Last Beautiful Day
(Dot Dash/Arts & Crafts; 2004/2005)
By Aaron Newell | 1 December 2004
My first encounter with the music of Sally Seltmann was at a Cat Power show in Melbourne, Australia. My girlfriend Abi and I arrived a little late, all ignorant to the just-another-support-act-we’d-never-heard-of. “New Buffalo, huh? Let’s sit on a bench outside for a little while instead.”
We eventually strolled into the theatre through the ground-floor side entrance and found ourselves walking directly in front of an entranced crowd who were remarkably not ignoring Seltmann’s set (opening acts generally get too-little audience props in Melbourne, to the point where unreasoned snobbery is deathly contagious). I was somewhat red-faced at having to walk through the gazes of about 300 people, all contentedly fixated on the half-dancing, half-looking-for-somewhere-to-hide singer on stage. Abs and I quickly parked ourselves in empty seats in the front row (instead of embarking on an epic mission to track down our mid-aisle latecomer assigned nosebleed seats), and turned our attentions to the bafflingly attention-getting support act on stage.
Right when we’d settled in, Sally moped into “Come Back,” a gradual, delicate, very deliberate and altogether gorgeous slow-picked guitar ballad. Halfway through the song I realized I was slumped in my seat, one head’s height above Abs, who happened to be resting her head on my shoulder. I glanced around a little. Every couple I could spot had cuddled up, cozied into their seats, enraptured by Sally’s heart-wrenching, high-pitched and breathy “I needja now’s" on the chorus. I said: “So, even if Cat Power gets absurdly drunk, sings three songs, talks about Dizzee Rascal for a half hour, and then apologizes profusely to the majority of the crowd while calling the minority assholes, again, this will have been a good show.” Abs agreed. We were both so enchanted at the end of the set that when New Buffalo opened for Mount Eerie later that year I made sure we arrived a good hour in advance, almost by way of apology.
Much like Darren Hanlon, New Buffalo is an isolated Melbourne phenomenon that, when given media attention, is adorned with superlatives and 5-star ratings from major arts critics (like the cokemachine) and local free press student writers (cough) alike. Her recording history goes back to 2001 when she released About Last Night, a 5-song EP on Modular/EMI (Sparklehorse, Beta Band, Avalanches) which quietly became the object of affection of thoroughly-seduced critics in both the UK and Australia. Last Night, while strong, was not a “commercial success” (in fairness, do labels really count on an EP being a “commercial success?"). New label Heavenly Records (Beth Orton, The Doves, The Vines) therefore pulled the plug on Sally’s L.A. sessions with producer Jake Davies (Bjork, Madonna) and sent her back to Melbourne with no masters, no deal, and a glutton’s share of promise.
Now, when I write “flew back to Melbourne,” what I really mean is “flew back to Melbourne where, with the help of husband Darren Seltmann of the brilliant Avalanches, she built herself a verandah (!) studio and then proceeded to write/play/record/program/produce The Last Beautiful Day all by herself, on her own terms, with zero help except for Jim White’s drums on three tracks and Beth Orton’s (background) vocals on one.” Sorry, I thought I should clarify.
Also, whenever I say The Last Beautiful Day what I’m really saying is “a cross between the melodic perfection of Mirah’s C’mon Miracle and the successful, quirky experimentation of Bjork’s Medulla that feistily scraps with both for female singer/songwriter album-of-the-year merits.” That’s what I mean.
Now, with all of Sally’s perseverance in the face of stunned-as-hell corporates, and with the nurturing support of her landsliding selecta hubby, the resulting album could also be reasonably nicknamed “Labour of Love.” Beautiful Day revolves around relationships, friendly and romantic. All songs sound somewhat broken, beat-up, and patchworked with odd and off-key classical and 40’s jazz samples (warbly Duke Ellington horns grow over Seltmann’s strikingly organic pop in numerous places). Sally used an Akai MPC—-a somewhat-gritty beat machine employed by hip-hop producers such as Organized Noize, Sixtoo, and Diamond D—-to record/sequence her finely-cut vinyl-mined gems. The ultimate results are soothingly unique, seamless interplays of sample recording and live playing; they never come off contrived and always result in an undeniable, unmistakable “New Buffalo” sound that winks at you while stubbornly resisting any critic-friendly sounds-like comparisons. I do, however, feel safe in saying that if you take your favourite sweetcore indie pop recording from any recent year and place it next to Beautiful Day the two will quickly join hands, skip away together, and become best friends for life.
The lead single “Recovery”—-which, for what it’s worth, received Australian indie radio “single of the week” honours (Beautiful Day itself being “album of the week” all over the down-under map)—-is a grin-inducing electro-clap shuffle, at once pure indie-pop pleasure and a bizarrely slanted, drunkenly hovering sonic apparition. Think of a female vocalist airily inhabiting the space between A.C. Newman’s catchy songwriting and Daedalus’ twisted lounge sampling and, along with exhausting your imagination thanks to my doomed-to-be-difficult comparison, you’ll hopefully be somewhat approximating its sound.
Seltmann’s voice is remarkable in its childlike honesty, is roughly-refined, full, and always takes centre-stage despite her bewilderingly enchanting and unique production. She impresses on “Come Back” with an ability to calmly evoke listener sobs with her emotive, scaling range, but on the percussion-driven (here’s where Jim White’s fantastic playing comes in) “No Party” where Sally sings “all the ideas in my mind / patterns in my eyes / you’re the one who makes me come alive” and follows it up with telling-but-simple “oohs” and “ahs” you genuinely feel like you’ve stumbled into the middle of her diary. Sampled strings and horns all flit in and out of the mix on their own time (yes there are samples, but there is rarely any looping; the record is thus “compositional” in the truest sense). The result is an originally warped and twisted love song that remains fresh even after two months of steady rotation (really).
In fact, aside from the more-traditional tear-jerking date-maker “Come Back,” all of these songs are “new”; they push the sample-slash-live-instrumentation ceiling up into the clouds. When you consider the number of electronic acts that we’re all generally getting sick of, a unique and incredibly catchy, intelligent, delicate and altogether new take on this realm is by nature an exhilarating experience. The fact that it’s smothered in melted hope, affection and charm just rounds out the package. The Last Beautiful Day is a testament to how the DIY ethic can result in boundary-breaking creativity when employed by an adept production decision-maker who also happens to have an endearingly on-point voice. Catch New Buffalo at the pubs while you still can.