Almanac Music: Aussie album review – Jimmy Little “Messenger”

Album: Messenger

Artist: Jimmy Little

Released: 1999

So, my mate Keith and I were having a chin-wag about classic Australian albums. As you do. (You may not be surprised to learn that we do this often). In our circles, Keith is famous for the time when he purchased his first iPod and was so overcome with amazement and joy upon uploading a heap of his favourite albums, that he boarded the train at North Williamstown, alighted at Newport, and made this journey back-and-forth for a number of hours, listening in rapture to his new device [for non-Victorians: North Willy and Newport are one stop apart, and have less than two minutes separating them. – Ed]. During our chat, Keith made the admission that he believed Messenger was one of the great Australian discs.

Taken aback. And skeptical. An album of covers?

But I was curious, and I knew that I had Jimmy Little’s Messenger in my cd collection. I just hadn’t played it for ages. I sought it out. And was disappointed to discover that it was not there on my shelf. Not for the first time, one of my cds had been either borrowed or stolen. Ebay was an easy solution: $11 including delivery. And after re-visiting this masterpiece: a bargain.

It had been years since I heard it. But as soon as I pressed ‘play” he drew me back in. And I immediately remembered why I loved this album when it was first released. And why Keith reckons it is a classic. The sparseness of the arrangements, all designed to highlight the late Jimmy Little’s voice, is what grabs you initially. Then it is that voice. Those sweet, sweet, tender vocals. I was amazed all over again at the delicate tenderness of his annunciation. Just beautiful.

For those unfamiliar with the album Messenger, the premise is basic: Little re-interprets a selection of Australian songs, some well-known, others not so, in a mostly acoustic format. Producer/arranger/musician Brendan Gallagher was the brains driving the concept, finding in Jimmy Little the perfect singer to give voice to his ideas for re-working these tracks. This type of thing has been done before, and most recently by Missy Higgins with her album Oz, which I found to be…interesting.

Messenger kicks off with the Cruel Sea’s Down Below. Tex Perkins has never sounded so reassuring. My mate Keith’s weighty opinion is that this is the best cover version of any song he has heard. Although Keith and I are both from the ‘the original is always best’ school of popular music, this is a hell of a way to kick of the album. My favourite track is Jimmy’s take on Ed Keupper’s The Way I Made You Feel. The tragic nature of the lyrics are spelled out in a way which had me thinking more deeply about the song than when I heard the original.

Of course, as with any album of covers, some tracks work better than others. Paul Kelly’s Randwick Bells is given new life, the Reels’ Quasimodo’s Dream is given a waltz-type rhythm, and the Go-Betweens’ Cattle and Cane gets a respectful re-working. Of course, McLennan’s masterpiece is a track which deserves to be covered and re-covered into eternity. But not even a musician of Jimmy Little’s calibre could hope to equal Neil Finn on Into Temptation. And as a rusted-on Sunnyboys fan, I am still unsure of Little’s slowed-down Alone With You.

But overall, it is a wonderful album. Rightly dominated by Jimmy Little’s phrasing of the lyrics. With that voice. That wonderful, soothing, easy voice.

When asked how he would like to be remembered, the late Jimmy Little once said that “I just want people to remember me as a nice person who was fair-minded and had a bit of talent and put it to good use.” We can say without any fear of contradiction that he achieved that feat easily. And Messenger is exhibit A.

 

READ MORE OF SMOKIE’S MUSIC AND FOOTY WRITING HERE.

 

 

 

About Darren Dawson

Always North.

Comments

  1. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says:

    Smoke

    I recall Jimmy’s Cattle and Cane from the tele, it was a cracker, as was the Ed Kuepper one. He makes a fair fist of Under The Milky Way too.

    You’re spot on about the phrasing.

    I wonder how he would have gone with “Stranded” or “Horror Movie”

  2. Trucker Slim says:

    Hi Smokie

    This album is all about Jimmy Little’s mellifluous voice. It is both an excellent album but also one weighed down by Brendan Gallagher limitations. Don’t get me wrong, he did a wonderful job in bringing Jimmy Little back into the public eye. However, At least 4 of the songs sounded more like BG indulgences (Perkins, Mason, Cave and Oxley) than great songs for a great singer to interpret. As in, “I wonder what this song would sound like”. I would have preferred he found the best songs for a singer of Jimmy Little’s calibre to show off.

    I agree, the Ed track is beautiful, as is the Jackson Code song (but I reckon a Rob Snarski track would have been even better).

    Cheers

  3. Mathilde de Hauteclocque says:

    Love this album. Got it on now, thanks Smokie.
    One of my fave low key performance experiences was seeing Jimmy perform A-U-S-T-R-A-L-I-A at the launch of an Indigenous Arts Advocacy label. In his TIWI print twin suit. He made alphabetical patriotism sound exquisite.
    You ARE spot on about the phrasing.

  4. Thanks Smokie. This album gets a regular airing on long drives in the old Tarago. When I first heard it back in ’99 I thought it veered very close to schmooze-schmaltz-cabaret. But I grew to like it a lot. There was a follow-up album, but damned if I can find it amongst my CDs, let alone remember its title.
    Rick, you’re a hard marker.
    Cheers.

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