Album Review: Bob Evans, Familiar Stranger

Bob Evans’ latest album Familiar Stranger is just that. There are those humming and woody vocals that we loved in his 2006 release Suburban Songbook, but there’s just a bit more to it this time around. There’s more wisdom, and I sense he’s letting go of past worries, but not before taking a trip down memory lane. I think that’s why this album has a nostalgic feel to it.

So, I put the disk in and press play, and one by one the piano keys faint only semitones apart. Minor to major and back to minor again. A wave of layered harmonies, wet with lashings of reverb, hits me. One Bob, two Bob, three Bob, four. Acoustic guitar trickles in like rain, warm and gentle. The wa-wa effect of an electric guitar popping in and out of the background shows me a rainbow. Footscray Park is the first track of the album, and I know I’m about to be taken on a journey towards contentment.

“What do you do with the mess in your mind? You pack up all the pain and pretend that you’re fine, when you’re broken up inside.”

Kevin Mitchell, the man behind Bob Evans, is still a wordsmith. The track is littered with sneaky bells rattling on the off-beat behind Mitchell’s whirling, cooing voice. The main melody is easy to follow. It is simple in a naked way, but it is not at all bare. It dances so beautifully with the chord progression, moving forward steadily, carrying the weight of time spent reminiscing. I grew up in Melbourne, so I know Footscray Park. But even if I didn’t, I’d still get it. Every person has their own ‘Footscray Park’. It’s a one-stop shop for internal pondering.

When Maps starts, it is just another blanket of ambient noises until the drums kick in. When they do, it is all about the snare and identical loops. It’s about repetition and monotony. And then just as the hats are getting a bit worn out, a deep and intricate bass melody snakes up and coils around the wide-brim. The next few songs slow down the pace. The rainbow fades to a bruise in Bruises.

“Bruises- they appear as if from nowhere…”

Sitting in the Waiting Room is all about the guitar and compressed vocals. Thick with harmony, they tell a story about not knowing. Ah yes, those four-to-the-floor drums are back. An electric guitar strikes a few chords in the distance, and then releases into a relaxed solo, before Get it together brings back the funk with a good old hand-clap. Mitchell lifts the mood with a catchy hook, and already it feels like a classic. I’ll never forget the tune of the one line, “get it together”. IT makes me want to dance. I think Bob just changed into his party shoes. Someone just put vodka in my orange juice.

To Let You Down… there are those familiar and soothing “oohs” again. It is trudging along in half-time. Swaying side to side, like misfit lovers embracing in a dance to the last song at a wedding. It is a magical night, but they don’t know it. In years to come, the old married couple will day dream about this exact night in sepia tones. The pretty and delicate female harmony pays another visit, adding a soft pink colour to the palette of warm tones. The drums are rock-solid and sit just where they need to be- low in the mix. The spotlight is on Mitchell’s natural storytelling voice. His earthy tone soothes like honey, and melts into every pocket of the instrumentation, bringing the whole band together into a perfect unanimity.

“Love, when it’s in your veins, it infects your brain.”

Nearing the end of the album, Mitchell sings a poignant folk ballad. What Else is There? begins with just the one voice, raw and alone against the piano. He is eerily composed as he asks the question: what else is there? I guess I’d like to know that too- we all would. But I’d also like to know whether I’m hearing lasers or birds chirp in the background. Bit of both, maybe.

“All we know is nothing anyway.”

And then, saving the absolute best for last, the album finishes with Wonderful You. He sings about the need for love- that there will always be hard times within it. It’s nice to know that the girl he sings about is going to be there for him forever. Mitchell knows it. And an uplifting string section helps me to believe it, too. All in all Familiar Stranger is a beautiful display of thoughtful, infectious Australian music.

“I’ll be here for you come hell or high water, you’re my wonderful, wonderful, wonderful you.”

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