Emma Donovan & The Putbacks – ‘Under These Streets’ review: a powerful, more spontaneous third outing

A consistently and sometimes subtly experimental record from the veteran singer and the funk/soul band

Emma Donovan has been singing all her life, first in church with her grandparents and later in formative band The Donovans with her mother and several uncles. Growing up in New South Wales with a Gumbaynggirr/Dhangatti mother and a father of the Naaguja and Yamatji people, she has sung with everyone from Archie Roach to Paul Kelly.

She pours that accumulated experience into fronting Melbourne instrumental ensemble The Putbacks. As proven by 2020’s impressive album ‘Crossover’, which saw Donovan draw deeply on her layered roles as a mother, daughter and granddaughter, her raw-edged yet powerfully controlled singing is a natural fit with The Putbacks’ psych-tinged funk and soul. Released less than 11 months later, this third outing is more spontaneous in feel, sounding like an intuitive group of collaborators reacting to each other in real time while experimenting at every step.

You can hear that most on the album centrepiece ‘Call Out’, a call to reclaim the deeper history and culture of what is now Naarm (Melbourne). After citing the Wurundjeri land on which the album was recorded, Donovan reminds listeners of the stories that have been suppressed by the violent erasure of First Nations people: “We know this Black history / under these streets.” Donovan’s chanted harmonies in the background (“Reclaim it, reclaim it”) subtly bolster her main vocal; it’s a canny tactic that she makes good use of elsewhere on the album. Meanwhile, The Putbacks jam out nicely in the song’s midsection, flexing their easy dexterity with extended instrumental passages.

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Rather than settling for either vintage soul or a more contemporary sound, The Putbacks play like they’re outside of time, adapting familiar motifs from a comfortable remove. Even at the band’s most funky, as on the romantic ‘Take Some Time’, the distorted drums and flaring organ feel caked with dust in the best sense, like recovered artefacts from an uncertain decade. The entire album’s production follows suit, encouraging a lived-in vibe that suits Donovan’s robust vocal flourishes while lending a close, confiding air to her lyrics.

Take ‘Mountains Of Wind And Rainbows’, on which the cavernous reverb is even more pronounced and Donovan’s vocals kept notably far back in the mix. One might expect a singer of Donovan’s calibre to stay front and centre on a track, but even at a distance, she gives the spacious composition as much quiet character as the cooling vibraphone and slinky rhythm section. It evokes both Khruangbin and The Budos Band, two other current bands riffing freely off a framework of funk, soul and psych.

Commissioned as part of The City of Melbourne’s Flash Forward programme – a diverse slate of new work spanning dozens of albums, gigs and visual art pieces – the album also sees Donovan mingle themes of romantic vulnerability with statements of wider solidarity. ‘No Woman Left Behind’ salutes the combined power of sisterhood and womanhood (“Ain’t no woman gonna get left behind”), while the hypnotically slow ‘Home’ describes her enduring connection with family, including her two daughters: “You just make me feel like home.”

But most surprising is the closing ‘Love Without Limit’, a slow and mournful ballad centred on Simon Mavin’s jazzy piano. It’s more open and diffuse than anything else on ‘Under These Streets’, showing once again how The Putbacks can change form as needed to honour the burning sincerity of Donovan’s voice and lyrics alike.

Details

Emma Donovan and the Putbacks new album 2021 Under These Streets
  • Release date: September 17
  • Record label: Heavy Machinery
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