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Tim Rogers & The Twin Set - What Rhymes With Cars and Girls

Welcome to the Overlooked Hotel, where guests are invited to disagree with the conventional wisdom and re-evaluate the underappreciated.

Few career moves make eyes roll quite like the rock band frontman gone solo. So far as musical prejudices go this isn’t the most persuasive – one struggles to list more than a handful of disastrous cases – but when a lead songwriter announces a debut album, they might justifiably wonder if it’ll enjoy half the fan enthusiasm a release from their main band would.

Whether or not Tim Rogers had any such thoughts, it does seem he felt mildly embarrassed by the prospect of no name other than his appearing on the cover sleeve (christening his new friends The Twin Set may have been an attempt to offset this concern). “I was there back row at an empty show / you’ve dumped your band and gone solo”, he smirks, pointing the finger at himself before anyone else gets the chance. He needn’t have worried, because the anticipated backlash never arrived.

It would be disingenuous to frame What Rhymes with Cars and Girls as a forgotten artefact; Rogers won an ARIA for Best Male Artist in 1999, and the recent musical of the same name written by Aidan Fennessy is a testament to the record’s healthy cult status. But this hasn’t resulted in critical recognition, as you can gather by its absence from most every Top 50 / 100 / 5000 Greatest Australian Albums list. More than an intriguing footnote, Cars and Girls deserves to be viewed on level terms with You Am I’s best work.

Buried at the back of Hourly Daily is an example of that most 90s of album tropes: the hidden track. This was usually a sloppy, pallid jam intended to pad out a record’s length (why not take advantage of the space on a compact disc, said the received wisdom of the time). You Am I made a welcome exception with “Forget It Sister”, a jaunty gem which in equal measure romanticises and ridicules the fantasy of abandoning the big smoke for a quieter life. It’s not traditional country – the minor ninths and diminished sevenths are well outside the standard chord range – but it points toward the path that Cars and Girls would follow.

Exhausted from a five year cycle of recording and touring, You Am I took a break over the Australian winter of 1998. Rogers was reeling from the end of a long-term relationship, and eager to write his way out of a funk. He moved from Sydney to Melbourne (ain’t that the way) for a fresh start. Not knowing many people there, he accepted an offer from Jen Anderson of Weddings Parties Anything to record at her Fitzroy studio. Anderson produced the album, was responsible for musician recruitment, and contributed numerous performances herself. There were already some songs kicking around; “Under the Flight Path” and “Arse Kickin’ Lady from the Northwest” are #4 Record outtakes which first appeared on the “Rumble” single, though most were written within a short space of time. Phrases pop up in one place then another; “interstate truck”, toe-scratching cats, “art house movies”; while six of eleven songs are in the key of D major (or would be, if not for the good old guitar capo). Deadlines had hindered You Am I before – by Rogers’ own admission, several songs on Hi Fi Way are undercooked – but on this occasion, the rare signs of hurried work are charming rather than debilitating.

The album begins with typical sounds of bar atmosphere – patrons chatting, beer taps running, ice cubes clinking. Competing for attention with this small-talk orchestra is a violin and guitar duet, co-written by Anderson. Anyone who’s played an acoustic instrument at a pub gig will find humour in “Bushell and a Peck”, a wordless commentary on rock-centric Australia’s low opinion of low volume settings. “You’ve Been So Good to Me So Far” is filled with details that encourage repeat listening. The last two words of the title betray a layer of wounded scepticism, and their notes are dragged out to emphasise them. Consider the brighter microphone used in verse two which mirrors its increasingly poignant lyrics, or how an accordion destabilises the coda with an ominous minor chord over the word “so”. Rogers’ wit is a feature of the song, particularly when punning on clean-cut, late 70s TV dramedy Eight Is Enough to link the show’s name with excessive drinking.

While Rogers widened his songwriting range on Cars and Girls, it was also a breakthrough for his singing. No one doubted his ability to growl and shout, but the thin voice was now gaining qualities hinted at in “Heavy Heart”. Whether the trigger was subdued dynamics, personal subject matter (as opposed to the character sketches of Hourly Daily), or simply studio experience, something drew a new expressive depth out of Rogers during these sessions. “Happy Anniversary” was his best vocal performance to date; handling difficult leaps with grace and pathos. As drums and bass were tracked after guitar and vocals, Rogers was free to experiment with vocal rhythms which may have been disruptive for a band recording live and learning songs on the fly. This song is a great example, with the phrase “I don’t dare suck my fingers” wrapped between the beats to highlight the oddness of those words.

Each of the guest musicians have moments to savour, but special credit must go to the late Stuart Speed, whose double bass playing colours every song which required the instrument. On “Happy Anniversary” he plays a delightful bent note at regular intervals, and an inventive fill to build anticipation for the final chorus. The aforementioned “Arse Kickin’ Lady from the Northwest” shows another dash of Speed’s ingenuity. As Rogers sings “that’s the reason I’m still standing here” three times in a row while changing his guitar chord, Speed keeps his bassline the same to illustrate how stuck the song’s protagonist has become. For a visual demonstration of his skill, watch the trio version of The Twin Set performing “Last Nite I Left My Heart All Over the Place” on Hey Hey It’s Saturday (a bizarre moment in Australian television which I probably witnessed as a child):

By the time “The Songs They Played as I Drove Away” closes proceedings (long titles are a recurring theme), we’ve been taken through just about every stage of a break-up’s development. Although half the songs with lyrics avoid this event altogether, the other five keep coming back to the same topic. Calling to mind Paul Kelly’s “Love Never Runs on Time”, this one is a tale of hitting the road to leave a lover behind. “It’s only a hundred miles to my temporary”, Rogers sings, finally able to see a way out from the tunnel. We’re never told what rhymes with cars and girls, but our heartbroken narrator is going to be alright. That the album has given such reassurance to many is a sign of its power. Hopefully this will soon translate to the broader appreciation it deserves.

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