Album review: Too Much Water in the Boat — Charles Jenkins & The Zhivagos

Too Much Water in the Boat is an album full of delight, melancholy, fun, and surprises. It begins not with a plaintive guitar or voice as you might expect, but a thundering of syncopated drum rolls. These explode into a blistering surf-rock instrumental called ‘The Prime Minster is Missing’ — a reference to former PM Harold Holt who disappeared in the oceans of southern Victoria in 1967.

It’s almost a template for the rest of the album: a unique take on Australian history, a playful mastery of genres, a sense of humour, and … water. Yes, it’s a concept album of sorts, but one so broad it doesn’t leap out at first. Jenkins’ songs on Too Much Water cover everything from the Snowy Mountain hydro-electric scheme to the plight of asylum seekers in our waters to cross-dressing bush rangers. It’s not just the topics that range around, but the musical styles too. It all has that country feel but shot through with hard rock, surfabilly, piano ballads and good old pop.

The unifying factor in such a diverse work is Jenkins’ strong voice – with its hints of Paul Kelly and Tim Freedman – and a really cracking band. The Zhivagos are a powerhouse. Davey Lane’s guitar tone somehow manages to shimmer even as it grunts and his lines are effortlessly tasteful. From the mini-drum solo that opens the album David Andrew Milne never puts a stick wrong. Matty Vehl’s piano playing is versatile, covering ground from honky tonk to cry-in-your-beer balladry. When his organ line appears halfway through ‘Sweet Mildura’ it sounds like morning. Art Star’s bass lines hang back to support the song, but just often enough he lets them shine in their own right.

It’s an album of highlights, but a few songs really leap out. ‘Sweet Mildura’ is a heartbreaking song about fertile soil once “made rich with root” now turned barren by drought. The song’s refrain “a mighty river slows” evokes tragedy with concise poetry.

‘(Ain’t Enough Love) On the Snowy Mountains’ is a love song set against the backdrop of the Snowy Mountain scheme. It’s delightfully catchy and idiosyncratic, and features Jenkins in duet with the excellent Suzannah Espie. According to Jenkins, Espie sang him the song in a dream!

‘7 Creeks (the crossdresser Steve Hart)’ is a country-pop tall tale about Steve Hart, a member of the Kelly gang who appears wearing a dress in this Sidney Nolan painting. The track features jangly piano work, a rhythm you want to inject, a killer chorus, and the immortal refrain “It felt so good to have a petticoat on”. I’ve been unable to hear this song without re-listening to it three times while jumping around a bit smiling like an idiot. You should try it, works wonders.

The searing instrumental ‘Christmas Island’ is the album’s darkest moment. A mute wail of human suffering and political angst inspired by images of asylum seekers flung into rocks and foam off Christmas Island. Jenkins chose to forgo lyrics on this track, saying “what is happening is a little bit unbelievable and beyond words.” He’s right, the music is aggressive and mournful; in need of no language to express such primal horror.

Between Jenkins’ world-class songwriting, eccentric vision, and distinctive voice and the Zhivagos huge musicianship this is an album that will floor you. There’s enough lyrical and musical nourishment in Too Much Water to keep you coming back for years; and when it’s this good too much is not enough.

*You can hear Brian Wise interview Charles Jenkins about the album here (the interview starts around 2:22:40) and check out the hilarious film clip for 7 Creeks here.