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MAKING AN UNDER STATEMENT : Melbourne Shuffle Is One Aussie Band That Has Plenty to Say Without Shouting It

March 18, 1993|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition.

In rock, it usually takes a Big Gesture to reach a big audience, and Australian rock has been no exception.

The most famous Aussie bands are AC/DC (the comic big gesture), Midnight Oil (the politically passionate big gesture) and INXS (the studly big gesture).

In terms of performance perambulation, we've seen Angus Young enliven AC/DC shows with his skittering-tot version of the old duck walk, Peter Garrett front Midnight Oil with his herky-jerk stomping about and INXS's Michael Hutchence do his best preen-and-pose Jim Morrison imitation.

Shuffling is for more modest types--such as the singer-songwriters featured in the Melbourne Shuffle, a package concert by four Australian performers who will play Monday at the Coach House.

Paul Kelly and Archie Roach are the two shufflers who have U.S. cult followings from previous releases. Deborah Conway and Chris Wilson arrive as new imports who have established themselves Down Under but have yet to surface on record Over Here. The four have worked together in various capacities and combinations, writing songs, producing or playing on albums with each other. They also record for the same Australian label, Melbourne-based Mushroom Records. On this brief tour (the Shuffle is only a three-date amble designed to drum up U.S. label interest, with a showcase Friday at the South by Southwest music conference in Austin, Tex., before the Coach House show and a concert Wednesday at Club Lingerie in Hollywood), the four will play solo and with a shared, six-piece backing band.

With his former band, the Messengers, Kelly has released four albums in America, starting with the excellent "Gossip" in 1986. "Dumb Things," a gutsy, blues-flavored rocker, got some airplay a few years back. Otherwise, he has fallen into the honorable company of songwriters who consistently write strong melodies and evocative lyrics, but don't get particularly famous doing it.

After three albums for a major U.S. label, A&M, Kelly and the Messengers broke up last year, but not before issuing "Comedy," a strong, 18-song farewell album that was picked up stateside by the Orange-based independent label, Doctor Dream. Kelly has since moved to Los Angeles. In Australia, meanwhile, Mushroom recently issued a double CD album of his post-Messengers live solo performances.

American audiences first heard Archie Roach last year when his 1990 debut album, "Charcoal Lane," was picked up by the independent HighTone label. It's an uncommonly poignant album, based in folk and country sources, and rooted in the tragic events of Roach's own life. Roach, an Australian Aboriginal, was the victim of an oppressive Australian government policy of the 1950s and '60s, in which Aboriginal children were taken from their families to be raised in white foster homes, in the interest of "assimilation."

In Roach's case, that sundering from his roots led to his own harrowing shuffle from abusive homes to street crime to alcoholism. With his husky but gentle voice, Roach tells the tales in "Charcoal Lane" with an absence of fury, a vast store of dignity and a surpassing sadness.

It would be hard to maintain that level of intensity: On his just-released follow-up album on HighTone, "Jamu Dreaming," Roach retraces some of the ground covered in "Charcoal Lane," but he is mainly concerned with moving forward with softer, more optimistic reflections on love and family that leave behind the first album's pervasive anguish.

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