Rayella–the name comes from members Raymond Dixon and daughter Eleanor–is a band from the small NT hamlet of Marlinja in the heart of the Barkly Tablelands 700 or so kilometres equidistant from Alice Springs to the south and Darwin to the north. For most Australians that means somewhere beyond the back of buggery, but for Rayella Marlinja and the surrounding Mudburra/Jingili country is home and heartland.

There is a strong tradition of music coming out of Marlinja and the nearby small town of Elliott. The Kulumindini Band made three great albums in the 80s and 90s and the local gospel group has been singing for just about an eternity–that can happen when you are close to your God. A few hundred kilometres to the east in Wambaya country around Brunette Downs and Corella Creek the Tableland Drifters, who I wrote about here and here, took their particular brand of Tablelands country rock all over the country until they recently retired due to the passing of their leader. Another local band is the Storm Riders, a hard rocking outfit featuring Jason Bill (ex-Kulumindini Band and local radio DJ of renown) on drums and the sublime vocals of Stuart Nugget, a man with an acute ear for all that is pop.

But while those early bands–and for a while in the 80s and 90s it seemed like every bush town had a least one band–recorded their many albums on crappy gear that were only released on cassette tapes, Rayella has benefited from recent developments in recording technology and the broader acceptance in the bush of technology like compact discs and portable MP3 and iPod/iPhone devices.

That is why this eponymous album–recorded at their hometown and mixed at the Winanjjkari Music Centre Studio a couple of hundred kilometres south at Tennant Creek–sounds far better than anything produced by the early bush bands. Sure, measured against the standards of studios from the east coast Rayella may be considered a pretty ordinary demo-standard recording, but for mine this is the most polished recording I’ve heard from the NT in many years.

Two things make this modest album–just ten songs, none longer than 3 minutes 30 seconds–such a gem. Firstly the strong connection to country gleams like a golden thread through the songs. Second, the sublime voice of Eleanor Dixon, who whispers–strong and soft all at once–in your ear like an angel sitting on your shoulder as she tells her autobiographical (?) tales of love lived, love lost and love gone wrong. There are no vocal gymnastics here–notes are lovingly held and bent, long and languid–like a lovers too-long-gone-and-now-returned arms.

A few of Rayella’s country/country rock songs suffer–and only slightly–from that quaint localised naivety found in many songs out of remote Aboriginal Australia. Unsurprisingly for people that live much of their lives outside a house, the big Barkly sky, and the elements that move within it, are given loving and frequent reference and reverence.

A standout of the country rockers is Warlu-ku (Fire Song) which is a joyous romp sung in Mudburra and driven by thumping toms and a cracking guitar riff. This is one song that can only improve when played live.

Party Song–complete with falling coins and smashed glass foley tracks–paints glorious sound and word pictures of a raucous night on the tiles in Elliott–or any small country town pub in the Territory.

I’ve never really understood why Aboriginal bands–or rock bands generally–try to do reggae. In the NT it can in part be explained by the popularity of artists like Bob Marley but there are few local bands–white or black–that can play it well. Often they can’t get the rhythm section to drag just that little and guitarists think all you have to do is go chinka-chinka on the off-beat.

For mine the only Territory band that has played reggae well is the recently-revived Blekbala Mujik from Bulman via central Australia. There is a great Blekbala Mujik dub-reggae-in-an-Arnhemland-style album that has never been released. The single tape I had of it was left in a car cassette player many years ago.

Rayella has two reggae-lite songs. The first, Grog Song, is sung in Mudburra and is a cautionary tale of the perils of grog and is pleasantly awash with fat plate reverb and bouncing echo.

The second, What I’m Doing Wrong, suffers not a note as played and would be magnificent in any genre. This is one of Rayella’s songs where the combination of Eleanor’s voice and that undefinable something in the music send shivers–delicious and frightening at once–up your spine. The lyrics are rare gems, a heart-felt and plaintive plea for emotional guidance.

People are trying to tell me,

What I’m doing wrong

But I know in my heart

That I’m doing right

So why can’t they leave me alone

‘cause I’m trying to get along

And I can’t stand this feeling but I need to be strong

But I need to be strong

So somebody tell me, somebody tell me what am I doing wrong

Somebody tell me, somebody tell me, what am I doing wrong

What I’m Doing Wrong is an ear-worm of the first order but the song that has been on high rotation in my head for the past two weeks is the first track, Wrong Kind of Man, a love-gone-so-wrong-but-feels-oh-so-right tale that cuts very close to the emotional bone.

The chorus, She fell in love with the wrong kind of man, is an absolute killer.

There was a girl

I used to know

She’s not the same anymore

She was raised by a good family

She was loved and cared for

She was well educated

Because she took the time to learn

She fell in love with the wrong kind of man

She fell in love with the wrong kind of man

He treated her bad

And now she’s all alone and sad

You’d be right if you think that I really like this album. Not just because I like the folks that made it or the country they come from but because it is the most enjoyable introduction to a new band–and great new  songwriting talents–that I’ve seen and heard in many years.

There are more than a few songs here that could be picked up by other artists–think country singers; pop artists like Jessica Mauboy; hard rockers and serious folkers like Paul Kelly (my dream is for Rayella to do a Paul Kelly support tour.) And what a good producer could do with this material and these songwriters is surely a coming attraction. And I’m equally certain that Raymond and Eleanor Dixon have plenty of new songs left in them yet.

If I’m lucky I’ll get to catch them on their home turf at Elliott when they play next in about two weeks time. Or if I miss that, when they play their first gig in Darwin in May.

Rayella isn’t available on iTunes or in store yet but you should be able to get a copy through the Winanjjkari Music Centre in Tennant Creek, who can be contacted by phone on (08) 8962 2799 or by email on [email protected]

You can catch up with the who, what and where around the Barkly Arts & Music scene here.