Adult pop experimenting with hip-hop sounds terrible, but it works on Big Scary’s second LP, Not Art. The art-free title and simple artwork hint at the simplicity of the elements – so much of the album is made up of just piano and drums, with electric guitar and keyboard brought in for some songs. It was quite surprising to realize how much drama was created by just a drum beat and a guitar strum on “Phil Collins.” Again, none of this should work on paper, but it does. Somehow this Australian duo can combine National-like dad rock with pop, add some late ‘80s/early “90s alternative, throw in some hip hop-inspired samples, and it comes off sounding unpretentious and uncluttered. Big Scary is made up of Tom Iansek (vocals, guitar, and piano) and Jo Syme (vocals, drums.)
The band took inspiration from various places. As mentioned, they took the idea of sampling from hip hop and injected into their songs. “Twin Rivers” embraces samples: the chorus, sung by Jo, sounds as though it was sampled in between Tom’s spoken verses. Tinkly piano sounds sampled over a big beat. Speaking of spoken lyrics, Tom (sort of) raps on the verses of the trip-hop track “Invest.” “Luck Now” is also heavy on the sampling sound, with short samples of drums and piano repeated throughout the song. Though there is a song called “Why Hip Hop Sucks in ’13,” it neither is hip hop nor does it explain why hip hop sucks in ’13. It does, however, give us a lovely ballad sung by Jo with Tom providing deeper backing vocals. If you told me that Feist had provided lead vocals for this track, I would have believed it. “Phil Collins” is not an ode to everyone’s favorite Genesis drummer; it was so named because the powerful drum beat reminded the band of “In the Air Tonight.” The reverb-rich guitar that harkens back to “How Soon Is Now?” The vocals at times call to mind Muse. “Belgian Blues” also has a bit of the “How Soon Is Now?” spirit. There’s such a late ’80s, early ‘90s alternative sound to it that no one would blink if it were snuck into an alternative radio station’s retro lunch hour. The slow, simple-yet-powerful “Lay Me Down” channels Jeff Buckley. The opening track, “Hello, My Name Is,” is kind of the black sheep of the album. It features a back-and-forth of soft guitar and crashing drums before Tom’s vocals come in to list everything that he is not. Though it doesn’t quite match the rest of the rest of the album, it doesn’t clash with it, either.
The lyrics are smart; many of them come back to relationships. The chows of “Twin Rivers” describes a relationship so strained that the couple “can’t even muster a fight.” The verses (with Tom’s male vocals) center on someone who can’t bear to wake up while the chorus (sung with Jo’s female vocals) are about the relationship. It really ties back into the title, that these two are twin rivers who flow alongside each other but never intersect. “Luck Now” has lyrics like “see my love is no formal position, see my love is just cold repetition re-done” and repeats the idea of repetition through the short samples of drums and piano. It’s an intelligent touch.
Big Scary is able to work a lot of different elements into this album and still make it cohesive. It’s a relaxed, easy listen that would be ideal for fans of the National and Jeff Buckley who like a little experimentation (but just a little, not enough to be ‘art,’ of course.)