Rachel Collis, Naked Dream review (Parramatta Riverside Theatres, Sydney)

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With that Cheshire cat grin, you just know if you’re looking for trouble, you’ve come to the right face. Rachel Collis’ songs, when they’re not tearing your heart asunder with expressions of passion, wrap deadly venom in comic clothes. Having walked onto the stage, in semi-darkness, without fanfare, but with her musicians (Mike Quigley, drums and percussion; Michael Galeazzi, basses), she opened with Tomorrow, a glimpse into her sensitive nature. Although Collis otherwise writes all her own material, credits are shared, on this rare occasion, with Peta Van Drempt, who wrote the music; a wistful piano melody that sits very comfortably with Collis’ uneasy, uncertain, edgy, fearful, hopeful, slightly desperate park bench contemplations: Come, let’s sit on this bench together; snatch the calm before stormy weather. When you see the beaming performer plying her raw, wry humour, it’s hard to conceive of her sitting in shadows, but she’s nothing if not full of surprises and contradictions. Bathed in amber light, longtime collaborators Quigley and Galeazzi pay respect for Collis’ compositions with the utmost musical sensitivity and responsiveness to her directorial gestures. The chords and bass riff are very jazz-oriented.

From the fireside glow of amber to blue: as if apropos of my thought that If I Could was quite reminiscent of Joni’s seminal 1971 album. If you were to marry the sensibilities of My Old Man and A Case Of You, you might arrive somewhere in the neighbourhood of Rachel’s song, which veritably aches with devotion. If I could, I’d move the mountains here, for you; you could sit out on the back porch and enjoy the better view; and at dusk, I’d turn the sky a rosy hue. It’s one of her very finest and most sobering to date and I’m anxious for it to be recorded and get the airplay it warrants. With the right recorded rendition and arrangement, it’s another shoe-in for ABC Jazz.

It was only at this point Rachel introduced herself (and players), launching her mischievously twinkle-eyed, Judith Lucyesque stage persona at us, which veers between charm, rampant self-deprecation, sarcasm and sweetness, before launching into The Outline Of A Thought. After two love songs, a breakup song was overdue. It’s not over till the fat lady sings, perhaps, but sometimes there are other telltale signs when a relationship’s drawing to a close, right? I feel it in my left elbow; I feel it in my right big toe; little did you know, we had so little time to go.

The French Door Thief has Galeazzi swap his electric for acoustic bass: it’s all getting a bit Pink Panther. Being a celebrated burglar may look glamorous, but it’s a tough gig, with many pitfalls; really, if there was any justice, there’d by a union. After all, there’s the squeezing, the wheezing; the freezing, in the cold night air; the teasing foliage out of my hair. But, reality bites: still living at home with my mum, but she’s been nagging me to get up off my fat, lazy bum, to go out and get myself a job.

That Sneaky Bastard is as quirky as any of Collis’ epistles and even a little bit Mozartian. Lyrically, it’s hard to tell if its apocryphal or stranger than fiction. Based on a newspaper article perhaps. A man saves people from themselves, as they perch on a nearby cliff. One turns out to be a mass murderer. Did he do the right thing? The only thing predictable about Collis, as a songwriter, is, she’s utterly unpredictable. That sneaky bastard is fate: you do the best you can and then you wait.

So Your Dream Went Boom is from more familiar territory: local knowledge. A Lebanese restaurant near Collis’ home that wasn’t doing especially well, burnt to the ground in suspicious circumstances. The shish, I take it, were a little too well done. Turned out the suspicions were warranted. But at least the patrons from the brothel next door escaped the flames. Phew! In a broader sense, of course, there are many dreams that go boom. Maybe all of us have at least one. And this is precisely how Collis snares you: by taking you off on an excursion, only to arrive very close to home.

