By Ian McFarlane.
It’s always with a touch of sadness that you listen to the last recorded work of a popular musician. And doubly so with Jim Keays, who was such a beloved and respected veteran of the local scene. Keays passed away in June last year, from the effects of his long-running battle with Multiple Myeloma. Age Against The Machine is an impressive final word from the Master and ultimately will serve as an exemplar of how to exit at the top of one’s game.
As with Dirty, Dirty, his previous garage-rock revival album, Age Against The Machine aims to engage the listener with a modern take on obscure – and not so obscure – covers from the 60s and 70s. With producer / bass player Ted Lethborg, guitarist Davey Lane and drummer Brett Wolfenden providing a rock-solid and dependable backing, all Keays had to do was open his mouth and do what he did best: to sing. Of course, it probably wasn’t as simple as that; at various times during the recording process it’s likely he had to pace himself due to the nature of his illness.
Mind you, Keays does sing with plenty of verve and enthusiasm throughout without ever really dominating proceedings. So you get the sense that it’s really a group effort, the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Guest Dallas Frasca ups the ante with feisty duet vocals on the blues-rocking ‘Dig A Hole’, which is actually the most obscure track here originally done by the Hans Staymer Band in 1972.
A couple of tracks right out of the box are ‘(I’d Go The) Whole Wide World’ (Wreckless Eric) and ‘Cadillac’(Bo Diddley) which help spice up the programme. Because the album was recorded live in the studio, with little rehearsal, there’s an appealing immediacy but the performances and production sound are slick enough to take the ‘garage’ out of garage-rock effectively. So let’s dispense with the term garage-rock and just call this a modern rock album.
Some might say that if you’re gonna do a covers album it’s a prerequisite that you turn the arrangements on their heads. Forget that here: the versions of ‘Shake Some Action’ (Flamin’ Groovies), ‘I Got A Line On You’ (Spirit), ‘Come On’ (The Atlantics) and a stonking take of ‘Hot Smoke And Sassafras’ (Bubble Puppy / The Mooche) add nothing new but are familiar enough to slide down like a fine single malt whiskey – and that’s just okay by me.
The best track is saved for last, a spiralling take on Cheap Trick’s creepy anti-drugs song ‘Heaven Tonight’. Here the team gets to extrapolate on the original arrangement to come up with something extraordinary, like an unnerving cross-pollination of The Beatles’ ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ and Alice Cooper’s ‘Killer’ with more than an atmospheric dash of Blue Öyster Cult’s ‘Astronomy’ and Cockney Rebel’s ‘Ritz’ to hammer the point home. The chills down my spine when I hear this track are exquisite.