On the record he is launching tonight, J. Walker (Machine Translations) fought to break new ground yet, on its release, people enthused The Bright Door was “classic” Machine Translations.
No-one could argue, however, that there is a “classic” Machine Translations show. Tucked away in his South Gippsland studio – where he composes for Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and makes records for Paul Kelly, Holly Throsby and others – Walker delights in too many bent and broken sounds to replicate his records faithfully onstage. Instead, he magics up new approximations each time that change flavour but never diminish, like an everlasting gobstopper.
Tonight showcases The Bright Door’s bracing clash of guitars; a cacophony softened by Walker’s acoustic guitar and spiced by the bitter twang of Eastern tones. Some here, presumably newcomers to Machine Translations’ shows, seem surprised at how much noise the band is layering up on stage.
When it arrives, there is no mistaking the moment when the room slips into spellbound. The band downs rock ‘n’ roll’s conventional tools for hand drums and (what looks like) a tiny harp, as Walker sits to play the ‘erhu’ (the bowed instrument you see Chinese men busking with). The eerily looping ‘Anne’ is goose-bumpy on record but spine tingling live; a masterpiece of unresolved suspense that typifies all the reasons Machine Translations’ hooks just sink deeper with the years.
‘Perfect Crime’ yanks us from our reveries and drops us deep in glorious racket again, where Walker is singing in that voice of his that never quite meets your eye. “And my face got older / I learnt my lines / And the lock speaks a language though the key can understand.”
If you want to speak of “classic” Machine Translations, is it this. A lyric rich and riddle-like, its clarity dependent on the light, which is flooding towards it now in this dingy Kings Cross tower. The language being The Bright Door – which, bar two others, dominates tonight’s set – as translated by Walker acting as both lock and key to songs which don’t yield their secrets easily but, as a result, endure long.