Dorsal Fins – ‘Star of the Show’ review: a promising but patchy comeback record

On their first album in six years – and their first as a three-piece – Dorsal Fins start strong but lose momentum

Dorsal Fins once overflowed with members, crowding as many as 15 performers onto stage at a time. Convened by Melbourne trumpeter/keyboardist Liam McGorry as an octopus-limbed counterpoint to his existing projects Saskwatch and Eagle and the Worm, the band memorably squeezed eight members into the triple j studio to cover Kate Ceberano’s ‘Pash’ in 2015.

Today that roster stands quite reduced, with McGorry joining core members Ella Thompson (GL, The Bamboos, solo) and Jarrad Brown (Eagle and the Worm) in a streamlined three-piece lineup. Accordingly, Dorsal Fins’ formerly saturated palette has given way to a sparser, more open sound on the band’s first album in six years.

That dramatic shift is apparent from the scene-setting opener and title track, which introduces wan strings and Thompson’s layered, ruminative singing before launching into a groggy sort of deconstructed disco. Reprised later as a fleeting instrumental interlude, ‘Star of the Show’ is followed immediately by the album’s strongest pair of songs.

Advertisement

‘Sugar’ is an ode to our collective reliance on technology’s instant gratification, complete with Thompson’s aching plea: “Alexa, tell me the news today.” Effortlessly funky and catchy, it’s rivalled only by ‘Sister’, where Thompson delivers the record’s most emotionally affecting singing. Inspired by finding solidarity with someone else after sharing in their perspective, it’s the best song on the album.

That shivering ballad also showcases the impressive production on display across the record. Working with co-producer John Castle (The Bamboos, Washington), Dorsal Fins blend clean-cut brightness with crate-digging dustiness. The result is both a blurring of distinct sonic eras and a mingling of genre cues. As with McGorry’s post-Saskwatch solo project Ex-Olympian, there’s a dynamic sense of space that keeps the ear attentive to counterintuitive details, such as the subtle trumpet in the background midway through ‘Sister’.

The remainder of the album keeps up those savvy production standards but doesn’t hit as hard, as far as sheer immediacy goes. ‘S.O.S (Stick of Sage)’ employs a psychedelic sparkle and crunch against its rubbery soul pulse, yet Thompson’s vocals are given a more obscured treatment. Brown steps up to the mic for a pair of sleepy duets, murmuring through the distortion-caked R&B of ‘More than a Memory’. He also takes the lead on the Saint Etienne-esque ‘Who Wants to be a Billionaire?’ before Thompson joins in.

Albeit a sweet turn, this wistful indie pop track contributes to the lagging momentum in the record’s second half. ‘Criminal’ plays more like part of a production-minded show reel than a fully realised song, even with playful touches like smeared bleats of steel drums. The closing ‘Midnite Blue’ thankfully foregrounds emotion over mere vibe, but it doesn’t erase the nagging feeling that these nine songs resemble a series of promising scene changes more than a satisfying full-length.

Perhaps we can chalk it up to the growing pains of paring an abundant slate of talented members down to just three players. A sense of incompleteness may linger over Dorsal Fins’ third album, but those first few songs shine bright enough to spell plenty of promise for the future.

Details

Dorsal Fins album Star of the Show
  • Release date: May 13
  • Record label: Dot Dash
Advertisement
Advertisement