Toby Davidson reviews The John Moran Corperation

8 March 2010

TrainRide by The John Moran Corperation
Puzzle Factory Sound Studio, 2009

Since renowned works such as Kenneth Slessor's ‘The Night-Ride' and Judith Wright's ‘The Trains,' trains have been natural subjects and carriers of Australian poetry. TrainRide by John Moran and his small posse of musicians is very much off the train, stuck in the kind of gritty, gothic country town that transfixed Wright in her debut The Moving Image. However, while there are similarities of locations, even of small-town eccentricities and characters, TrainRide is a very different product, comprising of two CDs of interspersed instrumentals and gloomy spoken word. I use ‘spoken word' here, because to my mind spoken word has a performance-based poetics that cannot survive by itself on the page, nor, in most cases, does it seek to.

The first CD commences with the most successful and self-contained piece, ‘Mckensie'. It's a simple enough premise with more than a whiff of the neighbourly paranoia of Tom Waits' ‘What's He Building?' condensed through a rural lens. In this case the suspicion falls on the new neighbours up the hill because ‘they don't have any stock.' The Scottish-accented father-figure craftily urges his progeny to ‘Just get a look at them / See what you can find out' under any falsified premise. As with most country living, it is not what is said but what is unsaid that carries the day and here the air of suspicion thickened by the fugue-like atmospherics kicks things off perfectly by floating questions in the listener's mind, not least on how porous the picturesque and the macabre become for the long-term residents. This theme is continued in the tube-fed husk in ‘Scary' and especially in the final track of CD1, ‘Bill'.

In ‘Bill' the reason for suspicion is different disruption of routine: ‘There's smoke coming from Bill's chimney / it's a bit early.' A different intermediary is sought, this time Elizabeth from the haberdashery. The watchful neighbour explains:

In country towns we all stick together …
laugh, cry and frown as we struggle home

We're birds of a feather
we all do it together …
the only difference is each other's name

This is the other side of country town resilience: if you're an old-timer with links to the footy/bowls/Rotary clubs and bones in the ground, people will look out for you. Or spy on you. Or look out for you while spying on you, something that just is rather than something that should or shouldn't be, much like the nameless town itself.

CD 2 is dominated by the train motif, with the first three tracks (pause for pun-based guffaw) TrainRide a, b and c clocking up a respectable thirty-one minutes. TrainRide b is essentially the heart of the double-album, where at last the train imagery is revealed, by an ordinary person watching TV:

I'm there in black and white
there in broken light
like everyone else
waiting on a platform
waiting for a train …

You'll feel the pain
you'll see the pain …
and you'll stand by
and you'll wonder if
are we are all the same?

Get off the train
get off the train …

The last portion of this piece is unexpectedly sung in a haunting, poignant tone. After such a wait, the best part of eleven minutes (The Doors took less to murder an entire family, but they had the sixties and acid on their side), this moment retrospectively charges the entire piece and makes for an intriguing second listen. The train ride becomes a metaphor for dull, pacified living, being projected by an anaesthetised society into a little mini-series, fitting and strutting into yesterday's newsprint. Halfway through the narrator recalls his mother carefully dusting a mantelpiece in a (Depression-era?) photo with her brother and sister as children dressed in their Sunday finest amid cardboard boxes. His observation that ‘It's all about boxes, in'it?' links that old poverty to his present-day box-like house and tellie, a migration story no doubt with its own history of shipping boxes and crates, not to mention cargo and passenger trains. The album's crisp cover and sleeve design, further accentuate this with fog-wreathed pictures of disappearing box-cars and John Moran's sketches of huddled, faceless, pilgrim-like figures.

There is restlessness but also a muted custodianship in this town. In ‘Where's Charlie?' the narrator rasps:

Where are you Charlie?
Where's Charlie?
Been down here a lot off Market St …

You eating your turnips?
You eating your cauliflower
with tender loving care?

You thinking aloud, Charlie?
Cause folk round here
don't want to know that.

On one hand there is an almost collective attentiveness and caution, on the other a stifling repression. Maybe Charlie is an old man who drives everyone nuts with his random babblings and this is a friend trying to keep a lid on things, but equally this could be an elder or neighbour simply telling a person cursed with a mind of their own to zip their damn lip before someone zips it for them. One reading is empathic, the other crude and bullying and the listener is left to decide which to believe, or whether to accept, like those in the town, that it just is and no one listens to Charlie anyway. This is a small town, like so many, that sticks together by a prescriptive, homogenising silence and may the unsaid protect them all through a wiry framework of church, rotary, sporting clubs and general stores.

So, as Moran would have it, no-one's getting off the train But what of those who flee the scene, the youth who do take the train, tempted to never return? Surely some lyrical and instrumental nectar abides in such flights – but perhaps that's a project for another time. For now, TrainRide will intrigue, amuse, inform and annoy in equal measure, and it's fair to say that's the small town experience neatly packaged, but see it unleashed live if you can.

Toby Davidson is a researcher at Deakin University and editor of the forthcoming Collected Poems of Francis Webb.

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