Time Is Golden

Big Smoke

Barely Dressed Records, 2016


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


There will only ever be one album by Big Smoke, and that’s a shame.

After a decade on the Melbourne, Australia music scene and six years as lead singer and songwriter for his “dream band,” in 2015 Big Smoke frontman Adrian Slattery was diagnosed with terminal esophageal cancer. Time Is Golden, Big Smoke’s debut, was recorded between November 2015 and March 2016, even as Slattery battled through months of chemotherapy and eventually also brain surgery. He died in May 2016, less than a year after being diagnosed.

As much as that sad reality hangs over this album, the music itself is anything but funereal. Rather, it’s a stirring song-cycle about the duality of existence, both celebration and nightmare, exploring joy and sorrow, love and loss, life and death. These tunes—all written and sung by Slattery—aren’t an easy listen, but they’re also stunningly well-crafted, both tender and fierce, infused with a furious commitment to being fully present in every moment of your life that remains, to grasping the reality that the most valuable asset you can ever possess is time.

Big Smoke’s musical influences are apparent from the opening stanzas of “Something Good”; this a 2016 take on The Band’s earthy Americana sound, churning ensemble grooves with jangly little flashes of late Beatles and Gram Parsons and Tom Petty here and there. The band—Luke Brennan (drums, vocals, guitar, harmonica), Alex O’Gorman (bass, vocals), Tim Baker (guitar, vocals) and Joe Cope (keyboards), with Slattery adding guitar and harmonica—plays with a loose confidence that ensures every song achieves its full potential.

And then there are the lyrics. Song by song, Slattery catalogs the emotions he experiences on his journey, never flinching or glossing over either the highs or the lows. From the hooky, almost jaunty optimism of “Something Good” (“Had enough of the bad luck / Hit us harder than I thought it could / But we can’t stop now, we’re gonna find out how / We can turn it into something good.”) he veers into the grand, compelling ballad “Best Of You,” pleading to receive “nothing but the best” of his lover as he rages against the dying of the light, crying “I won’t give up / I won’t sleep ‘til I’m dead.” The cathartic finish of “Best Of You” bleeds right into its mostly instrumental coda, the dreamy, haunting “Time Is Golden,” three minutes of rippling Hammond organ and gorgeous, silvery guitar that eventually circles back around to reprise a triplet from “Best Of You.”my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

From that powerhouse opening, the album explores new angles and takes on similar themes. “Wrong” feels like late-’80s Springsteen, lush synths over a spare, echoey backbeat as Slattery sings “All the plans that we were making / Now I don’t see the point.” “When You Dance” opens with Harrisonesque weepy licks before evolving into what can only be described as a progressive love song. With time signatures shifting between verse and chorus from the start, at 3:45 it threatens to fade out but instead crashes headlong into an epic, wailing, rather Brain May-like guitar solo that eventually falls back in exhaustion, making way for guest Phil Now’s sax to come in over a gentle, aching little piano and guitar duet that feels like a wordless funeral march, carrying you to the close of this eight-minute mini-epic.

“Woman” finds Slattery baring his soul once again, mixing more anger at his fate with a desperate plea not to be left alone. (“I ain’t goin’ down in the second round / I’m puttin’ up a fight… Now the wheels are comin’ off / And I’ve probably said it all / And you might be better off / With some other guy… But I need a good woman here to ease my mind.”)  All the more remarkable, this jumble of explosive emotions is set to a playful r&b arrangement, complete with burbling clavinet, surging Hammond, and a stinging guitar solo. “And it can’t be said enough / All I’m thinkin’ of / Is love.”

“Kiss Me Once” places similar sentiments in an entirely different musical setting, a slow, deliberate, plaintive lament whose key line—“So could I please kiss you once before I’m gone”—simply rips your heart out. Another sharp musical turn and “Lean On The Fire” surrounds you with echoey guitar and haunted-house organ; Slattery sings “I feel the fear drawing near” as the song builds to a feedback-laden, cataclysmic climax.

“Lay Thy Hand” calms things down with a gentle acoustic contemplation, again asking a lover for comfort and companionship: “Come and save my soul like I know you can / Where you lay your hand.” The title of closer “Honey, I” alone says a lot—it’s an interrupted thought from an interrupted life. Over a tight, echoey arrangement, Slattery’s vocal is all jittery urgency, the tempo frantic as he sings “’Cause I have no revelation / Just a feeling I can’t describe / I need to speak with you tonight / Honey, I.”

Many great albums and many great songs revolve around the experience and emotions of loss and grief, whether in the form of a breakup or death or something else. Only a handful do it as artfully and movingly as Time Is Golden. Whatever Adrian Slattery’s bandmates in Big Smoke go on to do in the future, they should carry with them the knowledge that they did their brother proud. This album is the sound of five talented souls playing their hearts out and leaving nothing on the field, knowing all the while that only four of them would walk away.

Rating: A

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


© 2016 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Barely Dressed Records, and is used for informational purposes only.