Unsung hero

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With his consummate pop craftsmanship, his ear for multitracked harmonies and his way with words, it’s a wonder that Australian expatriate Richard Davies isn’t hailed by the masses for the psych-pop songwriting genius that he is. Oh, I almost forgot: The computer isn’t interested in creativity; it’s interested in making money (to paraphrase John Hammond’s pronouncement to Andrew Cyrille). Thus, Barbarians finds Davies in a very stripped-down mode (with just a bassist and a drummer or two), and a couple decimal points away from the budget of his last record, the major-label Telegraph.

Though on the exterior he might stand on jangle-songsmith common ground with folks such as Elliot Smith or Joe Henry, Davies is way too iconoclastic to ever get an Oscar nod or jam with the Jayhawks. Like so many of the great post-punk folks, he was damaged by Wire, and we aren’t just talking about copping riffs à la Elastica. He’s internalized the art, the style, the elliptical approach to both music and lyrics. But he arranges those elements in a timeless rock framework that would sound right at home on your shelf next to Abbey Road or Richard Thompson.

The instantly accessible music stays at arm’s length from standard formulas of verse-chorus-verse. His lyrics can convey a bit of a distance, too, an estrangement from the preprogrammed course of American culture. For instance, on "Palo Alto," he observes, "A feeling on the streets/that you see in magazines," in a place where the only recognizable landmark is the sun. It’s not all briskly strummed intensity, though. "Stars," for instance, has a dreamy love-struck giddiness that stumbles under a starlit sky that seems brand new. Davies' character sketches leave a lot of evocative blanks, even as he brilliantly fills his meter with choice couplets including, "Broke up with the only chemical I know/some chosen people make a line outside the disco." This, on the closing "Formulas," is anything but formulaic and, in the end, Davies’ skillful poetry and guitar pop triumph over the barbarians among us.

Greg Baise writes about music for the Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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