Kate Miller-Heidke and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra — Live at the Sydney Opera House

Universal | iTunes.com

In my Superlative Albums I Wrote About in 2017 list, this album was awarded the Cumuliform Columbid for Most Vertiginous Vocals
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As a general rule, I don’t much care for live albums.

It’s no secret that I can sometimes be quite the snob, and not just when it comes to singing off-key. It’s these raw, flattened arrangements that prioritise being easy to play alongside showing off the composition. They do not take advantage of the considerable benefits of studio recording: the tweaking and polishing and general fine-tuning. You have to be there in person to feel the push-pull, the energy, the synergy of a whole crowd responding to a musician they love, who responds in kind. When listening to a live album, you’re late to the party, a party intercut with interludes of applause. It’s the same party you’ve already been to, but worse in every way.

Not one of these complaints applies to Kate Miller-Heidke.

Dizzyingly agile and deceptively robust, her years of classical training have earned her the clarion-call register of a true soprano. On this album, she is accompanied by her husband and collaborative partner Keir Nuttall on guitar, and also by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

A selection of smart and supple arrangements flatters Kate’s hits and underrated gems alike, fetched from all corners of that bouncy indie-alt-pop triangle so many inhabit. As with the rest of her prodigious discography, she ricochets wildly up and down the spectrum from Serious Musician to utter dork for a spectacularly eclectic night of entertainment.

‘My Sky’ interpolates portions of twittering birdsong that Kate navigates with ease, while ‘Humiliation’ quivers nervously, pulsing with urgency. A foreboding new take on ‘Sarah’ tells the tale of the night her childhood best friend went missing. She is a lost little girl, for once allowing the music to overwhelm her. “You left me on my own, Sarah / Why didn’t you scream? / Why didn’t you shout?” she laments, the orchestra unanimous in staccato condemnation. This song does not end so much as collapse, slowing and grinding and wilting as if it is leaking motor oil.

On the other side of the coin are such jewels as spunky bop ‘Can’t Shake It,’ which enumerates Kate’s deficiencies on the dancefloor (“When we go out dancing on a Friday night / I get this funny feeling something’s not quite right / My sense of rhythm is incontrovertibly shite / I can’t fake it”), rapturous recitative ‘Elysian Fields,’ which extolls the ecstasies of being alone in the womenswear section of a David Jones after-hours (“The clothes are so clean / Swaying gently in the breeze / From the air conditioner”) and of course a piece penned in response to receiving a Facebook friend request from an asshole ex, the smashingly blunt ‘Are You Fucking Kidding Me?’

There is an art to arranging for orchestra. It’s not a question of improving, for one cannot fix what is not broke. It’s a question of pulling apart a song, teasing out its insides, investigating what makes it tick. Only with a blueprint clearly established can you begin to build your beautiful Frankenstein of wood and brass and string and reed and bow. It’s a labour of love, and of intimidating versatility. Orchestral arrangements can do anything you want, provided the song agrees that it is needed — lending gravitas, heightening drama, smoothing serenity, emphasising and intensifying and counteracting and counterpointing, all in the same score if you’re brave enough.

Consider the retrofitted ‘O Vertigo!’ Where the studio version is all taut guitar fragments and tart Pantene-swatch xylophones, here it is softer and looser. Kate’s giddy acrobatics play breezily off orchestral flourishes, while the string section luxuriates in its own sparkling effervescence. The song is given space to breathe, and it is this album’s loveliest moment.

Consider too the single misstep on the tracklist. ‘In the Dark’ is a stream-of-consciousness monologue Kate wrote while sitting in her late father’s broken car, usually performed with just Keir on the guitar, the simplicity of the arrangement complimenting the tenderness of the subject matter. Gentle accents of brass crest and ebb like soft waves of reminiscence, and it would have been fine if that were the extent of the changes. On the bridge, Kate slips effortlessly above the clef for a moment of quiet introspection. Or rather, she should, and previously she has, but here the orchestra swells unnecessarily behind her, undercutting a moment of catharsis with didactic saccharine melodrama.

Allow me to misquote someone famous whose name I’ve forgotten. Your writing isn’t done when there’s nothing left to add. Your writing is done when there’s nothing left to remove.

(Case in point: ‘The Devil Wears a Suit,’ from Kate’s third album Nightflight, which I wrote about about a year ago. The studio version blurs at the edges, a whole choir of Miller-Heidkes joining in for a thunderous Celt-rock stomp. But a far better version can be found on Kate’s recent greatest hits compilation. Recorded live, the tempo is dialled right back, and the instrumentation is stripped down to only Keir’s guitar and the barest touch of piano. The two draw out a simmering tension, exposing the darkly beautiful campfire ghost story that was lurking there all along. It’s bewitching.)

There is also an art to constructing a setlist, especially ten years into your career, weaving a coherent narrative, juxtaposing mutually flattering elements, considering rhyme and assonance while also considering whiplash and surprise. Expectations must be met, or otherwise turned upside-down.

Perennial fave ‘Can’t Shake It’ comes after a half-hour deviation through deeper cuts. More positive repertoire is front-loaded, allowing happier moments to shine in the sombre second act, which wraps up with the triple-whammy of ‘Humiliation,’ ‘Sarah’ and ‘Words.’ The latter’s show-stopping, skull-splitting coda has ‘grande finale’ written all over it, but instead a stately, pastoral take of ‘The Last Day On Earth’ closes out the show, reflecting the shy blossoming of ‘Bliss,’ that drop of morning sun that serves as an aperitif at the very beginning.

Each of Kate’s four studio albums is represented roughly proportionally: Little Eve and Curiouser are still calibrating a serious-to-dorky ratio, to largely agreeable results; Nightflight draws upon traditional folk music, fascinated with the interplay between light and shadow, and dreams and nightmares; while O Vertigo! presents a selection of tightly choreographed indie textures.

Solid songwriting does not fade with time, even if our memories of it do. It is the privilege of live shows to rejuvenate earlier repertoire, to prune the chaff, to collage the old and the new together, artfully or otherwise.

You can hear the relish in her voice. In her soaring operatic swoops, in her rich vibrato, in her pleasant light middle register, in her sardonic gouging forays into contralto territory, in the nimble, effortless transitions between them all. 
It is such a treat to hear one of Australia’s foremost musicians indulge her passion.