Review Summary: This is what persistence looks like, a $hitload of passion with a dream that took time.
“Persistence”… “Passion”… “Dream”. These are three words featured in the first half of the chorus to the Bliss N Eso collaboration titled ‘Persistence’, on Phrase’s 2nd album ‘Clockwork’. And what fitting words they are, as they not only point to a main theme of the LP, but also describe the Australian rapper’s path in releasing it. You see, ‘Clockwork’ was for all intents and purposes completed in October of 2007. However, staff changes at his record label put the project on hold and if it wasn’t for the assistance of radio network Triple J, then it may never have seen the light of day. Thank goodness that it has, since it now places Phrase alongside the Hilltop Hoods at the pinnacle of Australian hip-hop.
If persistence is the primary theme of the album, then the secondary one revolves around the title itself. With little money, no job and few qualifications, Phrase – real name Harley Webster – soon became depressed and reality struck that he could be in a despised 9-5 job sooner rather than later. It is that theme of a monotonous life which dominates the fantastic and relatable lead single and title track, that bravely communicates its purpose through the use of a sample of the 1950s Ray Conniff version of Academy Award winning song ‘Windmills of your Mind’.
In fact, the quality of the beginning to ‘Clockwork’ is so high that the opening five tracks could all legitimately stake a claim to be released as singles. Pseudo-opener ‘Burn It Down’ is sure to be a live favorite with its sing-along factor, while ‘Spaceship’ sees Phrase have no trouble whatsoever with quickening the pace. The great thing here is that Phrase is just as adept whether the individual cut has an up-tempo and dancier vibe (such as on ‘Surrender’, ‘Paradise’ and ‘Skylight’ which features Spiderbait’s Kram), or a slower and emotional touch (such as ‘All Good’ and ‘Day You Went Away’ which riskily features Wendy Matthews replaying her chorus from the well-known 1992 hit).
Guest vocals are clearly an integral – but not dominating - component of ‘Clockwork’, whether they are little known artists such as Max White, Jade McRae & Axle Whitehead contributing backing vocals to choruses, or Kram, Matthews, Jackson Jackson, Illy & Bliss N Eso being heavily featured. However, the M.V.P of the bunch surely deserves to be expat Aussie Daniel Merriweather, who provides a sublimely soulful chorus to the moving and emotional ‘Chains’. All the right notes are hit on this personal memorial to a deceased friend, including a sweeping orchestral arrangement.
Another strength to ‘Clockwork’ is the way in which it adds variety by combining live instrumentation with beats and loops. Helping this matter is the fact that Phrase can play guitar and drums himself, but bass and strings are also apparent. Yet, even when the range of backing music is whittled down on a track like ‘Persistence’, the attention to detail sees it constantly shifting to keep listeners on their toes and highlight the excellent flow from the song’s three vocalists.
To state it plainly; ‘Clockwork’ hardly loses steam as it progresses, with barely a throwaway track amongst the 15 on offer. Those that could be considered close to such a classification will usually save themselves with a catchy and recitable chorus, even if some may find them a little cheesy. And while the lyrics may be far too literal for the most hardened of hip-hop heads, they are relatable, sufficiently clever and showcase very good storytelling. Phrase never attempts to mask his heart-on-sleeve approach and ‘Clockwork’ as a whole is all the better for his honesty.
Phrase and ‘Clockwork’ will not necessarily be for everyone. Those in the northern hemisphere may not be able to get past the Australian accent. Casual mainstream music fans may find it too much of a rap album, or feel the production is not up to the slickness of Timbaland and his cohorts. While gangstas will find Phrase’s modesty sickening. To everyone else who simply enjoys a variety of catchy and relatable music that tells an honest story; strike up a barbie, grab a beer and enjoy what may be the sleeper choice to be hip-hop album of the year!
Recommended Tracks: Chains, Clockwork, Spaceship & Persistence.