Australia and New Zealand got wise to the magically sexual, psyched-out being Connan Mockasin years ago, apparently. I caught his first U.S. performance recently, at a Kiwi friend’s emphatic urging, and immediately saw the big picture. Mockasin is a helluva storyteller, a real wizard with words, synth and titillating hip-swerving. Most of his back catalog falls into a bluesier territory, riling up rusted pitchforks and hay fever. With Caramel, though, the Aussie channels Prince, tossing together a velour-padded bachelor’s cathedral. It’s psychedelia. It’s soft disco. It’s turning you on (probably).
Years ago, I signed up to do a ride-along with an officer in my area’s local police force. (FYI, that’s something almost anyone can do as an “official member of the community.” Learn more here.) I sat shotgun during the graveyard shift patrolling a sleepy county north of my college town. Almost no calls floated in, so the cop and I spent most of the evening eating tacos and talking about The Eagles. But then a call did float in. And what we found was exactly the picture Caramel paints.
A woman walk-ran down her enormous mansion driveway to meet our squad car. She wore a lavish satin robe and the air of a few Vicodin. “I’m sorry,” she breathed. “I think I accidentally tripped the alarm, but you don’t mind having a look, do you?”
She led us to the smaller structure behind a colossal house. It was her former husband’s “swinging bachelor pad” originally built/decorated in the ‘70s, before she “locked him down,” she explained. He died a few years prior, she mentioned, too.
Passing the threshold felt just like Caramel’s opening track, “Nothing Lasts Forever.” It’s a cavern lined in shag carpeting, vibrating softly like Mockasin’s rippling reverb. Slow guitar licks pan the main room—it’s stark and hints of glory years laid to rest. A majestic, low-slug chandelier marks the dead center of the ceiling. Keith, the officer, touches it when the woman ducks ahead in the hallway—a plastic dangling shifts under his finger and he makes an embarrassed face. Wood veneer in-wall shelving holds stacks and stacks and stacks of—I’m not even kidding—8-track tapes with a few LPs sprinkled in.
The title track grooves in like a glowing wormhole. And there it is—there is an indoor, albeit smallish, skating rink/platform in this bachelor pad. Thick slabs of linoleum wink under the plastic chandelier. Mockasin cues chimes and hums like a sexy porpoise.
The woman returns and joins us again. It was, to no one’s surprise, a false alarm. “I’m the Man, Who Will Find You” holds a proverbial blowtorch to lions, blasting the flame with Aquanet. Velveteen percussion cradles the plotting, fluid riff and smirked-out vocals. The woman nervously laughs and apologizes. “But, could I offer either of you a drink?” At the time, I was barely 22 and looked barely 16. We politely decline, but since it’s a slow night, indulge her in a little conversation. Her loneliness is palpable, as apparent and tangible as Mockain’s promise in this song.
“Do I Make You Feel Shy” plays like the echo of this house’s long-lost glory days. It seduces in a swirly haze of vermouth and plastic cassettes. “Why Are You Crying” employs syncopated breathing run through who knows how many filters and the result sounds far from signs of unhappiness. Breaths of the track’s present, the house’s past, get twisted in glossy guitar as we bid the woman adieu and back out of her yards-long driveway, back onto the pitch-black rural highway.
Fifteen and a half minutes pass through five installments of “It’s Your Body” as we cruise down the asphalt coast. The series of ambient psychedelic swirls and whiffs of musky cologne clinging to polyester could soundtrack any of the likely countless wild night that shag carpet saw decades ago.
Finally, “I Wanna Roll With You” closes the album and my night with JSO. It comes on like a hungover sunrise, deep voice burping, “You’re very welcome-come-come-come.” Guitar drips in slow, numbing the sting of early morning sun on bloodshot eyes. As softly as it fades in and rolls through, it fades out. The Shag Shack and its immortal memories are long gone in the rearview and Caramel tapers to a peaceful halt.
Caramel and Mockasin definitely takes you on one hell of an adventure. Even though it might leave you feeling a little softened and dehydrated, I can’t wait to re-lace up my skates and embark on the next one.