Also with local roots is A Duck Named Sybil. The cafe where Collis confesses to spending way too much of her time is owned and run by a colourful character who hangs a sign outside specifying ‘no riff-raff’. He’s also a bike enthusiast. He also has a duck named Sybil; not lost on those who recognise his demeanour as bearing a striking resemblance to Basil. Sybil can’t fly. Basil (not his real name) wants Sybil, nonetheless, to experience some semblance of flight. He harbours an ambition to harness Sybil to his bike and take on just enough speed to encourage Sybil to spread her wings. All this we learn from Collis’ easy, engaging patter. Seems to me, what with a few chords on ukulele and all, Collis could seek this to The Wiggles and become a millionaire overnight. Kids of all ages have got to love it.

Naked Dream, as Collis explains, is no saucy burlesque number; ’though she does bust a few moves and strum the ukulele seductively. Well, about as seductively as a ukulele can be strummed. But while the title might be suggestive, on the face of it, it’s actually a song that confides the deepest insecurities, those with roots that reach way down in to the soil of childhood, a time in which so much can change with just one word. Collis has an uncanny knack for intermingling comedic patter with poignant performance. Actually, gift would be a better word.

Winter in Munich features a little-used instrument that proves surprisingly relative: somehow echoing the sound of beerhall polkas and cuckoo clocks. There are pseudo-classical melodic allusions in this haunting, almost chilling ballad, that tilts towards tragedy and reaches uncomfortably deep into those parts of our lives we hide away, or run from; sometimes, to a different city. But not even 25 hours on a plane necessarily means you, or your cares, can float like a newborn, gasping and sneezing; puffed by the chimneys, into the freezing. Collis’ voice is at its most fragile and beautiful, too. And hubby, Steve, has helped with the lyrics, which, it strikes me, work on the psyche in a similar way wandering around a European gallery, feeling melancholy, might.

There you are with your beaming smile; life is short, so can you stay with me awhile? Those Words, much like the ohs that open the set, is the simplest and, as such, most beguiling of love songs: testaments to that, at once, terrible and wonderful electric current, that hum of stark, naked vulnerability that comes unbidden, in a hot flush, a rush; irresistibly risky, so dangerous as to have you tremble, or downright quake. I’m sure you know the feeling. You hold me in your arms so tight, sometimes it hurts.

There’s a cure and unusual song about her cat (Pet Hell), a rat, a spilt brat that, being no great fan of felines, I regard with an evil grin, just as the president of the DCS might. Then, one of Collis’ classics, in Spaghetti Bolognaise; a song of undeniably comic construction and conceit but, yet again, one that, even while you’re smiling, elicits tenderness for all those who may be struggling to hold the attention of a partner, or friend, or who fear losing it. After all, you knew when you married me, that night after night would be, spaghetti bolognaise for tea. 

Make Room, as Collis cogently observes, wasn’t written with refugees in mind, but suddenly takes on the taint of the defamation we do ourselves.

The Art of Letting Go, title track of her debut album, could hardly intimate more powerfully the zen we so comprehensively lack in individually and societally: I need a highly skilled surgeon, to cut out this burden, entangled in me. It’s a graceful tune that sweeps you off your feet and another that brings out all the very best qualities in Rachel’s voice.

To be honest, I’ve precious little clue as to what Yurora’s all about, but sounds to be deeply personal. In any case, with its tom-tom heartbeat, piano chords punctuated by elegant silences and sympathetic bassline, it makes for an edifying listen.

There are two songs Collis couldn’t leave the building without doing. Pablo, the story of a thing for, in the form of an imaginary fling with, her Brazilian waxer and The Germans, a wicked, speculative ditty detailing the pros and cons arising from a different outcome from WW2. Yes, Rachel Collis goes there. She mentions the war. And a whole lot of other off-the-agenda items, to (jack)boot. So, beware when she announces, disingenuously, ‘I don’t want to get political’. Wait for the but.

She’s not the messiah. She’s a very naughty girl. Er, woman. Um, person. But then, who’s to say? Maybe she’s the one we’ve been waiting for.

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