The Guild League - Speak Up

matcd051  /  January 2009
The Guild League - Speak Up
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The Guild League - Speak Up

matcd051  /  January 2009

Long-awaited third album from Australian pop collective The Guild League, comprised of frontman Tali White (also of The Lucksmiths), lead-cellist/bassist Cressida Griffith, sax prodigy Gus Rigby, drummer about town Phil Collings, trumpet from Roger Clark, and guitar magic from Basic Shape's Gerry Eeman.

The follow-up to the celebrated ‘Inner North’ album in 2004, new album ‘Speak Up’ is the sound of a band full of optimism and new ideas. There’s a little bit for everyone, from the insanely catchy guitar pop of ‘Suit Fits’ and ‘If Not Now...’ to ska-tinged swingers ‘Mouse vs. Mountain’ and ‘Where’s The Colour?’ to stunningly beautiful and poignant vocal showcases ‘Dead Hour’ and ‘Incandescent.’ The album mixes guitars with strings, keyboards, bursts of trumpet and saxophone, wonderful female backing vocals, and handclaps, all complemented by Tali’s crystal clear and perfectly pitched vocals.

Imagine the younger brothers of Australia’s legendary Summershine Records roster (The Rainyard, The Sugargliders, Tender Engines) mixed with early 80s British pop staples (The Jam, Madness) and you’re nearly there. A refreshingly diverse and confident set from a band that only gets better with time.

  1. Mouse vs. Mountain
  2. If Not Now...
  3. Dead Hour
  4. Suit Fits
  5. The Idea
  6. Where's The Colour?
  7. Brains
  8. Limited Express
  9. 17 Summer
  10. Incandescent


