Glitter than this: A review of HTRK at the Sydney Opera House
June 3rd 2022
Photos by Prudence Upton
Acclaimed Naarm duo HTRK recently made their ethereal debut at the Sydney Opera House for Vivid LIVE. Kicking yourself for missing it? Audrey Pfister transports you to the Drama Theatre that fateful May evening.
It starts with ‘Sunlight Feels Like Bee Stings’. Jonnine Standish and Nigel Yang of HTRK are standing on stage in the Sydney Opera House, spotlights lit behind them while Standish clicks into one microphone and sings into the other. Around the stage are pale blue roses, petals and a purple ribbon, like the kind my friend Gi wears as a magical charm, but this one is draped over Jonnine’s microphone. Her lyrics narrate a dream in which another person appears, this manifestation interrupts the narrator’s sleep (again), and then it “sets the mood for the morning light.”
It’s Friday afternoon in Martin Place. I meet my friends at the CTA Business Club for a beer, walking through the strange vacant foyer and downstairs into the red carpeted and velvet boothed bar room. It might have been this that set my mood to see HTRK’s Vivid performance as very Lynchian. I’m thinking of Lynch’s Blue Velvet nightclub scene where the character Dorothy sings the titular song upon a stage, melodramatically performative, lit in hazy blue light, and wearing a lace dress with a small rhinestone detail. Blue Velvet is all about the omnious and seductive underbelly of suburban life. HTRK’s live performance carries the same kind of spectre. It’s haunting, it’s both clandestine and melodramatic.
HTRK feels like both sunlight and bee stings to me. It feels like sunlight – warm, dappled, lustrous and life giving. And bee stings – a swelling, a prickling. I read an interview with the duo published last year, Jonnine says it herself; “personally, I was really interested in songs that kill you…”, referring to the direction she’s taken with songwriting, “…that was one thing that I was personally interested in, which you get a lot from some country and folk songs.” Immediately I agree, thinking of Townes Van Zandt, one of the few country and folk musicians I listen to. As a teenager I listened to Zandt’s ‘Heartworn Highways’ and would say the exact same thing, this music killed me. I can see why HTRK has drifted towards country; short and sweet songs that are both romantic and melancholy.
HTRK’s Vivid performance comes off the back of their 2021 Rhinestones album release – the tracks feel unadorned and sketch-like; vocals, guitar, clicking, uncomplicated synth and drum loops. In the week leading up to their performance I avoid listening to them because their music is gut-wrenching enough on a good day. After a few years of listening and dancing to club music and Soundcloud mash-ups I was afraid to go back to music that made me feel like a contemplative, melancholic teenager again.
It makes sense that this album came out of the last two years of lockdowns, a time where (like being a teenager) our worlds are so much smaller as (many of us) we’re confined predominately to our bedrooms, a particular loneliness, and maybe with some more time to pick up a new hobby. In Yang’s case this was a time where he picked up the acoustic guitar again. The quiet lockdown environment encouraged a different approach to music, as Yang says “we weren’t clubbing and that seemed like a world away.”
I was curious how this tender kind of introspective, hyperpersonal, and emotional music would translate into a public listening setting at the Opera House. After all, what does it feel like to play and/or hear ‘lockdown’ music in a room full of people?
I think about a line from one of James Baldwin’s short stories that narrates; “All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations.” But listening is undoubtedly a social relation, and Baldwin knows that too – he realised that writing that taught him about other people’s pain and heartbreak “connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.” And the same could be said of listening.
Later, HTRK plays the opening track from Rhinestones titled ‘Kiss Kiss and Rhinestones’ while the stage lights turn golden and shine at a giant disco ball. The song starts and something feels empty like I would hear if a pin dropped. A hi-hat loops, Nigel plays acoustic guitar, and Jonnine’s vocals subtly reverberate: “I can make you glitter / I can make you feel glitter than this.” But empty is maybe the wrong word, it’s empty like a shadow. It’s hefty. It’s ghostly. Standish sings “I’m covered in kisses / From head to toe oh oh.” It’s teenage, gothic country lyricism.
A rhinestone is an imitation diamond used for ornamentation. Rhinestones, the album, reveals the peculiar poetics of country and folk and, in particular, its yearnings. I think of how a lot of country, western, and folk seem to have developed from a kind of cruel-optimistic longing for the promises of the ‘good life’, upward mobility, and security. HTRK repeatedly takes us through. You could say HTRK’s music manifests as a kind of anthology of our psychic life – taking us through desires, emotions, fears, fantasies, dreams, and projections.
If at times HTRK’s songs sound recursive that seems almost precisely the point – “You can give me what I want / You can give me what I need / And I need / I can give you what you want / I can give you what you need.” Repetition here becomes less about monotony or a sameness, and instead HTRK’s repetitions become more of a re-emphasis, and an exposition of plural meanings. Repetition blurs beginnings and endings. But HTRK ends their Vivid set with ‘HA’ from their 2009 album Marry Me Tonight, with the sounds of the late Sean Stewart and Rowland S. Howard legacies echoing through. Its moody bass riff, noisy guitar, skulking drums pattern ‘HA’ alongside Standish’s vocals that swivel between something sincere and something ironic. Standish finishes with the celestial – “If you stay / I’ll make you a star,” which is to say the infinite.