In The Garden of Good and Evil - The Passengers (self released)
Most of us will never be privy to the stories that fueled the songs on this album, but that doesn't prevent it having an emotional payload that's the musical equivalent of an atomic bomb over Nagasaki. Stripped-back and fully exposed, the songs have a quiet majesty, stunning depth and genuine power.
The Passengers of 2007-09 are a much different entity to the original late '70s Sydney band, whose music drew on the wellspring of '60s girl groups and soul. A great single on Phantom and a set of demos (released posthumously on Detroit-powered French legacy label Revenge and re-packaged by Career Records) was their only lasting legacy.
Nearly 30 years on and reforming members Angie Pepper (vocals), Jeff Sullivan (guitar) and Jim Dickson (bass) entertained the idea of reviving the band with the original configuration (with keyboards and drums.) Geographical factors (keyboardist Steve Harris lived interstate) and the realisation that that acoustic rehearsals were yielding something special meant they continued as a trio.
Tagging each member with the "veteran" tag is a temptation, but only Jim Dickson has been playing in high profile bands (New Christs, Louis Tillett, Deniz Tek Group, Radio Birdman) with regularity. Jeff Sullivan went onto the soulfully potent Flaming Hands in the '80s but quietly slipped from view after a run of killer singles and one ill-directed and over-produced album. Angie Pepper mixed marriage and motherhood with sporadic recordings that yielded only one "new" album (excluding the Career package of Passengers tunes plus woodshedded Angie Pepper Band songs.)
There are 10 tunes on "In The Garden" and all but one are previously unrecorded. The exception "Sacrifice" - a song Sullivan recorded with Flaming Hands - is re-worked and arguably more powerful than the original. The credits cite Sullivan as the writer of most of the music and about 75 percent of the lyrics.
As great as the songs are, the selling point for most will be Angie Pepper's vocals. The news is that she's lost not one iota of that keening yet warm presence and sounds a touch more world-weary (which is only a plus.) That "most special voice" described by Aretha Franklin producer Arif Mardin remains so.
I admit to yearnings for the Passengers to emerge as a full-blown band in the rock and roll line-up sense but the penny really dropped after hearing the demos that pre-empted the album sessions. These songs carried an emotional investment on the part of the band that made the "unplugged" Passengers unique. The final versions have subtly built on that base with Jim Dickson's textured bass especially finding some open ground clear of the usual forest of high-octane guitars. Sullivan's guitarwork is deft and multi-layered with occasional slide providing steely and otherworldy touches.
On an initial run-through, "In The Garden" seemed to be very dark and close to imploding in on itself. Sullivan's grim depression ode - "Darklands", where he duets with Angie to unleash devastating lyrics like "I may die here in the darklands/Red rose blooming from my wrist" - takes no prisoners in the same way that the The Kelpies' "My Wall" sets things up for a hospital visit or a funeral. Although "Darklands" doesn't get much brighter with repeated listenings, there's a sense of resolution in Angie's comforting vocal response that lifts it to another plane.
When it comes to invective, there's enough heat in the lyrics and vocal of "The Overpass" and "The Fallen" to raise global warming by another notch. "The Brighter The Flame" is a straight-forward break-up song that's beguiling in the telling.
Lighter moments shine through. "I Bend But Do Not Break" is one of them that's about coming out at the other end. "Fool Heart" is unabashed pop on a shiny melody. "The Moment" is a quiet confessional with almost imperceptible, shimmering percussion touches.
"Wall Of Love" sounds resilient, resigned and optimistic all at the same time. It's the closer, maybe the album's best moment and a reminder that even Nagasaki had survivors.