I’m a big fan of Australia indie-popsters The Lucksmiths. For more than 15 years, this band has been pumping out brilliant albums, EPs, and singles of foot-tapping, clever, bright indie-pop, the kind of songs that make you want to sing along and listen to loudly while driving with the car window down on a beautiful Spring day. Led by singer/drummer Tali White, The Lucksmiths’ lyrics are as clever as they are fun, like a bouncier Weakerthans or less-emo Death Cab. But for all that praise, I find myself loving Speak Up, the third album from The Guild League, which features White as the primary singer/songwriter, in a different way. The Lucksmiths have a fairly set sound; you know what you’re going to get on each album, and the songs tend to blend together. The Guild League’s members bring such a varied approach to Speak Up that I’m amazed this project isn’t discussed among the top echelon of popular indie-popsters, alongside Death Cab and Belle & Sebastian. It’s possible the varying song styles on Speak Up may not be as appealing to some as they are to me. After all, you have a serious mix of approaches here, from the classic Australian and New Zealand pop on “If Not Now…” to the quiet and contemplative “The Idea” to the ska-pop of “Where’s the Colour?” with its trumpet and saxophone to the acoustic guitar-led folky approach to “Limited Express.” While White’s voice and his clever lyrics are always the centerpiece of Lucksmiths songs, The Guild League puts the focus on the retro-pop horns in “Brains” and fuzzed-out electric guitars on the nod to classic London rock, “17 Summer.” Favorite songs are the upbeat “Mouse Vs. Mountain,” with hand-claps and gang-sung moments; the lovely and moody “Dead Hour”; and the almost hauntingly pretty “Incandescent,” which features some lovely guitarwork and strings as well as the gorgeous addition of female vocals. And those trademark clever lyrics White is known for are evident on the album’s standout, “Suit Fits.” I get the sense that The Guild League lets White stretch his musical chops. His voice sounds surprisingly confident in the diverse styles on Speak Up, and the Australian musicians backing him are clearly gifted, letting horns, bass, or strings shine on various tracks. There is something to love on each individual track on Speak Up, with a new favorite on each listen depending on your mood. That this album hit the US in December of 2008 is surely the only reason it didn’t appear on indie-pop aficionados’ year-end best-of lists. It would have been on mine for sure.   --Delusions of Adequacy
Just about everything about The Guild League can be summed up in one word: understated. There's not much press on this indie-pop band from Melbourne, Australia, though frontman Tali White is also associated with a more well-known act, The Lucksmiths. Unlike its better-known counterpart, The Guild League plays mostly in the Southern Hemisphere, and has seemed content to produce music that, while beautiful, is the lowest of low-key while still qualifying as rock. With its new album Speak Up, however, The Guild League takes its own advice, kicking the beats up a notch and allowing some of its sounds to cut loose. Leading in with a rubber-band guitar riff, the ska-heavy "Mouse vs. Mountain" from the start anticipates a foot-tapping chorus, complete with brass, handclaps and "oh-la-la" backup vocals. But, as if to remind listeners that he's not singing for The New Pornographers, White blankets the tune with his perpetually wistful voice and some surprisingly hope-tinged predictions. "Our day will come," he sings, adding, "We're the real story in your so-called news." At the beginning of a year that could use some optimism, it's a bit of empowerment that's timelier than the band could have anticipated.   --NPR Song of the Day
I don't think you can really call The Guild League Tali White's "side project" any more, can you? This is the band's third album, after all, and they're easily as prolific as The Lucksmiths. I'd heard - or seen, I suppose - a song from this album back in October time. It's called Suit Fits, and it's amazing, and it's on here. And I'm going to go on about it a bit, because it's the best Guild League track EVER. Wow. 1. It contains the lyric "I'm shining shit 'til it's in style". 2. And then that's rhymed with: "I'm head minister in the ministry of style". 3. Tali White sings like he's giving someone a proper bollocking. 4. There's this great bit he breaksitdownnow, and sort of raps. 5. The ending is completely jubilant. I like a jubilant ending. Anyway, that's five reasons in song that you should buy this album immediately. Others include delicate little flowers like The Idea, or the jazzy pop of Where's the Colour. Limited Express is another highlight. It revisits White's pet subject of travelling and architecture and landscape. It's a real joy to listen to songs that talk about places where ordinary people live. Limited Express acts as a kind of four minute soap opera about trains whizzing through towns. And that's what all good songs should be about, isn't it? It's one of pop's joys that The Guild League are around. To me, they're a sort of nifty secret that gets told every three years or so. Speak Up probably won't feature very prominently in indiepop tittle-tattle, but that's sort of fine by me.   --A Layer of Chips
The Guild League has been a band, not just a one-person show, for a while now, but still I have a tendency to think of it as the Lucksmiths’ Tali White’s travelogue side project. That’s based on strong impressions set by the first album, where he set travel-journal entries to song. I had that tendency until now – their third album Speak Up washed that clear away. It’s not just that there’s clearly a band playing now: a six-piece band, with rock instruments that fill the songs up and horns that burst in and make it tempting to use the word “ska”. It’s also the outlook of the songs themselves. These are not first-person journal entries; they look outward to society, call out to people. It’s activism music, not with one agenda, but a populist call to ‘let our voices be heard’. Speak Up opens with an underdog anthem, a song declaring that we’re ready to be the nagging annoyance that tirelessly bugs the powerful. It’s a hopeful song, too: “one day our day will come / that’s one thing you can count on.” The next song asks, “if not now then when? / if not you then who? / can I get a witness?” If