s hands it rings true and artfully heartfelt.

Blue Poles draws on a sense of romanticism, one steeped in melancholy yet ultimately not fatalism. There is dark humour at play and some fine wordplay on display and it sounds exceptional. This is Ladder’s finest record to date, his maudlin opus par excellence.

Chris Familton

LIVE REVIEW: Jack Ladder & The Dreamlanders, Alex Cameron @ OAF, Sydney (16/05/15)

Alex Cameron | photo by Chris Familton
Alex Cameron | photo by Chris Familton

Alex Cameron’s (Seekae) saxophonist and off-sider Roy Molloy arrived first, setting up his instrument, pacing the stage with Corona in hand and chatting to the front rows. Cameron’s strikingly skeletal frame joined him, his designer suit a couple of sizes too small, hanging from his lanky bones. He has a commanding stage presence, throwing Nick Cave-styled poses and dance moves that alternate between mid-period Bowie and Elvis in Las Vegas mode. Musically the pair played and sang over backing tracks of minimal synth and electro that brought to mind Kraftwerk and Suicide laced with Scritti Politti, enhanced by Molloy’s sax solos. There’s a fair amount of schtick going on but Cameron plays the role convincingly as both a songwriter and performer and it’ll be interesting to see how he evolves his solo career.

Jack Ladder’s career has also undertaken a number of transformations with last year’s Playmates album finding him settling into his most comfortable stylistic zone. It’s hard to go wrong with a band like the Dreamlanders. They seem like a composite scene from a David Lynch cabaret scene: Kirin J Callinan’s borderline psychotic stage personae, all twitches, lunges and futuristic guitar flourishes, Donny Benét’s exceptional bass playing that saw him play a consummate solo intro at the start of the encore, keyboardist Frank Sutherland and drummer extraordinaire Laurence Pike (PVT). Out front Ladder commanded the stage during the songs but seemed, as usual, strangely distant, aloof and subtly cynical between them. Playmates provided the bulk of the material with the dark and sleazy Depeche Mode glitter stomp of Reputation Amputation and Neon Blue working particularly well. The Hurtsville album also got a look-in with the graceful airiness of the title track resplendent in its melancholic grandeur. It was an evening of absorbing and emotive post-modern art rock.

Chris Familton

LIVE REVIEW: Jack Ladder &The Dreamlanders @ Goodgod Small Club, Sydney (13/05/11)

written by Chris Familton

photo by Chris Familton

This was an evening set to complete the circle of reinvention for Jack Ladder. With a new album Hurtsville just round the corner Ladder was here to show that the soul and blues of Love is Gone has indeed gone and in its place a starker and more beautifully brittle sound is soundtracking his songs.

Melodie Nelson performed an engaging yet somewhat tentative set that had sporadic flashes of greatness. Her sound is built around the atmosphere of the music and is achieved via drones, funereal pacing and repetition. Reminiscent at times of Beach House, Mazzy Star and Velvet Underground there was a standout moment with a song that may or may not be called Charlie. With it the pace quickened and a garage guitar riff hooked many punter’s heads and ears.

By the time Ladder and cohorts downed shots and arrived on stage the cosy Goodgod Small Club was near capacity, eager to hear Ladder’s next musical chapter. Pretty much the whole new album was played and not a single track from Love Is Gone. Ladder’s ‘new’ sound has two defining aspects – one is his lack of guitar playing which allowed him to focus his energies on his vocal delivery and emotiveness. The other is guitar sidekick Kirin J. Callinan who seems most responsible for the current sound. Ocean-deep splashes of reverb, chiming notes with chorus shimmers and tremolo shivers washed over everything while still allowing acres of space in the music. Hurtsville’s beautiful title track sounded like a lost John Hughes soundtrack re-imagined by David Lynch with the melancholy turned up to eleven. The heart melting sounds seem to have emboldened Ladder to give himself over to the performance of his songs almost completely making his deep baritone voice totally believable.

While the low ceilings, and high volume of the venue meant the new songs didn’t have the impact and drama of the versions on Hurtsville there were still enough convincing moments to convey the greatness of them. The music snaked and staggered between the Nick Cave-esque ballad Blinded By Love,  the super-catchy Cold Feet and the cabaret spook of Position Vacant with the shadow of Tom Waits dancing madly in the background. As a showcase for an imminent new album the crowd seemed to embrace the songs wholeheartedly making it a successful night all round.

this review first appeared in Drum Media, Sydney

for more photos from the show check out our Flickr page