HI FI WAY
Rating: 5/5

If Words flow easily when describing mediocrity, but greatness can leave you in a state of wonder. To borrow from Van Morrison, it's an Inarticulate Speech of the Heart.

So we come to You Am I's second album Hi Fi Way. Forget the second album syndrome if You Am I's debut Sound As Ever was a mixture of breathtaking singles ("Adam's Ribs", "Berlin Chair"), album cuts that broke new ground for the band and several woefully misjudged selections, Hi Fi Way simply does away with the latter. Its 15 tracks feature evocative, electric rock music, touching ballads and moments of sheer transcendence.

Weaned on everything from the Stones and the Who to the Replacements and Royal Trux, You Am I are that greatest of rarities: The Next Big Thing who truly deserve to be big. The biggest. They may have emerged from the independent scene, but they've developed a sound so pervasive and durable that it's beyond labels that limit. The word 'timeless' will eventually be called on.

The core of Hi Fi Way is its immediacy and naturalness. The adrenalising guitar intro of "Cathy's Clown", with the rhythm section dropping out and leaving a handful of splayed guitar notes, hits like the intro to your favourite song - lodged in your head without effort, never to disappear.

Hi Fi Way does more than perfect the parameters of Sound As Ever. From the Pavement-like harmonies that arc across the opening "Ain't Gone and Open" through the strings that slide in under the sculpted guitars at the arresting conclusion of "She Digs Her" to the Beatlesesque touches humming in the background of the sparse ballad "Hand Washer", You Am I prove they're nothing less than a rock group for all seasons.

There's never the sense that You Am I are stretching themselves into unsure areas, the changes in their sound are accomplished. "Jewels and Bullets" rattles with a killer guitar riff and an impassioned vocal from guitarist/songwriter Tim Rogers; it's followed by "Purple Sneakers", an acoustic cut progressively strengthened by strings and the fluid bass of Andy Kent and the drums of Russell Hopkinson. One song complements the other both resonate equally with You Am I's musical verve and emotional honesty.

Certainly the production from Lee Ranaldo (Sonic Youth) is much more authoritative than previously, framing the songs with clarity and depth. The real revelation is Hopkinson on drums. Joining You Am I after Sound as Ever was recorded, he delivers a masterful performance. His predecessor, Mark Tunaley, operated on direct velocity, which certainly gave a charge to early You Am I EP's like the driller killer Coprolalia. Hopkinson, however, operates with both power and swing. His work on cuts like "The Applecross Wing Commander" and "Punkarella" reaches the rarefied levels of the Who's Keith Moon in his prime.

The root of all this is Tim Rogers' songwriting. It's his compositions which provide the canvas for Hopkinson and his own biting guitar to work on, it's his compositions which provide the breadth of material and it's his compositions which see him cautiously revealing himself to listeners with a mixture of vignettes, hidden asides and memories.

On "How Much Is Enough?" Rogers asks "Did you ever just wanna lose touch with everyone you hurt?" Hurt, regret, incidents from the past which still resonate, this is the lyrical terrain he traverses. "Cathy's Clown" spotlights his skills for character dissection, with the priceless announcement that, "She'll drop beers like you drop vitamins."

Beer - along with other inebriates ("19 through 22, cherry red wine and you," from the classic chords of "Pizza Guy") - regularly appear, creating an undertow of unease. But Rogers isn't that easy to pin down. Throughout Hi Fi Way he does his best to resist writing about more than a few people, and his use of "we" is limited. In seeking to avoid speaking for his generation, he ends up illuminating more about them than those who make it their mission in life.

There are literally 200 other facets of this album that could be discussed, including, but not limited to, the vocal phrasing on "She Digs Her", the guitar sound on "Minor Byrd", the use of cymbals on "The Applecross Wing Commander", the way Rogers, Kent and Hopkinson seem to play as one on "Stray", the sheer sonic force of "Ken", the bassline on "How Much Is Enough?" and the sense you get from certain songs that you know Tim Rogers personally…

Ultimately, though, these are just effects. The cause behind them is the near (just for the record, "Gray" is simply good) comprehensive brilliance in conception and execution of this album. Put simply, Hi Fi Way sets a new benchmark in Australian music.