Louche characters and minimal electro-pop from Australia’s Alex Cameron at Highland Park Ebell Club Tuesday
Jumping the shark” is a derogatory phrase typically flung at TV shows when they’ve lost whatever made them fresh and/or funny and are taking desperate measures to keep the business enterprise going, rather than following their organic storylines to natural conclusions. “Jumping the Shark” is also the title of Australian artist Alex Cameron’s recently released solo album, a musical gallery of discomfiting rogues and gutter-tripping characters as louche as those peopling Tom Waits’ early oeuvre, minus the tattered glamour and cabaret musicality.
Cameron inhabits those characters with something approaching empathy and a bracing lack of sentiment. “The Comeback” presents a seedy veteran actor responding with his “paralegal nightmare” of a lawyer to the loss of his fame and security: “I been syndicated throughout French Amer/ They gave me my severance pay but they never gave me a goddamn/ They just stole my show and gave it up to some fat fuck/ …We’re gonna get my show back.” The truly bizarro “Real Bad Lookin’” features a candidate for Year’s Worst Mom that Bukowski might recognize: “I am the goddamn drunkest ugliest girl at the bar/ Yeah who the hell are you to tell me that I can’t leave my kid in the car.”
A drum machine generates fake pep behind that and “She’s Mine,” sounding very ’80s and tired, like it was programmed to compensate for something missing — and that may be the point. Cameron deploys synthesizers for simple emotional effect, like memory triggers; they never detract from his supple melodies or observant lyrics. Those sleek electronic surfaces magnify the unforgiving grimness of his characters’ circumstances. The veneer of cheeriness starts feeling oppressive around the time he begins repeating, “It’s just water, taste it, I promise it’s just water,” yet he retains a certain pop snap.
He initially released “Jumping the Shark” in 2013 as a free download from his website, as a side project from Sydney electro trio Seekae. In August, Indiana-based indie label Secretly Canadian released it to a broader audience. Cameron has described the songs as “focused storytelling” and “Phone-Noire,” and he inhabits its “villains,” addicts, unemployed sad sacks and drunks with a self-conscious, almost Bowie-esque theatricality. The compositional bones are sturdy enough for a full band to flesh out what Cameron and saxophonist Roy Molloy do onstage, but something might get lost if they tried to transform it into a 20th-century rock ‘n’ roll carny show.
Alex Cameron headlines at the Highland Park Ebell Club, 131 S. Avenue 57, Highland Park, 8 p.m. Tuesday, April 4; $12. Midnight Sister opens. Tickets available at eventbrite.com. alexcamerononline.net.au, ebell-hp.org