I don’t understand plenty about Australia–Vegemite, the platypus’ existence as a non-mythical creature, etc.–but what I truly don’t get is how everyone in Melbourne could’ve kept Clairy Browne and the Bangin’ Rackettes all to themselves since Baby Caught The Bus came out the first time around in 2009, leaving those of us in the States without the potent swinging/snarling/gut-wrenchingly heartbroken/euphorically party-anthemic elixir they effortlessly pour down our thirsty throats.
Thankfully, change is afoot, as Baby Caught The Bus sees its official US debut on Vanguard Records today. This spring, Clairy and the other eight Bangin’ Rackettes “traveled the breadth of the country” as Browne puts it, embarking on a 30-day tour after a rabble-rousing slew of shows at South by Southwest. They hit the small club circuit, walloping unsuspecting patrons with lyrics wrought with calculating emotional warfare and an untouchable live show that walks a delicate tightrope between total fucking chaos and a vivacious, exquisitely choreographed production. One can argue that the neo-soul sounds of Clairy Browne and the Bangin’ Rackettes are at best familiar and worst unoriginal–Winehouse, Duffy and Adele have all revived the Motown sound and redefined soul music already, right?–but for Browne, brutal honesty onstage and off is what keeps her and the Bangin’ Rackettes from merely resuscitating the brassy confidence and bleeding-heart confessions of the glory days of soul.
“I’ve got to be believable,” she says, shortly after landing in Los Angeles for a string of West Coast dates. “We wanted to make music that reflected the music that we love, that was good music, and we wanted to tell some of our own contemporary stories about classic and timeless things. The influences are really broad and I think that’s the result of having nine personalities involved. There are tinges of hip-hop and industrial sounds in ‘Love Letter’ and surf-y parts in ‘Baby Caught The Bus.’ Overall, the record has a strong soul and R&B sound but it’s reimagined, because we’re young people making the music and it can’t help but feel new. It’s our sound, I think, but what’s exciting is we’re paying homage to artists before us we’ve enjoyed and have all been influenced by, but we’re doing it in our own fresh way. There’s a responsibility with that as well. We know music. We listen to a lot of it. We all have different influences that we’re excited by it and we share records.”
This process is not only completely collaborative but therapeutic for the group: as they’ve been playing together for years (a decade in some cases, depending on which Bangin’ Rackette you’re asking about), nothing is off-limits when it comes to appropriating one’s life experiences for the good of a song lyric. “The way we write is collectively, so Jules [“Crazy Legs” Pascoe, bass] might write a song, and he may have written it from an experience he’s had with a girlfriend or a friend, or he’d spoken to someone else in the band about it, and we work up the lyrics together. We start talking about this feeling, whatever it is, and what we’ve both seen from it. All of these things are relatable things–these common universal themes everyone’s familiar with, love, having your heart ripped out and it’s beating on the floor, you’re calling someone desperately and screaming ‘Take me back!’–all these themes are really common.”
And this is where the love and lust-lorn brutalities break from anything you’d ever hear from Martha Reeves and the Vandelles or The Supremes or even Amy Winehouse. Yes, Baby Caught The Bus has a few sunny, swinging hits you can bop along to (the title track; “Frankie;” “I’ll Be Fine”), but the songs with teeth–“Love Letter,” the record’s first single, “She Plays Up,” “You Don’t Owe Me Nothing”–are the ones that leave bite marks, the kind that bruise and take too long to heal. “I want to write what I want you to do to me in a letter” is hell of a statement to open the record with, and that’s just what Browne belts at the onset/ With “She Plays Up,” Browne takes to the microphone to eviscerate the other woman that’s doing her best to thwart a relationship that isn’t hers. “I don’t want to lose you/to a floozy who’ll use you” she wails as a sinister bass line and creeping percussion overwhelm her, striking a chord that feels completely present in its brashness and no-bullshit mentality. The horns, handclaps and girl group vocals may be common soul staples, but this angst and the fearless desire to cast it out are entirely theirs–and it’s one American audiences have been vocally fiending for since the Bangin’ Rackettes officially landed.
“Melbourne crowds were tough,” she says. “They’ve all got their arms crossed and they’re sort of judging you. I don’t want to say anything harsh, but it’s just that you have to work harder to impress them, so we cut our teeth on those crowds, and when we came to the States, and people were calling out ‘Yeah girl! PREACH IT, sister!’ and getting involved in what was going on … it gives you another platform to be able to perform, and it becomes an exchange and it’s participatory and the energy is wild and exciting.”
Again, Australia, I’m cool with koalas and Kylie Minogue and your accent and lots of other things about you, but the fact that you’ve held onto Clairy Browne and the Bangin’ Rackettes for so long and you didn’t share? We just may have a bit of an issue in letting you take her back.