Review Summary: A near-perfect debut from a trio which consciously sets itself apart from almost everything else in the contemporary music scene.
To play an album once and to fall in love is a rare thing. To play it twice and feel it resonate to the very core of your soul is something, almost without exception, which is reserved for the great masters of music. And yet this is precisely the experience I had the night after I purchased Battling the Mountains, the Sky and the Sea at a tiny Melbourne club called Bennetts Lane, where I discovered Me and the Grownups.
It is almost entirely irrelevant that Me and the Grownups are an unsigned, virtually unknown group whose debut is entirely self-funded and produced, and lacks any industry support or backing whatsoever. The simple fact is that Battling the Mountains... is a masterwork, a record of such penetrating emotion and beauty that its very existence is improbable, never mind that it will, for now at least, only be heard by a few hundred people Australia-wide.
At its heart Battling the Mountains... is a product of youth, lyrically and musically. Vocalist Anita Lester's lyrics juxtapose a worldview nostalgic for the petty and innocent struggles of adolescence with an ever-present awareness of 'growing up', as she finds herself in inevitable confrontation with the brutal and tragic realities of the world. There is transcendent beauty in her swirling non-sequitor imagery, which beguiles with a meaning just out of reach, but also permanently so. But there is little she seems optimistic about ("What causes aging? It is the stress of your life / You go to work, you go through sickness and then you die"), and the heartbreaking honesty of her delivery is as magnificent to behold as it is crushing.
The compositions which encase her poetic insight are, too, youthful endeavours, shimmering with confidence and competence in both construction and interpretation and yet displaying - on odd occasions detrimentally - the youthful impatience of two musicians with so much to say. Despite two appearances as backing vocalists, guitarist Adrian Sergovich and violinist Jonathan Dreyfus communicate primarily through their instruments - they pout, mock, tantrum and, very often, weep through the tirelessly expressive delivery they afford their immensely complicated and yet always sensitively appropriate arrangements. It is remarkable that an album, 65 minutes in length and containing two 8-minute tracks and a 16-minute medley, never feels overlong.
If the album has a weakness, it is its defiance of classification: it is, by amazingly equal turns, classically and folk tinged, yet clear-cut attachment to either of these genres is confounded by a profusion of intensely sophisticated improvisation. And yet this translates too into one of the album's greatest strength, perhaps unbeknownst to the musicians, because although many record labels and consumers will initially shy away from something so unknown and unknowable, in end it is the innovators and the non-conformists who surface to conquer and surpass the mediocrity of their contemporaries, and such a destiny is, I feel, almost inevitably what awaits Me and the Grownups.