The Goon Sax are cool kids. Well, OK, they’re not kids anymore, and hip might be a better word than cool. The Brisbane trio have been coming off as impossibly cultured, shy-but-savvy art-school types since they were teenagers making jangly indie-pop spiked with the post-punk nerve of Swell Maps and Television Personalities. Half a decade later, as they release their ambitious and rewarding third album, the impression endures. This is not a judgment on these strangers’ actual personalities, about which I have little to no knowledge. It’s just the vibe their records have always given me. They’re like Times New Viking with the distortion turned down or the xx with the distortion turned up — a little bit Flying Nun, a little bit 4AD. Even when they get earnest, which they often do, their music feels like the work of intimidating people with impeccable record collections.
To be clear, this is a compliment. Mirror II, the Goon Sax’s aforementioned new album, is exceptional. They recorded it at Geoff Barrow’s Invada Studios in Bristol with producer John Parish (PJ Harvey, Aldous Harding, Dry Cleaning), who helped to cultivate the most appealing and eclectic version of this band yet. The defining elements are still there — the twee sprechgesang, the anxiously driving rhythms, the direct callbacks to Australia and New Zealand’s alternative guitar-pop lineage — but they manifest in ever more colorful forms, incorporating an increasingly vibrant variety of sounds. The Goon Sax are torchbearers in a lineage of archetypal indie bands, groups with catholic tastes and an unmistakably distinctive personal affect. It’s no wonder American mega-indie Matador Records felt the need to snap them up.
The three members of the Goon Sax each write songs, and they all sing lead at times. That intersection of perspectives is key to the band’s charm. Guitarist Louis Forster — son of Robert Forster from Brisbane indie legends the Go-Betweens and this band’s closest thing to a frontperson — delivers magnificent hooks in a blunt, almost monotone sing-song. In a recent interview he name-dropped 20th century underground icons like Royal Trux, the Stooges, Cocteau Twins, and the Jesus And Mary Chain, all of which makes sense for a band whose output resembles the most accessible corners of pre-Y2K indie. Riley Jones brings a detached, dreamy quality to equally compelling melodies; word is she’s big into Japanese noise-pop. James Harrison is the more high-pitched livewire male vocalist of the group; in that same interview, he swears allegiance to outsider folkies like Jandek and Syd Barrett.
On Mirror II, all of those influences and more overlap into intriguing combinations, resulting in something like a phenomenal college radio broadcast from the early ’90s. They’ve expanded on the low-key sonic experimentation of 2018’s We’re Not Talking, lending a kitchen-sink quality to the arrangements. Mirror II comprises 10 pop songs based around guitar and keyboard, but you never know what noises are going to appear in the background. Percussion alone encompasses handclaps, bells, shakers, wood blocks, retro programmed beats that could be keyboard presets, and live drumkit work so subtle you never notice it driving the song. The array of synths, organs, and pianos in the mix is remarkable — ditto all the guitar sounds they’ve dredged up, be it the wall of shimmering jangle that lends “The Chance” its explosiveness or the slicing lead guitar that gives “Bathwater” its twitchy edge. Whereas every song by a rowdy garage band or an icy synth-pop act might sound like it’s wearing the same musical outfit, this group shifts its musical wardrobe from song to song without ever letting you forget who’s wearing it.
The Goon Sax are known for their vulnerable, relatable lyrics, and there’s plenty of that on Mirror II. On lead single “In The Stone,” Forster and Jones lament in unison, “Didn’t have to sound so disappointed when I called/ If you had ever saved my number in your phone.” On the subsequent “Psychic,” Forster begins with some further interpersonal drama: “When you said that we were psychic/ Like I’d find comfort in that/ You said, ‘I knew what you were thinking’/ I half-believed you, but didn’t react.” He’s great at spinning recognizable scenes with lived-in details, yet he could just as easily be singing complete gibberish given how humongous and contagiously catchy these tracks sound. Forster’s songs in particular build to gargantuan choruses more often than not — and given that his songs are the most prominent in number and sequence, Mirror II is remarkably catchy and immersive out of the gate.
Jones, whose voice has become an increasingly important aspect of the Goon Sax since she began singing on the band’s prior album, errs on the dreamy side in her own compositions. “Tag” pulls bits and pieces from surf-rock, ’60s girl-group pop, new wave, and more in service of a surreal keyboard-streaked vision. The droning “Desire” runs the gamut from The Velvet Underground & Nico to Alvvays, semi-quoting the Stone Roses’ “I Wanna Be Adored” along the way. Her casually gorgeous vocals intermingle with Forster’s deeper, quirkier voice in splendorous ways, tapping into a dynamic that has worked wonders for so many indie-pop bands over the decades. They are some of the most fascinating and rewarding duet partners in music today.
Harrison is more of an outlier, spinning wild, anxious melodies that don’t adhere as neatly to verse-chorus-verse format or cater as directly to a pop sensibility. His quivering vocals have an even more nervous, amateurish quality than Forster’s — think Gordon Gano lost in psychedelic ’60s Britain — yet he wields them with staring-contest confidence whether singing literal odes to carpetry or using caterpillars as a metaphor for burgeoning love. It’s an acquired taste, but when a song like “Temples” reaches its climax and his bandmates join the ruckus, you start to see how Harrison fits into the Goon Sax’s big picture.
That power of camaraderie is the loose unifying principle behind Mirror II, after all. “The name was totally arbitrary to begin with,” Jones explains in the album bio, “but it became about reflecting on reflection: We all get so influenced by each other. You find other people who show you yourself, who you are.” That picture is starting to come into focus for the Goon Sax on this album, and they have to like what they see.
Mirror II is out 7/9 on Matador.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Vince Staples’ Vince Staples.
• Half Waif’s Mythopoetics.
• Charlotte Day Wilson’s Alpha.
• The Wallflowers’ Exit Wounds.
• Twin Shadow’s Twin Shadow.
• Koreless’ Agor.
• Gavin Turek’s MADAME GOLD.
• Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis’ Jam & Lewis Volume One
• Gnawing’s You Freak Me Out.
• Museum Of Love’s Life Of Mammals
• Pictureplane’s Dopamine.
• Molly Lewis’ The Forgotten Edge.
• Tkay Maidza’s Last Year Was Weird, Vol. 3 EP.
• Frances Forever’s paranoia party EP.
• Mayhem’s Atavistic Black Disorder / Kommando EP.
• Koyo’s Drives Out East EP.