Monday, April 05, 2010

...and while we're speaking of the Verlaines

In the time that I didn't blog over the last month, I've had more and more cravings for albums that I listened to 20-some years ago. Maybe I've finally reached that age where all I'm really interested in are albums that I played a lot in my, uh, youth.

The Verlaines' Bird Dog was one such album. It fell into my hands in the summer of 1988. A fanzine that I published (very sporadically) called Discourse occasionally received albums from Homestead Records, which was releasing several bands from the Verlaines' New Zealand home at that time. Over the next year or so, the label would familiarize us all with the musical force that was New Zealand. This was really my first exposure to it. (They released an album by the Chills around that same time, but that didn't spark the interest right away.)

From the beginning of Bird Dog, guitarist/singer Graeme Downes indicates that he's not a standard writer by any means - this isn't punk rock, nor is some modern version of folk. He sings in an impassioned voice that often goes into high tenor territory, taking the drama up there with it. An easy comparison to a singer of that era would be Billy Bragg, but only in delivery. Downes sounds like he has a lot more training. (As a side note, he was working on a Masters on the music of Gustav Mahler, so he wasn't just some punk with a good set of pipes.)

"Makes No Difference" was an unusual opening piece since it moves along slowly, with a sad trumpet and harmonica break at the end of each chorus. But the melody and vaguely dark lyrics make it riveting. "Just Mum" has a bassoon, of all instruments, joining the trio in the coda. It starts off playing just two long tones and the simplicity and tension of the second note adds an ominous edge to the music. I'm not sure if "baroque pop" was a term that someone else applied to the Verlaines, or if I came up with that. Regardless, songs like this justify it.

Nothing in the first few songs prepare you for punch that comes with Side One's last track, "Slow Sad Love Song." After a low bass note and a few distant notes blown from an oboe, Downes begins a tense lyric about the aftermath of a relationship, which again comes in indirect but brilliant verses. When the tempo increases, it builds to a climax, in which he lays his heart and life on the line:

The only thing that you spared me to love was your breath
and now it's gone
So long, it's been good to know you
So long, it's been good to know you

and in what always seemed like a pretty deeply cutting line:

Sooooooooooooo long....... to know you

which he ends with a wail that takes the band into the biggest, most thunderous climax since "A Day in the Life." That song probably inspired this ending, but instead of trying to induce some sort of euphoria, the Verlaines create the sound that someone hears in their head after they've thrown themselves off a cliff. And it goes on for several seconds, making sure that you understand what the character is feeling. I was nursing a broken heart at the time, so that angst (oh yeah, I was 20) really resonated with me. All these years later, it still packs a wallop because it's done so well.

If you listen to the CD version of Bird Dog (that format was just entering the independent label field by then), the next song presents a more hopeful comedown. The jazzy, acoustic "Only Dream Left" almost implies that Downes didn't do himself in, but has moved on and has found someone to help him cope, albeit someone with a heavy weight on their shoulders if the title is any indication. But anyone who has the album edition would need to peel themselves up off the floor after that huge roar before they can breathe freely.

There are plenty of other reasons to recommend Bird Dog, but "Slow Sad Love Song" is reason enough to hunt it down. "Worth the price of admission," and all those other great musical cliches.

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