Personnel: Jack Ladder (vocals, guitar); Kirin J. Callinan (electric guitar, midi guitar); Kim Moyes (synthesizer, vibraphone, marimba, percussion, programming); Donny Benet (electric bass); Laurenz Pike (drums).
Audio Mixer: David Wrench.
Recording information: Free Energy Device, Sydney; Piper Lane, Sydney.
On his fourth album and second outing with backing band the Dreamlanders, Australian singer/songwriter Jack Ladder transforms himself once again, this time from shadowy goth crooner to lush synth pop romantic. Ladder has always been an intriguing character, trying on a variety of styles and applying his deep, affected baritone and inherent moodiness to each before moving on down the line to something else. In print he speaks of wishing to escape the many comparisons to Nick Cave that have plagued him for years, then he delivers an album like 2011's unmistakably Cave-ian Hurtsville, further complicating his image. As for the constant stylistic swapping, from Bill Callahan-style acoustic balladeer (2005's Not Worth Waiting For) to springy new wave rocker (2008's Love Is Gone), it can be a thin line between being seen as a groundbreaking pioneer or an untethered artist looking for the right fit. Remember that Bowie also got some initial flack before being warmly remembered as a shape-shifting chameleon. Fortunately for Ladder, the material on Playmates might just be some of his strongest yet, and if he's framed these songs in an Avalon-era Bryan Ferry setting, it's a style that suits them and will perhaps draw some attention to how much he really does sing like Nick Cave whether he intends to or not. Standouts like the excellent "Come on Back This Way" and the unique steel guitar-laden "To Keep and to Be Kept" both feature additional vocals by Sharon Van Etten and rank among some of Ladder's most memorable songs. "Slow Boat to China" has an enchanting Scott Walker tone, while "Neon Blue" has a nice creeping menace that offers a different texture midway through the record. "The Miracle" veers a little too hard into Avalon parody territory, but for the most part this dreamy world of cinematic synths and twilit backdrops feels very compatible with Ladder's persona. Whether or not he parks the van here for his next release remains to be seen, but Playmates is a solid record. ~ Timothy Monger