outspoken leader seems an unlikely role for White, he wears it well. He doesn’t just sing out his positions -- for hope over cynicism, heart over cold logic, people over profits – as if they are simple routes for everyone to take. He conveys the difficulties of these choices. But the Guild League’s music also embodies the side they’re on. This is a firecracker of an album that explodes with the boisterous sound of hope. The most sullen songs on Speak Up don’t have that more low mood to signify sulking. They project the contemplation that goes into these struggles. They’re weighted with thought, with the mulling over direction and choices and consequences that goes on within each living person. In a way the album continually tracks an attempt to break out from the dull existence that it can be easy to slip into. White’s lyrics describe that complacent state as clearly as the alternative. On “Where’s the Color”, he paints a vivid picture: “smoke-smell clings to sweat-soaked jeans / once you spoke well / now you lean and sway / and the day dies unfulfilled / unseen.” The observant side of lyric-writing that the Lucksmiths consistently nail is present here too. And even their recent interest in bird-watching; in “Limited Express” he uses birds as a metaphor for our own longing to speak aloud: “the ragged fledgling wattlebirds all soaked down to their down / well they still find time to bicker and to squawk.” One of the album’s most detailed narratives, “Limited Express” puts inner feelings of loneliness and defeatism within the context of a city’s physical elements. The song ultimately sees the city as a conversation that the song’s protagonist longs to jump into. One of the quietest songs on “Speak Up” describes the ways ideas grow within us, using detailed comparisons: “quiet enough for you to hear / a child born to the unprepared”. Speak Up is an effort to draw those ideas out of us. As he sings in “Where’s the Colour?”, “speak up / speak up / ‘cause there could be some truth in the things you say!”   --Erasing Clouds
Not content with lending his vocal and drum skills to last year’s career high ‘First Frost’ from his full time band, Australian indie-pop legends the Lucksmiths, Tali White now returns with a third album from his side project, the Guild League. There is certainly nothing here to put-off fans of his more established mainline, but the Guild League are more upbeat and (dare I say it) more naturally tuneful. With recent Lucksmiths albums having adopted a downbeat approach, fans of their more sprightly work will delight in the effortless pop of songs like ‘If Not Now..’. But just as was the case on the band’s outstanding debut ‘Private Transport’, an album that has made regular returns to my stereo in the years since I first bought as a first year undergraduate, over time it is the ballads that really stand out. The combination of White’s observational lyrics, excellent melodies and gorgeous arrangements make for some fantastic pop music. When White roped his friends together to help him make his debut, the range of players gave the album a welcome variety, and while some of that album’s clumsy grace has been lost, the development of the Guild League into a genuine band allow these songs to be presented with increased confidence. Of particular note are the saxophone solos, which never fail to add texture and class to the proceedings. Tali White remains a cheerfully wry songwriter, and (once again) has used the Guild League to show that he is easily the equal of his Lucksmiths colleagues as a songwriter. Add this to your shopping lists.   --Pennyblack Magazine
I'll be the first to confess that perhaps I haven't listened enough to Inner North, so if I feel that The Guild League's recent Speak Up is their best yet it might just be because it's so much more immediate. The band is at their most rocking and Tali makes good use of the formidable set of lungs endless touring with The Lucksmiths has given him. The influence of The Housemartins on the early Lucksmiths must be familiar to everyone, but it's not until now that Tali White (who of course sings and plays the drum in the Lucksmith) has gone all the way and churned out an album that is not only full of perky POP but also lyrics that are both fun and world-toppling. Speak Up? It would be unfair to call it a political record, it's more of a cry for action. The question is: will this Guild League record make you speak up? Or perhaps "there will be no further comment. No defiant fist will lift. These quiet, capitulating eyes will lower, feet will shift. Onto the long, thoughtful orator we will give the shortest shrift." as the subdued "Dead Hour" laments. The grave subject matter threatens to make any such record a tedious affair, but Tali cleverly steeps his songs in irresistible melodies (like that of "If Not Now...", played at DDOMD last month) and artful wordings (as in "Brains" which contains my perhaps favourite line - "when I tried to explain, I found nothing in your head but brains"). He's also right to put some unexpected elements into the mix, to keep you on the edge of your seats throughout. The backbeat and horns of "Where's the Colour?" would've held up on any Still Flyin' record and "17 Summer" initially sounds eerily like an outtake from Red House Painters' Songs For a Blue Guitar, before switching into New Lucksmiths mode. Tali may have saved his best songs for The Guild League this time, or maybe this is just better than The Lucksmiths' new album First Frost. Get both from Matinée.   --Heaven Is Above Your Head
I was disappointed that the Lucksmiths broke up a while back, so I had to console myself with Speak Up, the latest from ex-Lucksmiths member Tali White’s the Guild League. It may be a disservice to refer to the group in that manner, given that it’s a true sextet rather than a frontman with a backing group. I’m loving this record from the start, when “Mouse Vs Mountain” turns out not to be a hopeful underdog story, but a threatening note of something else, vengeance or revolution. The misdirection’s a nice way to get some catharsis through indie-pop, but the following “If Not Now…” is the real trumpets-out call to revolution. The group, stretching its core aesthetic without excessive deviation, acknowledges the failures and restrictions of our contemporary culture, trapped in both personal and political conformity. Rather than simply railing against the problem (with bouncy music), the group digs at it, sorting out at least one source of the problem, explaining in “Brains”: “When I tried to explain I found nothing in your head but brains / My unsolicited advice is: live by what you love / ‘Cos I’m sick and tired of people ticking “No to all above.” The Guild League isn’t interested in putting a shiny coat on anything, but they concern themselves with our waking somnambulism. It’s a pretty way of getting at some difficult material, and it’s a stellar example of pop doing one of the things pop is supposed to do for us. In this case, it’s a bunch of grown-ups taking the mature (but fun and energetic) approach to the issues that rock was supposed to have solved for each of us sometime between getting to drive and getting to order a legal cold one.   --Cave 17
