Review Summary: Australia's best-kept secret lays down some poptastic truth.
Bertie Blackman just can’t make up her damn mind. After trying her hand at both the earnest indie rocker and rootsy storyteller across two albums, Blackman has made the transition into her own custom hybrid of pop, rock and electronica. Exactly where this blunt, practically 180-degree turn has originated from is a mystery. Perhaps the more confusing thing at hand, however, is just how brilliantly Blackman has pulled off this experiment in her sound – not only is Secrets and Lies
her finest work to date, it’s also quite possibly the strongest release from the land of Australia in 2009. Not convinced? Just try this baby on for size. We are dealing with a record here that is fearless, innovative and thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish – not something you see everyday, wherever you’re from.
Blackman’s powerful, soulful vocal delivery, often in accompaniment with her quaint, competent guitar work remains at the centre of her sound. Her voice is the perfect mix of sweet and sour; a harmonic, slightly syrupy croon that has the power to sooth as much as it does to invigorate. On arguably the album’s finest moment, “Thump”, this double-sided vocal styling takes the helm – the verses are low-key, seductive whispers; the chorus a stinging howl of “Come on! Come on!”. Add in a few pitch-perfect harmonies and you’ve got yourself one hell of a talent.
The milieu of these two main elements is what makes the record such a shock to the system – basically, it could not be much more different than her previous work. Secrets and Lies
is, at any given time, brimming with swaggering rhythms (“Heart”), sharply-arranged orchestration (“White Owl”) and faultless layers of breathy, tight harmonies (“Byrds of Prey”) to create a sound that’s at first shockingly, then refreshingly, original. Blackman also sees her embrace of electronic elements such as the synthesizer and drum machine (which is frequently mixed with live drums) as somewhat of a musical playground, rather than a gratuitous artistic burden in order to appear as if progression is happening. The shivering bass-synth buzz that whirrs away underneath alluring album highlight “Black Cats” is a strong example from early on, with single “Byrds of Prey” continuing the trend. Armed with one of the best choruses on the record, the track boasts soaring arpeggio movements and flourishing keyboard arrangements with a poppy accessibility that, while strong, never comes across as forced.
She certainly cannot be accused of abandoning her past, either. The vivid, imaginative lyrics aside (see the atmospheric “Clocks”, or heavily-passionate closer “Valentine”), tracks such as the warm and heartfelt “Shout Out” and the slow-burning, gorgeous “Town of Sorrow” are living proof that Blackman is able to create substantial, guitar-focused and no-frills music; even in the face of her freewheeling experimentation.
So sound the alarm – a lot of us might not know it yet, but Bertie Blackman has stepped up as the most forward-thinking woman in Australian pop music. With Secrets and Lies
, we have captured a portrait of an eclectic, intelligent performer that has established something here that we may well be making parallels to whenever some other poor girl tries her hand in the future. Perhaps one of the best things about the album is that Blackman, either as a musician or as a songwriter, never sounds as if she is trying to do anything to please anyone else aside from herself. She doesn’t plan to have her sound pinned down to specifics anytime soon – and as a result of this, Secrets and Lies