Where would Australian music be without You Am I? Their presence and influence has informed and inspired the state of alternative rock in Australia for almost two decades. The strength of their back catalogue speaks volumes but their footing isn’t as sure as it once was. For an album mooted to be called “I Love My Dead Gay Son”, You Am I saved face and turned around their most impressive release in recent years that succeeds without rehashing the same old moves.
You Am I still have claims on being one of the greatest Australian rock bands of the last twenty years. There’s few other performers that can compare with vocalist/guitarist Tim Rogers in the classic frontman stakes. He’s Jagger and Richards, Townsend and Daltrey, Westerberg and Stinson rolled into one. Prolific as both a solo artist and with You Am I, his songwriting over the year has suffered from spreading himself too thin. Too many average albums and too few great ones. Dilettantes works hard, very hard, to address this imbalance.
Pulling a trick from the Hourly, Daily book, Diletanttes opens with the title track, sharing the same austere, acoustic quality that “Hourly, Daily” the song did. An Andy Kent bass rumble heralds the beginning of Dilettantes proper, but the muted rock of “Disappearing” wrong-foots the listener. Roger’s vocal is noticeably low-key with the rest of the band showing restraint on this mid-tempo track and it’s a good thing, because you feel that You Am I are starting to play by different rules.
Stylistically, it’s a different sounding You Am I from the one that made 2006’s Convicts. In Roger’s case, it’s his lack of physical presence that is the most noticeable. His wild proclamations and heavy hand that would often trivialise a song has been buttoned down to where you’d expect a riff, there’s an accented rhythm. When you’d expect a “Hey Yeah, Woo Alright” there’s an attitude check. It works wonders for a track like “Beau Geste” giving it a dark, western feel without telegraphing it, and it’s that kind of dynamic shift that adds much to Dilettantes charm.
The regular Rogers swagger of “Frightfully Moderne” slides into the glitter band stomp of “Wankers” while the foot-tapping rock of “The Big Wheel” rounds out side one with some vintage You Am I action. Side two gives more treats by way of “Erasmus“, condensing every You Am I song ever written into a three minute thrill, and the quickfire hoedown of “Davey’s Gone Green Again”. Closer “The Piano Up The Tree” feels like a distant cousin to Hi-Fi Way‘s “How Much Is Enough”, pulling down the curtain with some of Rogers’ wisdom and a touch of strings.
Dilettantes isn’t so much a comeback but a validation of the genius of Rogers and the skill and temperance of Messrs Kent, Hopkinson and Lane. It’s been a long time coming and we’re all thankful for it. It’s unlikely to win over new fans, but will at least meet the expectations of those who’ve faithfully stood by them. As Roger’s sings rather optimistically on “Frightfully Moderne“ – “You ain’t seen the best of us yet”. Well, count me in for another round then, boys.