In Mess Esque, the collaborative project of Dirty Three guitarist Mick Turner and McKisko composer Helen Franzmann, dream logic and inventive indie soundscapes collide. Turner balances his meandering guitarwork with dispersed, ever-evolving textures from other instruments, while Franzmann grounds her submerged, imprecise vocals in contemplative, surreal lyrics, which came from diary entries made in the early hours of the morning after dreaming.
Mess Esque is informed by Turner’s refined skill for collaboration – partially honed through working with vocalists like Cat Power, most notably on her acclaimed 1998 record ‘Moon Pix’ – and his history of traversing chaotic yet cathartic instrumental genres. In turn, Franzmann reaches deep into her indie-experimental toolbox, one that holds over a decade’s worth of the musician’s carefully garnered insights; her mesmerising live performances as McKisko led her to support Bon Iver and Jose Gonzales on their 2009 tours.
Turner and Franzmann’s second self-titled record brims with collaborative chemistry – and yet it was made without the two meeting face-to-face. Like so many records composed during the pandemic, Turner and Franzmann passed audio files back and forth over email. Rather than adding layers on top of each other’s musical ideas, they re-wrote the songs as they went, Turner re-shaping them to suit Franzmann’s emerging lyrics.
“Study your shadow / leads you to yourself,” she sing-speaks on ‘Wake up to yesterday’. The lyric brings to mind psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s concept of the shadow archetype: the idea that everyone has an unconscious, darker side to their personality. Franzmann brings the fantastical home in ‘Jupiter’, a story about extra-terrestrial escape. Her voice slides up and down in siren-like fashion, crooning, “Jupiter is calling / away I go”.
The album’s foundational layers are made of Turner’s spontaneous, considered guitar and scattered drumming, and Franzmann’s stories and vocals, which are at times pearly, at others, coarse. Together, these layers interlace with ease, making steady passage through all the tweaking and twitching sounds in their orbit.
‘Mess Esque’ is also home to rich embellishments. We hear a psychedelic riff wailing at the end of ‘Wake up to yesterday’; a sharp, irregular organ wanders off-beat in ‘Forever’, and a hollow sax supports the emotional swell in ‘Sweetspot’. While never overthought, these six songs have been thoroughly pinched and pulled at until they’ve grown into their own thing.
Watching Turner live, as I did when he performed with Dirty Three at the Sydney Opera House in 2019, one comes to understand him as a melodic anchor, supplying the steady glue that prevents the music in his collaborations from falling into disconnection. His repetitive melodic phrases on ‘Mess Esque’ have an easing, meditative effect, sparse, cyclical songs like closer ‘Beneath the rain’ able to calm prickling anxiety to a steady hum.
‘Mess Esque’ is an intimate, conversational instrumental-vocal album created by two artists who have been forced to make their respective journeys in separate spaces: Turner in Melbourne, Franzmann in Brisbane. If this is what they’ve achieved in isolation, the duo’s collaboration can only grow richer.
- Release date: October 22
- Record label: Milk! Records / Remote Control