Michael Cullen is an Australian songwriter and performing artist who exclusively uses vintage semi-acoustic guitars and tape machines, tube microphones, and other analog equipment. Cullen’s music has been described as adult alternative, indie rock and punk, a continuation of his time spent in the 1980’s and 1990’s playing with numerous Sydney bands including No Man’s Land, The Hardheads and Watershed. “True Believer”, Cullen’s nine-track follow-up to 2012’s “Love Transmitter”, is reviewed in full below.
‘Black Dog’ opens “True Believer” with a bright and jangly, yet clear, guitar tone. Cullen enters vocally, his voice assertive in tone yet relaxed in delivery. Doubled vocals were also applied at certain points within the verses to emphasize particular lyrics. The chorus, which first appears as an instrumental diversion within the opening thirty seconds of the song, later include lead vocals accompanied by dream-like group vocals; imaginative and intelligent, these choruses have a whole lot going on musically. This appealing opener showcases Cullen and his band’s ability to craft a well-written song and deliver a finished high-quality product. ‘Believer’ fades in, an organ providing a strong spiritual vibe, making the song intriguing right from the get-go. As the verse kicks in, this old progression departs, making room for a clash of major and minor tones that normally shouldn’t work. Cullen’s choruses feature memorable rhymes; this just might be what makes it work even with the amount of dissonance contained within. The song is certainly interesting and very different from what I regularly hear. The song, almost psychedelic at times, features lots of changes throughout. This is positive, though; Cullen is not afraid to keep listeners on their toes, and does so in a strange feel-good way. Highlights within the song include the drum tone and easy-going chorus, which features both group and harmony vocals.
What follows is ‘Nothing Special’, which is anything but its namesake; Cullen enters, led by a strumming electric guitar and accompanied by drums which are followed by a moving bass line. The song’s chorus features organ, doubled vocal parts, harmony vocal parts and percussive hand claps and intelligent rhyme schemes. The song features an ever-developing storyline; expertly-played horns are a highlight later on in the song, too. In ‘Black Coffee and Cigarettes’, Cullen’s deep vocals are quickly joined by a clean guitar, and after the verse’s first phrase, drums, bass and lead guitar join and build urgently towards their “all-in” moment. There are organ parts in the choruses again, except this time, they are subdued and not as prominent. Cullen’s displays exceptional rhyming in the choruses over a reverb-soaked rhythm guitar and a piano part that is first hammered away at before being performed more delicately. Cullen’s lyrics are extremely reflective in nature and his vocal performances are impressive overall. This track features lots of open space which allows the drums and bass to create beautifully given this freedom. The chorus, which is repeated often, is memorable, before an ending section showcases the band’s ability to vary within a song. This new progression continues until its close, where a singular note played on the organ is held while the rhythm guitar strums out. ‘Damaged’ has a much different sound; its overtly-electronic style beat is a major departure from what we’ve heard so far on “True Believer”. ‘Damaged’ features doubled, echoed vocals in the choruses but is simplistic overall; basic organ parts are held out overtop Cullen’s vocals, a method that continues for, largely, the duration of the song, except for brief moments towards the later parts of the track that included bass riffs.
‘Cha Cha Cha d’Amour’, Cullen’s latest single, has an awesome drum and moving bass line groove that draws listeners in from the very beginning. Vocal parts in the verses are interspersed with doubled vocals and accompanied by a warbling, somewhat discombobulated-sounding electric guitar. also features organ, this time in the pre choruses. Highlights include the electric guitar leads towards the middle of the song, which are extremely intriguing, the organ parts, found this time in the pre choruses, and Cullen’s ability to show off his vocal range within this number as the song gets bigger and louder dynamically towards its ending. The simple drum groove of ‘I Walk Alone’ leaves room for staccato organ parts to bang out the song’s overarching melody initially, and held out longer during the verses. The song gets to the chorus quickly, which again, to much appreciation, features a moving bass line. The drum parts in the choruses are truly fantastic; the pattern teases the listeners, bringing them quickly between rhythmic feels. Later, a searing, fuzzed-out electric guitar solo competes with blaring organ parts towards the song’s close. The clean electric rhythm guitar featured immediately in ‘I Never Knew’ plays overtop a basic drum pattern and a bass guitar which is full in sound. A somewhat haunting, mysterious vibe is introduced by the electric guitar leads. Overall, this song is just not as polished as the others, and even though the instrumentation is again solid, this one just misses the mark. While Cullen’s lyricism is vivid, the actual lyrics aren’t as impressive and some seem forced. The vocal melodies in the verses are uninteresting and the sound of the synthesized strings is weak. ‘Broken Horses’ is a much appreciated return to what we’ve come to expect from Cullen, not in vibe or sound but in completeness. ‘Broken Horses’ has a much different feel and sound. A rhythm electric guitar, lightly distorted plays before drums kick in; these impressive drum parts are a bit too quiet and could certainly be pushed more prominently forward in the mix. Regardless, this outstanding closer features better performances, and Cullen’s confidence is back, his delivery relaxed, effortless in a way. Cullen is again vivid, lyrically, as he paints a picture that is easy for listeners to pick up on and visualize. The instrument performances here are outstanding; they are more lively and natural than previous offerings and capture tons of emotion. While the second half of the album is, overall, more simplistic instrumentation-wise, this impressive record from Michael Cullen is still certainly worth a listen. Cullen does a lot within these songs, and his band performs professionally and intelligently. Tonally, the recordings are good; the instrument tones, especially the drums, are stellar and the instrument and vocal performances are solid throughout. Cullen’s use of vintage equipment and method of recording is obvious, but not in a bad way, as it achieves “that” sound desired but never acquired for so many.