TISM – The White Albun
‘Everyone else has had more sex than me / Does anyone else get that feeling?’
– TISM, Everyone Else Has Had More Sex Than Me, 2004.
This Is Serious Mum are one of the most enigmatic entities in the halls of Australian rock history. Its not their anonymity-granting masks that have ensured that they will always be a pop-rock mystery. No, it’s the fact that TISM, despite years of extraordinary popularity and a number of brilliant albums, have never been given anything but – at best – grudging respect and – at worst – outright loathing.
It’s not difficult to see why the ‘rock elite’ slags off TISM as nothing more than a joke with no punchline. This is a band that has delivered song titles like A Tale Of Two Faeces and I Might Be A Cunt, But I’m Not A Fucking Cunt. The aesthetic concept of TISM also lends itself to criticism; the anonymity lends itself to conjecture about who they are, and why they ‘hide’ from the punters. Their pseudonyms hint at the humour of somebody with an Arts degree and too much time on their hands (Eugene De La Hot Croix Bun, for example, links a French Romantic painter with tasty Easter treats). But it’s not TISM’s aesthetic that should dictate their value. In this case, at least, the message is not the medium.
But to belittle TISM’s contribution to Australian music on the basis of oft-questionable song titles is to miss the point entirely. To use an obvious metaphor, isn’t there more behind the collective balaclava of This Is Serious Mum than poo-jokes and swearing? Upon examination we find that, yes, there is a lot to be said for TISM.
TISM are so important because they capture us. They are suburbia writ large. They extrapolate the oft-insidious suburban malaise that affects so much of Australia and express it concisely through music. Their songs speak of the tyranny of distance, Jungian archetypes and the formation of social mores. They examine the value of societal constructs – yobs, wankers, mods, nerds, dickheads.
Let’s, for example, look at a song like Greg! The Stop Sign!! Ostensibly an excuse to use harmonies in a song with a silly chorus, Greg! actually speaks volumes about the suburban Australian experience. ‘What’s the use of striving’, Ron Hitler-Barassi asks, ‘as life’s road in front unravels? We get to the driving don’t choose the direction we travel.’ Hitler-Barassi looks at the very core of what it means to challenge norms. Are we fated to repeat history? What control do we wield over our own lives?
The guy who slagged the football team –
Those yobs were not for him –
Turns into a real estate agent
Who believes in discipline;
That guy who’s the first to use cocaine,
The wild boy breaking free,
Ends up in a court of law
As a prosecuting Q.C.
Here, Hitler-Barassi is examining the Jungian ideas of the persona – the ‘mask’ we show to reconcile the self with the expectations of the society around us – and the shadow – our savage side, best hidden. Why would a seemingly free-thinking protagonist who decried the intellectual mediocrity of the yobs become a real estate agent? Why would a drug pig end up as a Queen’s Counsel? Hitler-Barassi asks us to examine the effects of our culture in a Brechtian mode – distancing himself from the effects of the society and yet asking us to reflect upon them.
Humphrey B. Flaubert’s lyrical work on Whatareya’? asks similar questions; ‘What are ya’? / Yob or wanker?’ He presents such a simple oppositional binary and yet it is so relevant to how we define ourselves. We live in a society that encourages either/or classifications of the self.
TISM’s grasp of the existential, and the very nature of death itself is also to be commended. On 1988’s Hot Dogma – an album filled with moments of introspection and reflection on the nature of self, existence and mortality – TISM examine the value of life. Most prominent amongst the examinations of mortality and the cyclical nature of existence is Life Kills:
Your parents will die (if they’re not dead already);
Life is just death, made retrospective.
You’re trapped all your life, from the very first moment,
By your mother and father, who must’ve been mad
When they decided to add to their own entombment
By having a child, like their own Mum and Dad’s
Mum and Dad’s Mum and Dad’s Mum and Dad’s Mum and Dad.
Ron Hitler-Barassi adopts an nihilist view of existence – that is, he emphasises the meaningless of it all. His repetition of ‘mum and dad’ comes across as an intense reflection of the cyclical nature of our lives, and indeed the existence of all that is around us. Inevitably, of course, life will kill us all. Hitler-Barassi’s view seems to have ties with the philosophical theorist Edmund Gurney who wrote:
‘When we forget pain, or underestimate it, or talk about people ‘getting used to it’, we are really so far losing sight of what the universe, which we wish to conceive adequately, really is.’
TISM then, do have something to say. Their albums are not novelties. They are not examples of juvenile humour. They are not, in fact, a joke band. They are band that has existed for over 20 years and over that time, asked – and answered – a number of important questions about who we are as Australians and indeed humans.
Is their latest offering, the White Albun, an accurate reflection of who TISM are and what they represent? Yep! Opening track Everyone Else Has Had More Sex Than Me presents a view many would undoubtedly share. It’s an exploration of the construction of masculinity. It’s mid-life crisis set to reverbed riffs and plaintive guitar work. This is TISM tenderly invoking the male zeitgeist.
Bone Idol is the Beatles’ I’m Only Sleeping without the self-satisified justification of mindless apathy. Humphrey B. Flaubert, accompanied by a summery, triumphantly lazy soundtrack, expresses apathy gloriously: ‘I plan to be spontaneous next time we meet.’ He examines the validity of effort as, after all, ‘too many guitar lessons leads to jazz fusion.’
DJ Trevor simultaneously celebrates and chastises displays of suburban hope. ‘DJ Trevor goes wucka wucka,’ as those around him live with social neglect and decline. The music is smooth bluesy rock ‘n’ roll with a sweet Chuck Berry-esque solo from Tokin’ Blackman.
I Rooted A Girl Who Rooted A Guy Who Rooted A Girl Who Rooted A Guy Who Rooted A Girl Who Rooted Shane Crawford is a celebration of the apparent delights of vicarious celebrity life. Flaubert tentatively expresses his excitement at this link to suburban royalty in the form of a footy player: ‘Me and Hawthorn’s captain are connected…sort of.’
The Birth Of Uncool is an acid-jazz inflected number akin to Paul Kelly’s Roll On Summer EP. This track sees the return of the much-loved and retardedly awesome TISM saxophone, missing since 1991’s Gentlemen, Start Your Egos. Thankfully, the saxophone isn’t restricted to this track along – it’s baritone ways are stamped all over Sorted For D ‘n M.
The Song Of The Quarter-Time Siren (Car Battery) – performed nearly acapella – beautifully links love with being told you’ve left your lights on whilst at the footy. TISM’s vocalists have never sounded better here – not even on the Beach Boys-inflected harmonies of Greg! The Stop Sign!!
The album closes with the rather thematically self-explanatory TISM Are Shit, which mixes elements of the baroque in its string arrangements with elements of the Aussie footy crowd in its yelled verses. TISM aren’t strangers to self-deprecation – Hot Dogma’s We Are The Champignons and It’s Novel. It’s Unique. It’s Shithouse are both excellent examples – and they’ve done it well here.
Musically, the album is closer to tone to Att: Shock Records (a 2nd disc distributed with 1997’s www.tism.wanker.com) than the balls-out rock of Hot Dogma or Great Truckin’ Songs Of The Renaissance. Thematically, the White Albun has links with 2001’s De Rigeurmortis in its examination of celebrity culture and wanker.com in its expose of the signifiers of Australiana.
I can’t recommend the White Albun highly enough – as an introduction to one of the most terribly under-appreciated bands in Australian history, it’s brilliant. And as a latest album from the boys, it’s bloody good as well.
The White Albun is packaged along with two DVDs (including never-before-seen concert footage, a TISM documentary, and all the TISM film clips).