Machine Translations – Oh
J Walker is an Australian gem.
His work as Machine Translations, now nine albums in, is bold and dense, but he never misses an opportunity to snare a hook. This is pop music that always takes the hard road, the less obvious turn of phrase or melody. Like a lot of earlier stuff from Walker, who is also a producer (mostly recently on Jen Cloher’s self-titled album), there’s a feeling of the multi-instrumentist building these songs from the ground up, in the studio. ‘Doom Boogie’, with its interlocking acoustic guitars, reminds me of another (and perhaps the ultimate) solo boy-genius, Elliott Smith.
On Oh, though, Machine Translations are a four-piece, with Walker supported by Robin Waters and James O’Brien, of Brisbane band The Boat People, and Ralph Rehak. That means things are more energised; both the title track and ‘Sola', the first single, are at points grand and raucous, and could hold up on some of the biggest stages around. “It’s really nice to strip back and go a little bit more rock and roll with this record,” Walker told Double J’s Karen Leng recently. “But it still feels like a Machine Translations album in terms of the songwriting and the ideas.”
Walker is exceptionally good at creating the kind of sonic universe you want to spend time in. An issue some artists who make their own records, on their own time (Walker has a studio in regional Victoria), face is when to just stop. Walker never overburdens the mix. There are a lot layers here, but as with Wilco’s classic Yankee Hotel Foxtrot – on which the band piled up dozens of overdubs per song – there is still room to breathe. Wilco built beautiful textures out of sometimes ugly bits of sound, and Walker does that here, too.
Oh is a challenging and enjoyable record from a musician still pushing boundaries after nearly a dozen releases. It marks a welcome return for Machine Translations.
Oh is out now. It is the feature album all this week on Double J.