Michael Cullen – True Believer

Michael Cullen - True Believer

Michael Cullen – True Believer

Sydney, Australia-based singer-songwriter Michael Cullen is back with his sophomore effort, True Believer, which was released late last year.  The album was crafted by Michael with assistance from timEbandit (sic) Powles (AKA Tim Powles of The Church).  Michael’s distinctive baritone vocals resonate over the nine tracks of True Believer, calling to mind such artists as Nick Cave and Tom Waits.  An unusual feature of Michael’s output is that he uses all analogue equipment, from old semi-acoustic guitars to recording devices like tape machines and tube microphones.  True Believer was recorded on tape at Space Junk III and Studios 301 in Sydney between 2010 and 2013.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Michael was involved in various post-punk bands, including The Hardheads with his brother Jon.  While recording the album You Buried Me, the band members felt that their sound had evolved and they changed their name to Watershed.  Tim Powles played drums on that album and a fruitful friendship between Michael and Tim flowered has sustained itself over the past 20 years.  In the early 2000s Michael released his debut album, Love Transmitter, with Tim on drums.  It wasn’t well promoted at the time, but later received critical recognition and was reissued in 2012.

Michael and Tim collaborate again on True Believer and the result is an atmospheric, lyrics-driven, indie-rock platter topped with Michael’s brooding-to-exclamatory vocals.  The album opens on a foreboding note with the compelling “Black Dog”, as Michael channels Nick Cave through deep, spoken word vocals, pushing out “You just couldn’t pay your debts / Still you tore out my heart / with no regrets,” against cutting guitar lines and harmonizing backing vocals.  Michael continues to ‘talk’ instead of sing on cornerstone number “Believer”, this time in a plainer tone with a slight Australian accent.  A thick mix of organs, synths, bass, guitars, and up-tempo drums roil around Michael as he intones the Steve Kilbey-like, rhyming lyrics “the heart is a deceiver” and “I was lost / A true believer.”

Michael sing-talks in a lighter fashion on “Nothing Special” about a demolished relationship, straightforwardly stating that “You were nothing special / Just capricious / even vicious / but nothing special.”  A blend of piano and organ, clapping, jingling, shaken percussion, and drum beats (and at certain points even pulled strings and horns) add a fancier sonic patina to Michael’s matter-of-fact vocal delivery.  Ripely strummed guitar, piano and organ, and kinetic drums push “Black Coffee And Cigarettes” along as Michael sing-talks, again about a ruined relationship, admitting “What would I give / to kill these regrets.”

The lead single, the darkly, starkly romantic “Cha Cha Cha D’Amour”, puts Michael’s deeper vocal croon on full display, as he slides into a softer tone, expressing more positively that “No more weepin’ will be heard / People in love always keep their word.”  The constantly shifting and upbeat drum pace is matched by supple guitar lines and hand claps.  The gospel-tinged, relationship-riddled “I Walk Alone” is awash in a lush ambience of sustained synths, organ and piano, backing vocals, tambourine, and a measured drum pattern.  In contrast, Michael drily states that “Under the desert sun / I walk alone / Your words are lost / Like dust they have blown…”  Michael’s own observant words, however, will last much longer in listeners’ minds…

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