Australia’s Northern Territory is an untamed landscape of picturesque, raw beauty. Red soil stretches on to meet endless blue sky, and towering twisted rock formations loom over the expansive desert plains. In this land of arid air and thunder-split skies, 31 year old singer-songwriter Jess Ribeiro formed her identity. Eschewing the country rock sound last seen on 2012’s My Little River, Ribeiro returns through personal hardship with Kill it Yourself, assisted for the first time by the Boys Next Door/Bad Seeds/Birthday Party multi-instrumentalist Mick Harvey.
Ribeiro formed her band The Bone Collectors in 2008, and assisted by fellow members Rob the Law and Damo Meoli, Ribeiro recorded her first EP Pilgrimage over the course of three days in a small room behind a gay nightclub in Darwin. My Little River was their debut proper, more professionally recorded in a converted bakery outside Melbourne.
In the three years since then, Ribeiro relocated from Melbourne back home to Darwin. She parted ways with her two band members and faced life for the first time as a solo artist. These have been dark years, years which the cosmologically-minded Ribeiro feels are celestially effected by Saturn’s placement in the sky relevant to the time of her birth. Ribeiro recently told Rolling Stone:
“Everything I loved and felt certain about died and I became disillusioned about the world and my place in it. I was coming out of a heavy depression hole when I met Mick. For me, recording with Mick was about the process rather than the outcome. I just wanted to make something with someone and it turned out to be him.”
Ribeiro drove across America recently, playing PJ Harvey’s wonderful Mick Harvey-produced 2011 record Let England Shake on repeat. At the trip’s end, Ribeiro heard another of Harvey’s productions and found the courage to ask the supremely gifted artist if he would work with her on an upcoming, indefinite project.
Harvey is a musical polymath whose dark, textural, organic sense of Australiana is a natural fit for Ribeiro. Kill it Yourself is more texturally rich than anything Ribeiro has made before, and the record is typified by downtempo country-isms, wry introverted lyrical musings, and a lurching sense of danger that rarely surfaces but is always there.
“With women, they need to be listened to, especially in music where it’s often very male dominated,” Harvey said of the Kill it Yourself recording process. “I realised I needed to create an environment in which she was confident and could say what she thought at any moment.” Ribeiro attests to Harvey’s unconventional approach, recalling: “He said, ‘Bring in a bass player who doesn’t know how to play the bass because I don’t want someone who can play too well because they’ll bring a lot of ego into it’. I asked my friend Jade [McInall], she knows how to play but she doesn’t have anything to prove. As soon as we had one rehearsal, I was like, yep, this is perfect.”
The core each of these tracks is consistently formed by three common elements: bass riffs that are quietly propulsive and distinctly simple, subtle half-tempo drum hits in the low register, and Jason Molina-esque Fender guitar lines that meander angularly above the rest. Occasionally piano appears in the background, while horns and strings quietly swell from time-to-time, but the palette is purposefully kept simple.
Opening track The Wild begins with the mournful swell of violin, and a beautiful string arrangement carries the entire, brilliant track. In many ways it is a shame that Ribeiro and Harvey don’t employ such instrumentation on more of the songs here; there is a distinct timbre to her voice that sounds at home alongside quiet strings such as these. Throughout the album, each element is offset by Ribeiro’s vocal - half Hope Sandoval, half Cat Power - which effortlessly drifts across the sparse musical arrangements and commands attention with every syllable.
“Sharpen the blade/ Don’t make a fuss/ As fast as you can/ Kill it yourself,” Ribeiro sings on the standout title track, over plodding drums, gentle piano accents, and guitar chords that slowly build in intensity. “Hold her down/ Quiet and firm/ When she bleeds, let it all out/ Kill it yourself.” The lyrics to the track and the title to the album were inspired by a traumatic dream in which the vegetarian Ribeiro was tasked with the killing of a chicken. The words chosen in these songs often seem at odds with Ribeiro’s vocals, hushed and easy on the ear as they are, but they are in fact made all the more impactful for the juxtaposition. The chorus of Kill it Yourself is catchy, pretty, even half-happy; the songstress plays with extremes and opposites throughout the album, deftly using such contrast to her advantage.
Run Rabbit Run recalls John Cale’s haunting dirge-like instrumentation on the classic Stooges cut We Will Fall, while Rivers On Fire begins with a simple guitar line that is repeated until - as wailing saxophone and multi-tracked vocal chants enter the mix - late Stooges Fun House classics like L.A. Blues are plainly evoked. Ribeiro only occasionally delivers on the dangerous promise inherent in her favoured lyrical darkness, but when she does the results are glorious. Rivers On Fire burns with an intensity that is gripping from beginning to end.
Elsewhere, Born to Ride is a menacing slow burner, where the bandleader’s soft voice is offset by subtle keyboard chords and male backing vocals. Everything is carried by a propulsive tempo; of the song’s origin, Ribeiro has said: “I love driving long distance, through desolate places. Whenever we travel, I imagine the land to be a sleeping, dreaming dinosaur that holds all the memories of the earth.”
Sonically, Born to Ride effortlessly embodies the sensation of the dry Australian outback rolling by a dusty window, stars wheeling overhead and nothing but darkness and the harsh headlight beams ahead. Ribeiro’s music is best when she plays to her strength of recalling her unique native landscape, which she does effortlessly on many of these tracks. “Beyond the lights/ Beyond the tar/ We go out further than we’ve been before/ To see the whole world leave the old world behind,” Ribeiro sings, and we are taken on the journey with her.
This music belongs to the hushed moments that precede one of northern Australia’s typically ferocious thunderstorms. A sense of unease, and yet a distinctly vulnerable beauty waft through air that is heavy in the oppressive silence. The fantastic track Unfamiliar Ground captures this sensation keenly; hauntingly sparse music full of wounds, memories, and stoic introspection.
Strange Game is perhaps the record’s finest moment. Drawn from Ribeiro’s David Lynch-inspired forays into transcendental meditation, the track is imbued with a positivity rarely seen in Ribeiro’s music. “My friends, they’ve started talking/ They say I’m changing/ I don’t know what they’re on about,” she sings, offset by wistful strings and cooing vocal harmonies. Strange Game is a beautiful song, and a triumphant tale of Ribeiro’s journey out of personal darkness. “My mama, she’s happy to hear me singing songs of sunlight/ And my daddy, he’d be proud,” continues Ribeiro, in a voice pregnant with the energy of rippling emotional currents.
Continuing in an alternative country tradition developed by accomplished luminaries like Jason Molina, Wilco, Smog, and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Ribeiro is able to distinguish herself by bringing a hushed dream pop-ish atmospheric quality to everything she does. By looking to the storied past of dark alternative music, calling upon the strange atmosphere of her birthplace, and recruiting the many talents of Mick Harvey, Ribeiro has made a fantastic album. Kill it Yourself breaks no boundaries, but it is nevertheless a remarkably accomplished watershed moment for one of Australia’s most promising voices.
Though much of Kill it Yourself was written during times of duress, it is above all else the account of personal discovery, challenge, and perseverance. There is an inspirational beauty and a fragile humanity in Ribeiro’s songs, shrouded as they are in the gothic pastoral beauty that kindred-spirit Harvey provides. Their union has resulted in some of the finest music to come out of Australia's wild outback. By stripping Ribeiro’s songs to their emotional core, heartfelt tales rise from red earth and permeate the dense air like brilliant flashes of light enduring eternally.
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