A very modern convenience
The debut album from MOD CON is a frenzied, critical observation of life under late capitalism—best witnessed live.
Words by Kelsey Oldham | Photos by Naomi Lee Beveridge | April 2018
Playing Melbourne Music Bingo is not a bad way to pass the time between sets at the Tote on a Friday night. There are so many musicians with more than one project that it can be hard to keep track of who is in what band; chances are there will be several recognisable faces on stage or milling about in the crowd. On one recent Friday night, 20 April, the sold-out Tote band room is packed with people peering up at Erica Dunn, Raquel Solier and Sara Retallick. Separately, they are in projects including Various Asses, Golden Syrup, Harmony, and Tropical Fuck Storm. Together, they form MOD CON.
MOD CON underwent a name switch last year. Formerly known as Palm Springs, the band’s recent addition of Retallick on bass catalysed a more collaborative writing process. According to Dunn, the stylistic differences between what started out as solo “minimal folk” and the sound that emerged as a trio warranted a name change—the two projects “had to be split into two”. Relegating powerful alt-country ballads to the Palm Springs catalogue has allowed them to make way for “faster and louder”—and angrier and political—garage songs. MOD CON’s debut album, Modern Convenience, makes it clear that the new band is its own beast.
Released on Poison City in April, Modern Convenience showcases the musical ingenuity of each band member: Retallick on bass, Solier on drums, and Dunn on guitar and lead vocals. The album’s ten songs are beautiful and harsh and eerie all at once. Having drip-fed us three singles over the last six months—“Kidney Auction Blues”, a slow-burning satire of consumerism underpinned by a creepy bass line (and accompanied by an equally creepy video of the band chowing down on raw, bloody organs); “Do It Right Margo”, their first single, which Dunn has said is about the pressure migrants feel to assimilate into white Australia, inspired by her time working with asylum seekers; and “Neighbourhood”, an ominous condemnation of the apathy of many Australians regarding the injustices taking place in their own backyard—Modern Convenience is a frenzied, critical observation of life under late capitalism.
The album opens with the relentless, propulsive bass line of “Scorpio Moon”. Retallick and Solier set a frenetic pace, as Dunn shrieks about surviving the inevitable apocalypse of our own making: “What would you need? Ammunition? Superstition? Competition?” The questions continue on “Submit”, another ominous, rhythm section-driven thought experiment. Submit or resist? “Which one will you choose?” Dunn demands, forcing the listener to decide what they would do if forced to face the horrors of war. “Mirror of Venus” is a slower-tempo track, but is no less discomfiting. The drums take centre stage as Dunn dials back on guitar and lets her voice claim the melody; she embodies the titular Venus, reflecting the indifference of the privileged back to us: “God, air and water, fix it with boredom, oh no / It should be Eden, something to believe in, but no / Buy some shoes / ignore the news tonight.” Dunn’s mirror exposes our awful ennui: “Cold cream, hot war, destruction.” The slower tempo gives way to “Tell Me Twice”, which is all guitar and vocals, with Dunn shredding and reciting lyrics at a whiplash pace. The fastest song on the record, it is somewhat of an anomaly on an album of songs that steadily build to momentous conclusions. Dunn seems to be unable to contain her frustration, spitting impassioned appeals to reason: “Don’t tell me twice / this is paradise.”
At the Tote, before launching into “Bad Time at the Hilton”, the gorgeous, slow-burning five-minute centrepiece of Modern Convenience, Dunn tells us it was written about an “existential crisis” she had while staying in a fancy hotel. “The ground floor is empty, thanks to a synchronised tease / Of newspaper headlines of death and disease,” she sings in a husky whisper. “Of all our destruction, of someone else’s land / Of pointing the finger and running out of hands.” The song is sad yet powerful, with the ballad form allowing Dunn to play her guitar sparingly and reflect, wearily, on the redundancy and crisis of privilege.
On the record, uneasy synthetic strings back Dunn’s haunting vocals; on stage, in lieu of them, the band bring on members of garage choir group Crying on the Eastern Freeway for “Bad Time at the Hilton” and “Get In Front of Me, Satan”, the album’s closer. Live, the extra voices on “Bad Time at the Hilton” don’t quite evoke the same sense of hopelessness as the disquieting string arrangement does on the record, but Dunn’s voice still conveys the overwhelming feeling of futility that is the emotional core of the song.
As masterful as the record is, the MOD CON listening experience isn’t complete until you see the band live. Dunn performs with pure commitment to the music: she plays the guitar behind her head; she headbangs as she solos; one minute she is singing sweetly, the next she’s shrieking until her voice cracks. Dunn is offset perfectly by MOD CON’s rhythm section: Solier’s virtuosic percussion and Retallick’s heavy, needling bass fit together with the guitar like a jigsaw puzzle. When they finish up their set with “Kidney Auction Blues” they bound offstage, exuberant. They’ve played ten songs—the whole album—but they come back for an encore, an oldie, the Palm Springs song “Winning & Losing”. Dunn thanks the crowd and reminds us that MOD CON are still a “new band”—they only have those ten songs, after all. For now, at least.
As you may have noticed, Swampland doesn’t enforce a paywall online—because we want to share the best of home-grown music journalism with you. If you enjoyed this piece, and have dosh to spare, consider chucking us a few extra dollars so we can invest more in independent, longform Australian music journalism and photography.