If you've been tuning in around here for any length of time, you'll know that one of this writer's favourite records of 2005 was an album called 'Meter' by Australian singer/ songwriter PERRY KEYES: a record that detailed the minutiae of life, love and (often) the seamier side of existence in and around the working class Sydney suburbs of Redfern and Waterloo where our hero grew up.
It's a measure of the faith Laughing Outlaw boss Stuart Coupe has in Perry that 'Meter' was released as a double CD: an almost unheard-of move where an unknown artist's debut is concerned these days. Nonetheless, that faith was repaid in aces by songs as resonant as 'Second Time I Saw You', 'Wide Streets, the chilling 'Some Aches' and the almost unbearably poignant 'Matraville Trees': still one of the greatest songs this reviewer has ever heard. And he doesn't say things like that lightly.
Well, although 'Meter"s erstwhile follow-up 'The Last Ghost Train Home' is only a single disc this time round, its' eleven tracks are - against the odds - every bit the equal of 'Meter'. Once again, Grant Shanahan and (occasionally) Sydney's very own Brian Wilson, Michael Carpenter, are at the controls and once more Keyes' almost supernaturally intuitive band Give My Love To Rose help join the sonic dots to scuffed and fiery perfection.
Of course, like a few select others ( Bruce Springsteen, Jake Burns) one of the greatest gifts Perry Keyes has is the ability to make you feel you know the landscape he evokes as well as he does himself - even if you've never experienced it first hand. 'Meter' was littered with references to the side of Sydney the tourist bureau would be very happy you didn't come to encounter and on 'The Last Ghost Train Home' Keyes gets even more personal.
Much of the album relates to the Redfern Perry grew up in before a succession of equally heartless governments forcibly removed the working class local generation and shifted them to Sydney's outer suburbs, but - believe me - the results are anything but rose-tinted nostalgia. Indeed, the rousing, anthemic opening track 'The Day John Sattler Died' - with its' references to notorious former prime minister Bob 'Pig Iron Menzies, betting shops, the Eveleigh railway yards and Australian rules - beautifully encapsulates the pre-development Sydney of the early 1970s. For the uninitiated, John Sattler was both a revered Sydney rugby league star and a kind of Aussie Bert Trautmann, famed for defying a potentially fatal injury, but you don't need any knowledge of RL to appreciate that great chorus ("if it's high enough, if it's long enough, if it's straight between the posts") or thrill to the visceral thust of Ed Kairouz's vicious guitar solo.
Although 'John Sattler...' is arguably this writer's favourite track here, that's not to denigrate the riches which follow, because once again it's all devastatingly good. Songs like the dark and dense 'Side Show Alley' and the lovely, fragile 'Kids Day' reference the Easter show which was once held at the Sydney showgrounds and the sense of childlike innocence and wonder in the latter is tangible when Perry sings "the moon's a magic lantern on the city's big black curtain/ as your fingers slip into that lucky dip".
Elsewhere, both 'Dale Buggins Dream' and 'Joe Strummer' are shot through with the promise and imagination only a young man's hero worship can provide. The latter is a tribute we can all understand, with references galore to The Clash ("I wanna know how to say Andalusia/ I wanna see my Corazon") and a great two-fingered chorus, while 'Dale Buggins Dream' is an equally affecting tribute to an idealist gone too young: in this case a budding 20-year old shaping up to be Australia's own Evel Knievel who tragically shot himself in a Melbourne motel room.
Another feature of Keyes' work with Give My Love To Rose is his duetting with talented drummer Bek-Jean Stewart and it's this partnership which provides 'Last Ghost Train..' with a couple of its' finest moments. 'At The Speedway' is the kind of love song only Perry Keyes could write: an urban outlaw tale of a smacked-out couple ("she's just sixteen and so loud and mean/ she's got a spike right through her body/ thinks her boyfriend's cute, in the back of his Ute is a ski mask and a saw down shotty") which lurches forward with a scuffed grace and more than a touch of Keef about the riff. 'In Ancient Rome', meantime, is more typical of the kind of passing images Perry stored while driving his cab for 'Meter'. This time, it's single mothers and the plight of young male hookers he zones in on ("you can score a young man against a stone wall/ in the city, in the middle of the afternoon/ in ancient Rome it's your birthday every day...if you can pay") while Bek-Jean gives it her best Gina Villalobos and Kairouz's scorching guitar is again on hand at just the right time.
Meanwhile, I mentioned the song 'Matraville Trees' earlier, and once again, homelessness is a subject Keyes writes of with great compassion and accuracy here. The deceptively anthemic 'Double On The Main Game' has a romantic chorus and some great, witty asides ("I thought she was my cinderella...she didn't fit the slipper") but a much darker undertow as the guys selling tickets at the football ground are/were bordeline homeless alcoholics. Both 'Peter Cottonball' and 'Matthew Talbot's Blanket', though, are cut from darker cloth altogether. The former finds the mood alternating between slow'n'atmospheric and fast'n'wired and it's a perfect backdrop for Perry's anti-hero who fixes up "behind the council pool....sometimes sleeps in the high school." 'Matthew Talbot's Blanket', meanwhile, is an all-too-vivid description of the plight of Sydney's homeless ("the stars trace a million lines into the skin of an old man's face/ asleep 'neath the cinema signs, floating in a dream up to outer space") set to drifting, broken acoustic grace.
Which only leaves - by no means least - the sweeping title track; a grower and a half benfitting from a restrained band performance and Perry and Bek-Jean echoing the resigned kiss-off of "if it was the way it used to be...would you be happy?" while the band sway beautifully behind them. It's the perfect way to conclude a heady journey celebrating both the joys and despair of a time long gone and the stark realities of the society which has superseded it and - like 'Meter' - Keyes' rich characterisations will draw you in time and again.
The singer/ songwriter genre is overpopulated at the best of times, but there are always exceptions and Perry Keyes is one such rare entity. I'm sticking my neck out here, but for me he deserves to be mentioned in the same exalted breath as the likes of Strummer, Costello and Springsteen. Listen to this and you'll hear exactly what I mean.