Review: Sticky Fingers, “Westway (The Glitter & The Slums)”

Witnessing the career trajectory of Newtown’s favourite vagabonds Sticky Fingers has been one of the more remarkable stories in Australian rock and roll. Rock stars in the most honest sense of the word, they swaggered onto the scene as young and hungry upstarts on debut Caress Your Soul, they reached a near-untouchable pinnacle on sophomore effort Land Of Pleasure and they’ve since faltered and recorded the drop and the steady rise back to the top on third LP Westway (The Glitter & The Slums).

Here finding themselves burnt out to within an inch of the band’s life after near non-stop touring for Land Of Pleasure, Sticky Fingers were on the verge of a break-up before Westway was recorded. It’s easy to see why they probably felt invincible after their last record skyrocketed them to the upper echelon of Australian rock bands. Where Land Of Pleasure was their chest-beating call from the mountaintops having just planted their flag, Westway, recorded in tropical paradise in Thailand as the band unwound themselves from each other and their heavy lifestyle, is Sticky Fingers’ stepping down from the edge and acknowledging their own vulnerability.

Opening track One By One, a steady, blissful, almost Strokes-y rocker, reacquaints the listener with the band, frontman Dylan Frost singing in a weary voice “we reached for the stars but it fell downwards”. His voice strengthens across a redemptive chorus, wailing that they’re “picking up the pieces one by one”. You get the sense that this is the headspace Sticky Fingers wrote and recorded this album in; broken, frazzled, but determined.

Lead single Outcast At Last, with its swaggering, funk-heavy riff that reeks of Chilli Peppers snarls through the speakers, that same supreme confidence that permeated Land Of Pleasure still palpable here. Sad Songs quickens the pace and is one of the most upbeat moments of the record. The hook of the chorus (“what’s the use complaining when your love is gone”) is positively intoxicating, so is the bass line from Paddy Cornwall that scuttles across the track and a ripping guitar solo from axeman Seamus Coyle too. The band flip the bird at the sadness that had been dragging them down, here admitting that they weren’t themselves and pushing forward with renewed vigour.

Angel is a slow-building break-up song, cresting to an emotional wave that crashes across the chorus. Second single Our Town resonates with gentle summer vibes and softness. Sticky Fingers, outspoken in the past on the state of Sydney and its night life in a world post-lockout laws here instead reflect on the good that still comes out of that city. As Frost sings in the chorus, this is their town and they won’t let bureaucracy and greed blemish what they can make of it.

Westway makes a shift in sonic direction from here. You’d be forgiven for thinking Stickies might have ditched their signature reggae-infused sound listening solely to those first five traditional rock-heavy songs, but on the title track we’re treated to the familiar molasses-thick grooves and cosmic synths that Sticky Fingers have entranced listeners with across their first two albums.

Something Strange pours the reggae rhythms on generously and marks the only feature on the album, this one employing the lyrical talents of Remi, whose understated and smoky flow blends so well with Sticky Fingers’ signature sound you’d assume he was the sixth member. Something Strange is the meeting of two of the best young Australian talents in their fields of rock and hip-hop and it works perfectly.

Flight 101 is another high point on the record. Slow-burning and anchored by icy keys from Freddy Crabs, the chorus hook of “I used to be scared of flying, now I wanna fall out the sky” is one of the best lines the band have ever put to paper. There’s an undercurrent of darkness and nihilism here, Frost’s vocals smouldering over the verses as he croons about selling his soul for cigarettes.

Tongue & Cheek rips back in with a giant mid-00s rock riff and rapid fire percussion pummelling your ears from Beaker Best. Amillionite is a rare acoustic moment from Sticky Fingers, Frost singing over a jangly riff. “You can hide upon a shelf but you’ll never get away from yourself, not in your wildest dreams”, he warbles. Intentionally or not, you get the sense that he’s singing this about the band itself in response to their near break-up. There’s a beautiful lighter-waving outro that some festival crowd will be singing back to the band one day before final track No Divide plays the record out, punk rock chord progression and some more mournful Chillis-esque guitar licks over drum n bass beats

As you wrap up Westway, you find yourself almost relieved that Sticky Fingers made it. That they didn’t break up. Not when they’re capable of sweeping, introspective, clever, self-effacing and sonically satisfying records like this, all at once powerful and vulnerable. It’s not all glitter and they might not be in their fictional Land of Pleasure anymore, but it’s also not all bad either. It feels like the trials and tribulations that led to this record were worth it, because it finally feels like Sticky Fingers are comfortable in their own skin as a band.

It’s a two horse race between Sticky Fingers and Violent Soho for biggest rock band in the country right now, and we are all the better for being able to bear witness to it.

Image: ABC