Album Review: HTRK – Rhinestones

[N & J Blueberries; 2021]

It’s fascinating how pop culture history has a tendency to repeat itself. When, earlier this month, Low released their new album to glowing reviews, it became all the more evident for how long the band has evaded mainstream recognition. No matter if their albums were produced by such alt-superstars like Steve Albini or Jeff Tweedy, for years they were deemed to occupy a spot in the second or third tier of music history, just to see the tide turn and their large catalogue finally being recognized as one of their generation’s most riveting.

In terms of other acts bewilderingly overlooked by the indie mainstream, HTRK is one of the most obvious examples. Hitting the scene in the mid 2000s and often occupying spaces with then-emerging avant-garde punk acts such as Liars, Deerhunter or Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Melbourne trio released an ominous no-wave mini-LP Nostalgia followed by the Rowland S. Howard-produced Marry Me Tonight. Following the tragic passing of bassist Sean Stewart, in 2011 vocalist Jonnine Standish and guitarist and composer Nigel Yang released their deeply erotic masterpiece Work (Work, Work), a collection of eerie, Lynchian cyborg blues. Further broadening their sound with the ascetic desert-downtempo of 2014’s Psychic 9-5 Club and the electronic shoegaze of 2019’s Venus in Leo, HTRK managed to evade creative standstill, fashioning a body of work as solid and unique as the best of their contemporaries.

Yet, even with their constant urge for artistic reinvention, it comes as a surprise to actually see them release a folk record – or at least their interpretation of one. Rhinestones has Standish and Yang reduce the sonic palette to the bare minimum, with her lascivious voice and his echoing guitar carrying the listener’s consciousness away. Now and again, there’s a drumbeat or a synthesized sound, but they feel much more distant, less dominating than on the band’s more electronic outings. This sonic reduction generates images of large, nocturnal plains, the kind generated by Mazzy Star’s So Tonight That I Might See, Big Thief’s U.F.O.F., Cocteau Twin’s Victorialand, Atlas Sound’s Parallax or Mojave 3’s Ask Me Tomorrow. While the band’s film noir sound is often mentioned, on this new album they sound spacey, like an astral projection: Aurora Borealis, at this time of year, at this time of day, in this part of the country, localized entirely within your room.

Thematically, Rhinestones leaves the weight of the lockdown era behind, instead concentrating on the comfort of interpersonal relationships. The fact that the title references cheap Texan jewellery given to Standish by a friend on New Year’s Day makes sense: it’s small, inherently personal objects that hold the greatest value to us – not necessarily the perfectly-executed expensive ones. Likewise, it’s often troubled people, those with whispered half-shared identities and dirty secrets that are the most engaging – and the most shaping.

This reflects on the often fragile and raw nature of many of the songs here, expressing short outbursts of physical and spiritual growth. In one of the cleverest lyrical moments, Standish opens the album with the words “I can make you glitter / I can make you feel glitter than this” – what could be a simple pun extends to the idea that our image of self worth is often reflective in the aura of those who respond emotionally to us, the glitter reflecting tiny specks of light back.

On the aching “Sunlight Feels like Bee Stings”, the narrator comforts another person who has unknowingly manifested in their dreams. The yearning for emotional recognition in the waking world is almost unbearable, heartbreak oozing out and contrasting Standish’s laughter during the opening moments of the song.

As so often with HTRK, tension remains unresolved, just as it does on “Fast Friend”, where boundaries between good and bad melt down: “What a house on fire / Crossed electric wire / A bat out of hell / With so many meltdowns, just makes you seem interesting.” Meanwhile, “Straight to Hell” has Standish ruminate on the eye color of an other (“as green as a serpent’s spell”) as they stare at her too long. Is it the spark of something unfulfilled, or is it anger that sends her to the titular hell? “Valentina” furthers this dilemma, likening the titular character to a rose, framing the relationship as something strangely sexual “Valentina is a rose blood red / As her petals fall on my bed / A familiar thorn in my hand… I can hardly see it / I can hardly feel it / As you push it in further.” A distant relative to Deerhunter’s “Nitebike”, it’s outstandingly charismatic.

This uncertainty of how our emotional bonds grow and shatter is characteristic of closing track “Gilbert and George”, where Standish asks “I got a lot of luck around me now / Is that the last of it? / Can I trust it?”. She finds comfort in the example of the everlasting companionship of the legendary artist duo: “Walking East London, there’s a certain type of light / Gilbert and George eat at the same place every night.” As the song all of a sudden ascends into an elysian ambient coda, the realization manifests that, in the end, all this struggle is worth it, because it makes us who we are.

And indeed, Rhinestones might not make it on most publications’ year end lists, but it is the sort of record that will be cherished and rediscovered by those who need it for many years. It’s the kind of music that, when you meet somebody for the first time and they share their appreciation for it, could signify a kindred soul.