New York City indie rock often seems like a self-perpetuating beast, churning out shoddy carbon copies of the same uninspired, affectless ideas, a ubiquitous form which has gradually devolved as something flaccid, predictable, and boring. It’s this frame of mind that fuels my giddy enthusiasm for Melbourne, Australia’s three-piece guitar outfit, Arbes. The two-thirds female trio reclaim tropes of “surf rock,” “slacker rock,” and “lo-fi bedroom shit” on their debut EP Swimmer, but the end result of the six-track release is a cleaner, simpler, more sublime iteration of a sound gone stagnant.
I was first struck by the fullness and fluency of Arbes, their apparent ease maneuvering through unconventional avenues of rock. Swimmer is outlined with subtle idiosyncrasies that distinguish this trio across cities and hemispheres, from Anita Agathangelou frenetic, frisky, hip-hop-aligned drum cadences to Jess Zanoni’s stirring, and sometimes swoon-worthy, yelps and hollers. Their youthfully feminine integrity harkens upon West coast’s all-girl foursome Chastity Belt without the brooding lethargy of their outstanding Time to Go Home LP.
Zanoni’s ponderous and provocative vocals work in peculiar harmony with Sam Pannifex’s blurry, blues-soaked riffs and slinky guitar figures, each instrument providing searing melodies and strong hooks that refuse to be forgotten. Our bass-playing frontwoman sings about time, complacency, and water, themes echoed clearly in the way this music sounds, how it drifts, lulls, and saunters like surf against the sand. At her most impressive she’s authoritative, howling seemingly unrelated observations at you like important pieces of advice or fortune cookie messages. Such is the vibe on Arbes’ blissed-out debut single “Beach Side,” where Zanoni sings, “Whenever the tide drops, you’re sailing stops.” On Swimmer, the similarly grooving “Key Largo” opens the EP, an ecstatic, sun-kissed swirl of vibrant guitar licks and sassy, samba-inspired drum fills.
Swimmer‘s B-side is moodier, more dynamic, and ultimately more interesting. The first half of “Don’t Know What To Do,” a reserved interplay of tight guitar lines and calm shuffling percussion, devotes more attention to Zanoni’s hushed vocals than anywhere else on the release. But at the halfway point, the energy inverts and implodes as the instruments strike into double-time and release the tension. The reserved, no-frills psych rock of closing track “45” is also composed of two distinguishable parts, split by a whirling interlude of disruptive electronics that dismantle and revamp the song. When our vocalist returns there’s a new edge to her words, “Don’t tell me what I know is mine/Don’t hesitate, don’t sail away.”
There are parts of this EP that embody the vigor of youth, a thematic cornerstone of indie rock, what it feels like to be young, at ease, and wonderfully naive. But Swimmer‘s more exceptional moments occur when the formula is complicated, when the oddities and misfortunes of life and love make their way into the music and take over. It’s a difficult dichotomy to maintain, but Arbes make it sound easy.
Stream Swimmer below.