By Douglas Wolk
When the Cannanes arrive here from Australia this weekend for the first dates of their third U.S. tour, longtime fans will notice a rather significant difference in the lineup from the last time around: David Nichols, who was the sole remaining founder of the band, has left, apparently for good. Now, if the Cannanes were not the Cannanes but, say, King Crimson, and Robert Fripp had flown the coop, you’d wonder why they even bothered to show up. In fact, the roster does still include singer Frances Gibson and guitarist Stephen O’Neil, who’ve been around almost since the start. But the Cannanes have never been about individual personalities; their aesthetic relies on a certain set of ideas about songwriting and presentation, a grasp of history both personal and conventional, and an appealing, overwhelming modesty.
The Cannanes–founded in Sydney in 1984 and named after Michelle Cannane, who departed very early on–have always operated as a revolving door. At a tenth-anniversary “reunion” in Australia a few years ago, about a dozen people played, and at least four others couldn’t make it. And on record, some of the band’s most entertaining moments have come when a friend wandered in to sing a song. Singer and guitarist Randall Lee, a major presence on the Cannanes’ early album The African Man’s Tomato (expanded and released on CD in 1993 as Witchetty Pole), moved on to start Ashtray Boy and Nice; later, the Cannanes would borrow Nice’s Francesca Bussey for an album or so. The family is large enough that there’s an entire band, Flywheel, made up of former Cannanes, and O’Neil recently joined it as well.
Still, Nichols was the band’s most public member, as a music journalist (for Australian Rolling Stone and Puncture, among other publications; he’s recently published a biography of the Go-Betweens) and contributor to a bunch of other bands, including Crabstick, Blairmailer, and a very early version of Sleater-Kinney. He rarely sang, but his distinctive, minimal drumming (snare, high-hat, and sometimes a bass drum that inevitably raced a little ahead of everyone else) was the signature of a group that’s run through half a dozen songwriters.
Nichols had been phasing himself out of the band for a while. He didn’t play on half the Cannanes’ eponymously titled 1996 album. He is all over their latest, Arty Barbecue (Ajax), but that’s only because it was actually recorded in 1993–“haphazard” is probably the kindest word for the Cannanes’ discography. The lineup for this tour is Gibson (possibly the least rock-star-like person ever to sing in a rock band–she always looks a little surprised to find herself on a stage, as opposed to behind a desk), O’Neil, drummer Ivor Moulds, and bassist James Dutton, who’s technically a newbie here but has been playing with the band off and on for years. Dutton’s only appearance on a Cannanes record is a tender-like-a-wound duet with Gibson on “Simple Question,” from The Cannanes–though not on the “Simple Question” single, where Gibson sings the whole thing herself.
The Cannanes’ lyrical concerns, appropriately enough, are the quotidian: friendship rather than love, the routine rather than the extraordinary, frustration rather than rage. Their jokes are little jokes (but good ones, like their brief rock opera about Marco Polo). The people in their songs drink lattes and watch kittens being mauled by dogs and long for each other to say the right words. “Think about the way you treat your friends / It’s frightening where this might end,” Gibson sings in one of the band’s best tunes, “Frightening Thing.” On the Arty Barbecue version her voice is accompanied by little more than bass and trumpet, for an effect more like intimate conversation than a pop song.
This less-is-more tendency extends to the way the Cannanes perform live. Though they’re not averse to turning up the guitars every once in a while, most of the time their instruments barely sound amplified–O’Neil’s clean, crisp strumming is as percussive as the drums. The band’s singers have all been nonsingers, or at least people who don’t affect singerly devices. Gibson’s actually got a clear, sweet voice, but she inflects her words like she’s speaking, with a little quaver that sneaks in at times, as if she’s shoring up her courage for the next line. And most of the others get over on sheer endearing bravado–“I love you so much I could cook you a meal,” O’Neil blurts on “Move Some Things Around,” from Love Affair, and his shaky voice only reinforces his conviction.
Even the Cannanes’ packaging is reflexively low-key: the cover photo on their 1994 album Short Poppy Syndrome is a blurry snapshot of a person and a cat making slightly terrified faces at each other. (Sometimes this lack of pretense gets the better of them. They had a hard time selling their second album, A Love Affair With Nature, in Australia in part because they’d released it on their own without using any label name. “Everyone seems to want to know what label you’re on,” Nichols wrote later, “that is, you’re supposed to make up a name for a label even if there isn’t one, so, pretendies. Which is of course cataclysmically stupid. But it did bug people when you said you weren’t on a label.”)
That the Cannanes work on such a small scale doesn’t mean they don’t see the big picture. Australian history plays a subtle but constant role in their songs. “There’s something about Australia / You want to kick it when it’s down,” Gibson sings on Love Affair’s “Vivienne,” and the recent single “It’s a Fine Line Between Pleasure and Pain” (not a Divinyls cover) has a line about “a nightmare that’s wholly Australian-made.” They once applied for a grant to record an album that would be an “Australian national biography,” and while they didn’t get it, Arty Barbecue includes a song intended for the project, “Ern Malley,” about the nonexistent poet at the center of a famous Australian literary hoax. The title Short Poppy Syndrome is a joke about the “tall poppy syndrome,” an Australian phrase for the national habit of dissing locals who get too famous. The twist turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy: the Cannanes haven’t put out an album in Australia for seven years, and are far less widely known there than here. And that’s saying something.
The Cannanes are amateurs in the sense that they play for the love of playing, which is probably how they’ve lasted 13 years and change in the face of near total indifference. They haven’t always been happy about it: as Nichols put it the first time he quit, at the end of 1993, “as much as I adore under-instrumented pop songs with joke lyrics and unrehearsed endings, I didn’t want to spend my whole frigging life doing it.” On their last swing through the U.S., though, they played like a band that had been working together for more than a decade–and despite this latest blow to continuity, there’s no reason to think they won’t be as charmingly understated and understatedly graceful as ever.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Cannanes uncredited photo.