Ess Em is a five foot something, powerhouse of a folk punk with the ethos to match. She's one of the most badass people I know and I've been looking forward to writing this review of her brand new EP 'Plan B'. I've been speculating on the namesake of this record, whether it comes from the lyrics in track 3, or whether it's titled after Ess Em's lovable doggo Bailey who inspired track 4. I guess I'll break it down song by song and maybe I'll have an answer by the end.
Before I get stuck into it though, it's worth noting all the incredible musicians who feature on this record. Joining Ess Em (keys and main vocals) is Mitch Johnson (Dividers) on drums, Jake Pember on double bass, Dave Berry on trombone, Billy Demos on guitar and vocals, Olga Solar on violin, Ash Wilderink (Chris Duke and the Royals) on trumpet, Lindsay McDougall (Frenzal Rhomb) on electric guitar and Nina McCann (Hightime), Andy McDougall (Ebolagoldfish) and Gav McDougall (Ebolagoldfish) on gang vocals with a special cameo by Bailey herself and Atari the studio doggo at Def Wolf Studios where this EP was partially recorded by Antix (the rest was recorded at Nut N Butter Studio with Michael Wheatley).
This EP is bringing a huge sound to songs I have heard played solo by Ess Em over the course of the last two years since I first saw her at The Valve Bar in Sydney. Since then we’ve played shows together, and become good friends. I’ve been so grateful for the opportunity to see this EP evolve from songs that were once introduced as “ahh this is a new one so I’ll probably fuck it up” to these brilliant ensembles. I'm really looking forward to seeing the band live!
The EP opens with drums and a scream and thus begins “Poverty Point.” This song is almost a sea shanty, sung by the disenfranchised to those that made them that way. The violin sings a complimentary second melody under the whole song and the harmonies of gang vocals under that make this track so rich, which seems like the wrong word to use given the sentiment. I think you can already tell that you’re going to be challenged to think outside of yourself and about the bigger picture with this record.
When I first saw Ess Em perform ‘Retail Therapy,’ she was yet to quit the retail job she sings about with absolutely glorious sarcasm and a sentiment overall that we can all relate to. Let’s face it, humans can be fucking stupid and when people are drawn like flies into the glowing lights of a ‘SALE’ they become the absolute worst versions of themselves. This song is pure catharsis and it’s upbeat tempo and brass section make it one you can sing to yourself (at your shitty retail job) all day long.
Luckily for her, Ess Em got out of her job in outdoor retail and instead found her way to working outdoors in conservation and land management, and yet you wonder why the next track is titled Refund Policy? One listen gives you the answer, because it’s about, how the impact of human life is messing up the natural world faster than we could have imagined and that is a terrifying reality that we can't return. This song starts delicately with Olga’s violin bringing new depth to a song I first heard recorded Live on a Log in the beautiful bushland of Mt Ainslie in Canberra. The song builds to the catchy outtro, “No control, We’ll lose it all. We’re so small, it’s all our fault.” and the message is clear.
Up next to lighten the tone, a love ballad written about the purest form of love, that feeling we feel for our doggos. Featuring the dog of the hour Bailey and her mate Atari on gang vox, it’s a 36 second song, long enough to listen to whilst you’re fanging down the slippo!
Possibly the catchiest song on this EP (and honestly, there’s about a hair between them), is $18.50, about finding some money and falling into ethical turmoil about what it means, how it could have happened, and what on Earth should you do about it? I think this song is ridiculously clever, and the short modulation in the final chorus is one of my favourite moments of this record. This song sounds huge as a full band and I think it will be one that is sung aloud at every Ess Em show for the foreseeable future.
Space Dust is another song that just sounds so fucking huge with a full band. I know there are probably much more eloquent descriptions, but I’m too busy having an existential crisis after reading the lyrics that I can’t contribute too much more than that. The guttural screams of the chorus stick in your head, and the brass section bridge leading to a stunning violin solo is the perfect lead into the outtro, with harsh screams lower in the mix that grab your heart where you don’t expect it to.
This EP is massive for only 6 tracks, with a catchy refrain in every one. It’s been on constant rotation in my house over the last few weeks and there’s no question why. It’s clever and a lot of fun. The musicianship on this record is incredible and the people Ess Em has brought in to share this journey have only served to create something truly special. I haven't quite figured out yet the namesake of the album, but you should make it your 'Plan A' to get yourself to an Ess Em show asap and pick up a copy of the record.
The newly formed Ess Em band are taking ‘Plan B’ on tour all around Australia. They've already hit Sydney, Gold Coast and Brisbane with Canberra, Wollongong, Melbourne and Newcastle coming up then back home for a big finale in Sydney on the 30 June at the Blood Sweat and Beers festival. We are lucky enough to have them in Canberra this week! Don’t miss Ess-Em supported by Ben the Red, Semen and Garfuckel and Sketch Method at Transit Bar on Friday night.
Plan B is available on Bandcamp, Spotify, iTunes & at a show near you!