HOURLy, Daily
Rating: 5/5

This is the sound of Australia. You Am I's third album, the follow-up to 1993's Sound As Ever and last year's Hi Fi Way, gets to the heart of the matter. Faced with making a successor to an album that was both critically acclaimed as one of the finest ever made in this country and adored by fans, the Sydney trio have responded by digging deeper. Recorded in Sydney late last year with the band producing and American David Bianco (Teenage Fanclub) mixing, Hourly Daily should give them the commercial success they've only hinted at till now. Musically there's a strongly hued richness to the tunes, with level-headed augmentation from strings and horns on selected cuts. Lyrically there's a thematic cohesion and eye for detail that brings to mind Neil Young or Paul Westerberg at their finest.

The protagonist, who comes to the fore over the 15 cuts, could be your brother or best friend, boyfriend or a passing acquaintance. You Am I's songwriter, Tim Rogers, paints such an impassioned, incisive picture that it's hard to ignore the character beneath the eclectic arrangements.

He wakes to fuzzy AM radio, "But waking up is easy when you've gotta voice you love" ("Good Mornin'"). The life portrayed is neither a perfect pop amalgam of girl/car/friends, nor an idyllic slacker life of girl/cones/ friends. This is the real world, where "next door's coughing up his lungs" ("Tuesday"). On "If We Can't Get It Together" Rogers sketches out one of his most sustained, touching narratives: "To get up the bond for an inner-west flat he'd work for anybody/If he wasn't working for her dad... She don't know how to tell him she's going on the pill... She's looking for his heart while he stares the other way... His dad is a nut/His ex-girl is a slut/But he'll be yours forever if you just get it together."

Making his way around the city on public transport (an Hourly Daily mainstay) he grabs a "Six pack/Cheaper domestic" ("Flag Fall $1.80"). He gets reflective, even melancholy: "When I was in grade six I used to hold open the door for a girl and she called me a wimp/Said there just isn't the need to be so fucking polite/I politely agreed with her" ("Don't Ask Me to Smile"). As darkness comes the question is asked: "When the day falls where do you go?" ("Who Takes Who Home"). But we already know the answer. The listener has come to know, and more importantly empathise, with the people living in these songs. It's like catching up with an old friend.

Instrumentally, the width hinted at on Hi Fi Way has come to bear. The title track is burnished with sombre strings, while "Tuesday" goes through a rising set of transitions: an acoustic guitar and echo-laden voice is underpinned by a ragged electric guitar before pastoral strings and delicate horns sweep the arrangement up. The session musicians' input is never played for cheap tricks. The strings, for example, never dip into sentimentality. On the orchestral ballad "Heavy Comfort" - a heartbreaker with lines the calibre of "Now her friends are like her lashes/Too many dropping off these days" - they are edgy and resonant.

But there's nothing baroque about Hourly Daily. For every song that offers new perspectives there's another that rips the top of your head off on the first listen. "Wally Raffles" is decked out in tough electric guitars, while the melodic "Dead Letter Chorus" is full of six string entanglements around a glimmering chorus. "Flag Fall $1.80" is typical of the surprises to be had. Just when you think you've got it pinned down as a Beatles-flavoured frolic, it sidewinds into a Who-style sonic flare-up.

The single "Soldiers" is even more devastating. But where current custom would dictate drenching it in distortion, You Am I lighten it up, easing back on the power to accentuate the rushes when they come and adding a punchy horn line. "Baby Clothes" is something else. It grabs Bowie's "Suffragette City" by the scruff of the neck and bops with style, an absolute dead cert to make you want to dance. As the track builds, the rhythm section of bassist Andy Kent and drummer Russell Hopkinson collide head-on with the horns, pushing the beat. It's typical of the subtle strength they exhibit, holding the disparate strands together while shining in their own right. "Baby Clothes" is also one of Rogers' best vocals - sassy and flirtatious: "If you don't wanna go/Wear some... baby clothes!" he snarls - on an album where he sings his guts out, his voice reaching a ragged, soulful state: a barroom beauty.

The only area in which Hourly Daily really suffers by comparison with Hi Fi Way is directness. The reach that's prevalent on the new work requires more of the listener than previously. But You Am I's musical ambition has always driven them. Current fashion receives no lip service on Hourly Daily, but neither is there a retro bent to it (an accusation that periodically crops up). Only last year's single "Mr Milk," included here, hints directly at the '60s.

If each You Am I album was a form of test they had to pass - Sound As Ever testing whether they could transfer their EP power to long player, Hi Fi Way testing if they could get beyond power chords and accusations - then this album tests whether they have the ability to mature into something truly special. Once again they pass. The only question mark hanging over it is whether the rock fan circa '96 is willing to give in to the undercurrents and sidesteps, deviations and new directions, that Hourly Daily turns on. If they do they will find a perfect soundtrack for these strange days.

If, in the wake of Hi Fi Way, albums by the likes of silverchair, Spiderbait and now Regurgitator proved that You Am I's contemporaries could put together songs just as immediate and impressive, then Hourly Daily sees You Am I elevating themselves to a whole new level. It's a resourceful, fascinating song cycle. They've made the same transition R.E.M. did with Green, stepping aside from the cut and thrust of contemporary music's fads and fickle movements into their own enduring world. It took R.E.M. six album to do this, You Am I needed just three. Enough said.

Craig Mathieson