MOD CON Review: Complicated sentiments and riotous outbursts

In a 2016 interview on ABC Radio, guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Erica Dunn mused on the “alt-country vibe” that people often assigned to Palm Springs, her solo project that had blossomed into a band. “There are some elements of that for sure,” she conceded. “But I’m trying to steer it in a different direction.”

Fast-forward 21 months, and Palm Springs sits on hold while Dunn follows that different direction in MOD CON, a new and separate band that sprang from Palm Springs’ eventual three-piece configuration. Their debut album, Modern Convenience, is a targeted strike of questioning, agitated punk—and one of the standout Australian releases so far in 2018. Not just the sound of a surprise overhaul, it’s an elemental reconfiguring on practically every level.

Up until 2016, Dunn had been pursuing Palm Springs mainly as a duo with drummer Raquel Solier—her roommate at the time—but the introduction of bassist Sara Retallick triggered such a significant metamorphosis that a new actual band (not just a pat change in band name) was called for. Each coming off a crowded CV of divergent projects, Dunn, Solier and Retallick started fleshing out the fairly sparse Palm Springs material—but soon coalesced into a gnashing punk unit with a completely different approach and set of reference points.

“It was a catalyst to start writing in a different way,” Dunn told Ellen Carey of the Adelaide band Fair Maiden on Pilerats last year. MOD CON had just debuted their new name and sound with the song ‘Do It Right Margo’, sharing a split 7” single with Fair Maiden. She continued: “When an album’s worth of stuff was written, it was very clear that the project had to be split into two. The split allows us to be more true to each writing style.”

You can hear the foreshadowing of MOD CON on Palm Springs’ 2016 EP Flowers in a Vase, and ‘Do It Right Margo’ actually isn’t so estranged from that. Dunn’s voice cracks more with frustration, and there’s a newfound post-punk drive, but the low-slung duskiness of Palm Springs hasn’t dissipated.

Instead, the song that drives home the need for a new band is MOD CON’s second single, ‘Neighbourhood’, a clawing, ringing reaction to colonialism, damning contemporary Australia for paving over its Indigenous past. Dunn rails against our apathy and ignorance alike (“No one knew, no one cared”) and bleakly grasps the exploitive history behind where she calls home: “Looking through tinted glass / Watching ghosts flyin’ past / Thought I saw a face I knew / Getting smaller in your rear view.” Those lyrics are hammered home by the song’s gritty video, showing modern Melbourne at its least flattering—late-night convenience stores and roadside kebab vans representing the victory of easy money over long-standing cultural significance or aesthetic value—as the three women attack their instruments with an intensity deserving of MOD CON’s all-caps urgency.

The Drones’ Gareth Liddiard, who recorded Modern Convenience at his home in regional Victoria, has described MOD CON as existing “between The Bangles and Black Flag.” That certainly fits a song like ‘Neighbourhood’, which is shadowy, prowling and ominous, while also brandishing a coiled guitar hook and other anxious pop smarts. Yet as aggressive and swaggering as the playing is, Dunn’s lyrics also detail an inability, at certain moments, to fully speak up: “I didn’t say what was my own my mind … When you asked, I couldn’t say.”

On the more subdued dirge ‘Wanna Dance’, Dunn voices a compelling list of either/or choices. “Is it a question? An answer? One in a million? Or just standard? Is it primitive or a construct? A holy grail or a mindfuck? Is it a dream or a real life? Is it another Anglo-Saxon lie? Is it chemical? Is it ephemeral?” Like other sets of questions posed throughout the album, these convey a pervasive anxiety about not just decision-making, but being true to oneself in an increasingly polarised, tribalised society. But there’s hope: the closing ‘Get In Front Of Me, Satan’ seems to reject binary pairs of choices altogether, as Dunn sings with audible vindication, “Goodbye Adam, goodbye Eve.”

This nagging dissatisfaction with fraught options shows up in nearly every MOD CON song: “You say one thing, but you mean five other things,” Dunn observes on ‘Mirror of Venus’. And on the jittering ‘Tell Me Twice’, its verses raked with ska-damaged guitar licks, she outright rejects the nerve-fraying world crowding in around her, citing the cyclical bombardment of “suicide, guns and bombs” on the radio and failed attempts to connect with her mother over the phone before announcing with grim conviction: “Don’t tell me twice / This is paradise.”

Capitalism falls squarely in the crosshairs on ‘Kidney Auction Blues’, even as Dunn poses more open questions in rapid-fire runs: “Do you doubt it? Brag about it? Make you feel like you’re nothing without it?” Similarly, the opening ‘Scorpio Moon’ sparks with a series of flinty one-word rhymes that escalate into a cathartic outburst. It’s a gripping start to a debut album, formally announcing the reborn trio via that powerhouse rhythm section—all burly, shouldering bass lines and rangy, restless drums—as well as mantra-like group vocals and the live-wire crackle of Dunn’s vocal range when she really lets loose.

Dunn’s singing has proven incredibly versatile, between the lonesome country pull of Palm Springs, the throat-tearing agitation of MOD CON and the full-bodied cathartic surges of Harmony’s three-part backing choir—not to mention her role as guitarist in The SMB and in the Drones offshoot Tropical Fuck Storm, who have just released their own debut album less than a month after MOD CON’s.

Of course, many people coming to MOD CON might have no idea about Dunn’s other acts, past or present. And with Modern Convenience being released by Poison City, it’s realistic to imagine plenty of Camp Cope fans around the world latching onto this record based on that shared record label rather than any prior familiarity with the band members. But for Australian audiences, it’s fascinating to watch not just Dunn recast herself in this band, but Retallick and Solier too.

A few years ago, Retallick was best known for leading the Melbourne ensemble Jimmy Tait, who bridged the gap between stately indie rock and pining country. But she has since stoked plenty of attention for her solo project Golden Syrup, which bends corroded electronics and brooding vocals to a multi-disciplinary aim that dovetails with her increasing work as a visual and performance artist.

As for Solier, she has long been a fixture in the Melbourne underground, thanks to her conceptual guises Fatti Frances and Various Asses and her time drumming for Sally Seltmann and Jens Lekman. In contrast to the gaseous, synth-laden R&B of Fatti Frances and the self-branded “body horror” beats and samples of Various Asses, MOD CON sees Solier sidestep electronic programming to embrace the head rush of live drums. Like Retallick’s uncommonly forceful bass playing, Solier’s nuanced, mood-swinging drumming proves just as vital to MOD CON’s unique sound as Dunn’s questioning lyrics and serrated guitar-and-vocal attack.

Like debut albums from Cable Ties and Wet Lips last year, Modern Convenience feels like a vivid snapshot of Melbourne at a time when underground musicians are matching their prodigious band-juggling with a passionate, often acid-laced sense of articulation. If Dunn’s lyrics offer more questions than answers, that only adds depth to these relatable rallying cries. Her songs here work just as well as nuanced morality tales to dissect and mull over as they do riotous outbursts to simply blast at full volume without closer inspection. They’re often immediate, shock-to-the-system anthems, yet textured with complicated sentiments.

Between the precedent of Palm Springs and the empowered roar of this album, MOD CON feels like the work of three musicians getting to know themselves better on every level. “I’m still just now starting to get to a comfortable place in my songwriting, [where it’s] starting to sound like what I want to hear,” Dunn told ABC listeners in mid-2016, well before MOD CON’s spontaneous, necessary conception. “It’s a funny journey.”

MOD CON – Modern Convenience
Released by Poison City Records in April 2018

Doug Wallen is a freelance arts journalist, editor and broadcaster.

Top photo: Kalindy Williams. 

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