This latest release from the long-running duo of Jonnine Standish and Nigel Yang is quite a bombshell, as Rhinestones was "inspired by a recent infatuation with 'eerie and gothic country music.'" To my ears, HTRK drawing inspiration from classic country heartache is already a winning formula right out of the gate, yet Rhinestones is even better than I might have hoped, as the Melbourne-based pair have spiced that new direction up further by filtering it through a "narcotic, nocturnal lens" in order to "map enigmatic badlands of strung out beauty" (count me in!). In less poetic terms, that means that Rhinestones is full of acoustic guitars, heartbreak, and half-sultry/half-ghostly vocal melodies and that every single one of these nine songs attain some degree of greatness. While yet another excellent HTRK album is hardly unexpected territory, I was nevertheless legitimately floored by how masterfully Standish and Yang executed this new vision, as Rhinestones is a beautifully stark, sensual, and effortlessly psychedelic tour de force that somehow also fitfully evokes great '80s pop in the vein of Pat Benatar. That is quite an impressive feat. This album will deservedly be all over "best of 2021" lists next month.
Heavy Machinery/N&J Blueberries
This album is an extremely impressive example of how an absolutely gorgeous album can result from a very stark and simple palette, as Rhinestones is basically just an acoustic guitar, an occasional drum machine click, Standish's breathily sensuous voice, some great songs, and plenty of unerring instincts. While the whole album is wonderful, it starts to become something transcendent at the end of the second piece. "Valentina" initially sounds like a lovesick folkie got the hypnagogic David Lynch/Julee Cruise treatment, but it ends in unexpectedly heavy fashion, as the final line "can you remove it from my finger?" locks into a haunting spiral of looping repetition. That cool surprise then happily seques into a three-song run of absolutely killer songs. On "Sunlight Feels like Bee Stings," what initially sounds like a sadness-soaked breakup song quickly blossoms into something darkly sexual and swirling with understatedly beautiful ripples of echoing psych guitar. The following "Siren Song," on the other hand, only lasts a mere 49 seconds, yet every single one of those seconds rules, as Yang unleashes a phantasmagoric reverie of hollow, wobbly chords and string scrapes augmented with little more than murmured vocals and a slow rhythm of finger snaps.
"Fast Friend" is another quiet masterpiece of psych guitar, approximating a sultry, bleary Pat Benatar cover with a slinky drum machine pulse and host of painterly hallucinatory touches. Some artists make great psychedelia with cool layering and inspired juxtapositions, but Yang is the sort that can make just a single note or chord sound amazing and I am very much into it. The rest of the album is rounded out by a classic HTRK-style single "Real Headfuck" and a few seemingly lesser pieces that are ultimately elevated by great outros. Yang and Standish are truly in peak form on this album, as the vocals seductively dance over a simmering array of cool backdrops and every last hand clap or string scrape is executed with flawless timing and maximum impact. If there is any caveat with Rhinestones at all, it is only that it might feel a bit too melancholy for some, but I found these songs to be a lot like the old joke about New England weather: if a song seems unmemorable or oppressively sad at first, odds are quite strong that something cool and unexpected is about to dramatically change that trajectory for the better. This is a hell of an album.
Samples can be found here.