The last time an acclaimed Australian act returned with new music after 16 years (a niche category if there ever was one) was The Avalanches’ 2016 comeback ‘Wildflower’. The difference between the plunderphonics pioneers and Newtown mainstays The Whitlams, however, is the latter never truly went into hibernation.
Up until recently, for obvious reasons, you could catch them undertaking national tours every year. Be it a night out with the orchestra or a traditional theatre gig, the Sydney band seemed content with rolling out their greatest hits for audiences practically raised on them. It may well have stayed that way too, were it not for the sudden and untimely passing of the band’s road manager Greg Weaver in 2019.
Weaver’s death prompted bandleader Tim Freedman to begin work on his first collection of new songs since his 2011 solo album ‘Australian Idle’. The end result, ‘Sancho’ – so named after Freedman’s nickname for Weaver – is a worthy addition to The Whitlams’ illustrious canon. It’s both a timely reminder of what made the group such a charming prospect to begin with and proof that Freedman has lost none of his finesse as a songwriter even after over a decade away.
Curiously, for a project with such personal origins, ‘Sancho’ is bookended by songs and stories that are not Freedman’s. The album opener, ‘Catherine Wheel’, is a cover of a highlight from Washington’s 2020 album ‘Batflowers’; the closer, ‘Ballad of Bertie Kidd’, is a retold yarn from a chance pub encounter who claimed to be roped into a failed heist by the titular criminal.
It’s testament to Freedman’s quintessential persona and decades of storytelling, though, that he is able to inhabit both songs with ease. ‘Catherine Wheel’ requires vulnerability, while ‘Bertie Kidd’ tos-and-fros with innocence lost – two aspects of music that are certainly not lost on a performer as seasoned as Freedman.
‘Bertie Kidd’, in particular, is one of the best showcases of the four-piece as a collective: guitarist Jak Housden pits atonal snarl against spy-movie dramatics as the song’s mood shifts, while Warwick Hornby (bass) and Terepai Richmond (drums) know exactly when to lean in and out accordingly as the story unfolds.
Loss and grief have served as the muse to some of The Whitlams’ most beloved songs, the ‘Charlie’ trilogy from 1997’s ‘Eternal Nightcap’ and ‘Blow Up the Pokies’ from 1999’s ‘Love This City’ among them. When it comes to the title track and its prequel ‘Sancho in Love’, however, Freedman defies the grim overtones of his past work on the subject and instead forges a celebration of Weaver’s life.
As such, ‘Sancho’ fondly recalls boozy tours full of in-jokes and sing-alongs, jaunty piano and waltzing drums underscoring the whole affair. ‘Sancho in Love’, a few tracks later, ups the energy even further as Freedman portrays a young Weaver finding his calling atop a bustling arrangement that’s about as pub-rock as the collared-shirt Whitlams are likely to get.
The world surrounding The Whitlams has changed drastically since they released 2006’s ‘Little Cloud’. Perhaps the best thing about ‘Sancho’ is that the world it’s inheriting feels that little bit warmer and safer due to its presence. A wistful, endearing collection of songs from a seemingly-evergreen band, ‘Sancho’ will have fans feeling thankful that such a triumph has arisen out of such a tragedy.
- Release date: January 28
- Record label: E.G. Records