Everett True

Song of the day – 167: Smudge

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Effortless brilliance. The song is called ‘Superhero’, the city is Sydney and the era is early 90s, slacker generation.

Here’s what I had to say about the recent Smudge compilation for Mess And Noise. I’ve since been advised that Smudge have never broken up, have gigged sporadically for several years and might well be recording a new album next year.

This Smudge Is True (Half A Cow)
For years, I believed that Sydney had to be a cooler city to live in than Melbourne. It had to be, they had Smudge and Half A Cow Records.

It wasn’t that the music was necessarily groundbreaking or twisted the way that some of the Melbourne bands could be. It was more that Smudge, and in particular main songwriter Tom Morgan, gave such a good sense of what it was like to be young and in love with music and all its attendant paraphernalia. You absolutely wanted to be in their gang, inside the poster-infested bedroom that adorns the front cover of this shockingly comprehensive collection. I knew that I wanted to know drummer Alison Galloway long before I actually knew who she was (via The Lemonheads’ song ‘Alison’s Starting To Happen’). I knew that these were cool dudes to hang with just from a glance at the title of their debut single (the slightly prescient ‘Don’t Want To Be Grant McLennan’). I knew that Smudge were having a great time wielding guitars, writing about milk bars, surfing and life among the streets of Surry Hills. That much was apparent. It was part of the great trick of what Americans called the slacker generation: they made doing nothing (“hanging out”) seem like so much fun.

And this much all took place in my head around 1991-2 when the band formed, because ‘Grant McLennan’ made an immediate impact over in the UK.

There’s a slightly ridiculous quote from me within the liner notes here, rubbishing the Lemonheads comparisons Smudge used to get. It’s nonsense, of course, to deny that Smudge and Boston’s Most Nearly had commonality – a mutual love of The Descendants, The Replacements and power-pop, the shared songwriting team of Morgan and Evan Dando that fed into songs by both bands, the fact that the two bands often hung out together, the fact that Half A Cow label owner Nic Dalton was a member of The Lemonheads for several years – but it’s equally crass to claim that the two bands were sonically interchangeable.

Smudge had a very dense, clammy sound: everything is compressed in together on even breezier outings like ‘Down About It’ or the fuzz-laden ‘Lighten Up Hank’. Sure, the Lemonheads could feel cluttered, showing roots of their hardcore (punk) origins on stage, but their music was always pop-light on record. I don’t believe I ever saw Smudge live – I just know Nic’s going to contradict me here – but I always imagined them to be even more chaotic and warm and shambolic than their vaguely psychedelic vinyl sound, certainly in their early years. Standout single from 1994’s debut album Manilow, ‘Impractical Joke’, rumbled and tickled your bass speakers the way that Minneapolis bands could tickle and rumble your bass speakers.

Of course, what’s undeniable is that at least two of The Lemonheads’ finer albums – 1991’s It’s A Shame About Ray and 1994’s Come On Feel The Lemonheads – had not only Dalton’s presence, but Morgan’s fingerprints all over them. It’d be much fairer to compare The Lemonheads to Smudge rather than the other way round, though – and I speak as a fan. One of those shared songs, ‘The Outdoor Type’, Morgan refused to allow a domestic release, fearing that its latent commerciality would lead to success thus leading to further touring thus meaning that he’d be spending less time at home. It wasn’t until The Lemonheads released the song in 1996 that the earlier Smudge version – from 1994 – was heard. The acoustic version that graces this compilation pales slightly in comparison.

Smudge’s most recent album Real McCoy, Wrong Sinatra was released in 1998 when Galloway left Australia to go traipsing round the world. Its title track is the final song here, a delightful reminder of Morgan’s under-heralded knack of writing a perfect pop song lasting just 82 seconds. (Why add more?) From the same album, there’s Galloway’s vocal on ‘Breadcrumb Trail’, reminding us of how Smudge added the polish without losing any of the poise.

In 2008, Smudge reformed for a handful of live shows, which leaves the tantalising prospect of another studio album dangling. Would they make a decent hash of it? One can’t imagine they could do anything but.

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