El viento huracanado que azota todo el país ha convertido esta casa en una especie de jaula de la que resulta difícil escapar. La luz solar hace tiempo que marchó y bajamos las persianas terminando de aislarnos del hostil exterior que se empeña en arruinar todos nuestros planes para el fin de semana. Así, lo que en principio podría ser un idílico plan hogareño, acaba convirtiéndose en una pequeña tortura por el mero hecho de ser la única opción posible. Leemos nuestros libros, las películas se suceden en el televisor, los discos suenan, pero aún así el tiempo parece no correr, o lo que es peor, corre en la nada, escapando las preciadas horas que preceden a la rutina diaria de nuestros trabajos. Toca hacer algo desesperado, ocupar nuestras horas en algo que siempre postergamos ante cualquier plan alternativo, los discos se amontonan mientras ella no para de quejarse. Lleva toda la razón, hay discos en lugares rocambolescos, en realidad hay discos por toda la casa, y lo correcto sería ir buscándoles sitio en unas estanterías que piden a gritos una ampliación. Todo volverá a estar igual en unas pocas semanas, cuando nuevas adquisiciones cubran el espacio que ahora limpio, pero por un tiempo todo ocupará su sitio. Supongo que una de las constantes de aquellos que hemos hecho de la música nuestro entretenimiento (por llamarlo de algún modo) principal es la reorganización de nuestras colecciones de discos. Éstos no paran de llegar a casa y hay que ir buscando sitio para guardarlos y, lo que es más importante, encontrarlos el día que queremos volver a escucharlos, pero todos sabemos que en cada nuevo intento de poner todo en orden hay algún vinilo o cd que queda fuera de las estanterías y da pie a volver a amontonar todo fuera de ellas. En esta ocasión uno de los discos que hemos sido incapaces de catalogar y archivar ha sido Speak Up, el último trabajo de esa especie de colectivo australiano que forman The Guild League. Hasta ahora el nombre de este sexteto que termina ampliando su número en sus grabaciones casi hasta el infinito había ido ineludiblemente unido al de The Lucksmiths, la banda principal de Tali White, su componente más conocido. Sin embargo Speak Up, su tercer Lp, muestra un esfuerzo quizás no pretendido pero sí logrado, de caminar en solitario sin que ningún tipo de complejo o comparación pueda hacerle sombra, habiendo logrando convertirse de este modo en una de nuestras adicciones favoritas de los últimos días. The Inner North, segundo y más celebrado trabajo hasta la fecha de The Guild League, se ocupaba de explorar caminos ya transitados por Tali White con su otra banda, pero los tiempos parecen haber cambiado, encontrándonos con unos nuevos The Guild League mucho más libres a la hora de componer, sin ceñirse a ningún patrón estilístico preestablecido que en el pasado los hubiera podido encorsetar, con magníficos resultados, por otra parte…..aunque aquí la cuestión no es cortar con el pasado, la banda se muestra orgullosa de él en un buen número de los diez cortes que componen Speak Up, pero mejor empezaremos un final que casi es el principio de nuestra unión con este disco; Incandescent cierra de tal modo esta nueva entrega de los australianos que nos vemos irremediablemente abocados a repetir la escucha entera del Lp para llegar a tan sublime conclusión. Incandescent y sus guiños nos seducen sin remedio, esa guitarra acariciada que nos recuerda a Forever Changes, ese ambiente folk que Tali imprime al tema, el crescendo que nos reencuentra con es maravilla que es la voz de Bec Rigby (a la que escuchábamos hace poco en First Frost, último Lp de los Lucksmiths) y con unos vientos que insertados en el momento idóneo convierten a esta despedida en nuestro momento favorito del disco. En Brains queremos ver un guiño inédito en un primer medio minuto que nos traslada a The Sugargliders, compatriotas absolutamente ninguneados, incluso dentro del catálogo del prestigioso sello Sarah Records, que albergó gran parte de su producción discográfica. Pero a partir de aquí la cosa cambia por completo, desatándose unos vientos que nos recuerdan el particular estilo del ska, estilo con el que no comulgamos, pero que aquí queda resultón, no siendo ésta la única ocasión la que el grupo intenta sacar partido de esta influencia. Where’s The Colour? de manera descarada, y Mouse vs Mountain más discretamente, suponen un pequeño acercamiento o préstamo del estilo. La segunda sin duda es una mezcla perfecta con los más optimistas Lucksmiths, que como comentábamos anteriormente no han sido borrados del recuerdo, quedando patente su influencia en cortes como la brillante If Not Now… o las tiernas Dead Hours y The Idea, que representan otros momentos álgidos de la grabación. Suit Fits y 17 Summer cambian de registro por completo, en especial la última, que nos trae el lado más rockero del sonido de The Guild League, rematando el combinado que Speak Up ofrece al que quiera ver al sexteto como algo más la segunda banda de Tali White. Es probable que Speak Up pierda en la distancia corta respecto a The Inner North, aquellos que esperen encontrar aquí la absoluta inmediatez de aquel pueden caer en el error de considerar este nuevo disco de The Guild League como un trabajo inferior o poco centrado, por el contrario esta colección de diez canciones nos enseñan cómo el grupo se resiste a aferrarse a lo que se espera de ellos, y actuando con la absoluta libertad de aquellos de los que nada se espera, por inconstancia o humildad, firman un trabajo que abre nuevas puertas para al futuro sin dejar de atender a aquellos que se encariñaron con el grupo años atrás.   --360º de Separación