Oh Mercy – Deep Heat

With the help of producer du jour Burke Reid, Melbourne’s Oh Mercy have pieced together a groovy, bawdy effort for album three, writes EDWARD SHARP-PAUL.

Oh Mercy always seemed destined for big things. From their earliest demos, frontman Alexander Gow has demonstrated a knack for arresting melodies and a killer turn of phrase. He’s a charismatic bugger, too. The problem for the band thus far has been finding the appropriate sonic vehicle for Gow’s undoubted talents. On Privileged Woes it was baroque pop maximalism, realised with the aid of producer Myles Wootton (The Panics) and former guitarist/foil Thom Savage. Great Barrier Grief brought Los Angeles, producer Mitch Froom (Crowded House) and session-muso sleekness. Both were solid albums, but neither represent the grand, cohesive statement that you sense Gow is itching to make.

Which is where Burke Reid comes in. The former Gerling member is fast building a reputation as a producer, off the back of his work on Gareth Liddiard’s Strange Tourist and Jack Ladder’s Hurtsville, among others. One gets the sense that it was Reid’s work on the latter, which prompted Gow to pick up the phone. On Hurtsville, Reid managed to create a lush, widescreen ambience without choking Ladder’s compositions. He even managed to evoke a sense of ‘80s-indebted Australiana without succumbing to mawkishness. Coming off the slightly arid Great Barrier Grief, it looked like a match made in heaven. Strange then, that Reid and Gow have put together a groovy, bawdy album like Deep Heat.

Despite name-checking the likes of the Bee Gees and Brazilian musician Jorge Ben, Oh Mercy haven’t gone all cheese-disco. They have, however, built Deep Heat from the bottom up. The rhythm section of drummer Rohan Sforcina and bassist Eliza Lam drive these songs, and their glee is palpable. Above the tough-yet-slinky grooves lie no end of bells and whistles: piano stabs, keys, horns (courtesy of Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin), treated guitars and snatches of studio banter all bob up. All of the above are pushed to the margins, though, leaving plenty of room for Gow’s id to run loose. Hedonistic lead single Drums captures the aesthetic nicely, offering up horns, organ, and, obviously, a dynamite drum groove. The last vestiges of Oh Mercy’s jangle-pop origins have been stripped away, and the message is clear: Oh Mercy have grown up.

Though surprising, this sonic left-turn offers Gow a route out of his painstakingly constructed, increasingly restrictive “sensitive singer-songwriter” persona. It’s probably no coincidence that he sings Deep Heat’s character sketches with a ragged passion generally absent from the more guarded first-person confessionals of Oh Mercy’s previous work. Whether due to his time moonlighting with The Triffids, or due to the liberating effect of singing other people’s stories, Deep Heat benefits from Gow’s newfound appreciation of melodrama.

“The last vestiges of Oh Mercy’s jangle-pop origins have been stripped away, and the message is clear: Oh Mercy have grown up.”

As with the whole album, the more instinctive approach to lyrics and melodies is refreshing. Gow rides the beat, crooning, yelping, falsetto-ing and generally chewing the scenery, while covering the sort of thematic terrain that one would expect from a libidinous, self-assured 24-year-old. Though some lines miss the mark (the ill-conceived detour into Greek mythology on Rebel Beats springs to mind), the sex-and-death hyperbole of Gow’s lyrics add a welcome darker edge to all the buoyant retro-pop.

If Deep Heat has a failing, though, it’s that its consistency of tone occasionally verges on monotony – tempo-wise, only the cod-reggae of Still Making Me Pay (not as awkward as it sounds) really mixes things up. With stronger material this wouldn’t really be a problem, but having released Great Barrier Grief in 2011, you wonder if Gow gave his muse enough time to come up with another album’s worth of top-drawer material?The best songs are terrific – the lascivious title track, the swagger of Suffocated, the creepy bunny-boiler narrative My Man – and though there aren’t any flat-out duds, the likes of Europa and Labour of Love aren’t as memorable.

Deep Heat may not be Oh Mercy’s definitive statement, but for most of its 30-minute running time, it sounds like Gow and company are having too much fun to care.