Perfect Sound Forever

The Verlaines


current drummer Darren Steadman: "The photo is 20 years old - this line up played on Ready to Fly (I wasn't in the band then)"

Through the cigarette haze: an appreciation
by Graham Montgomery
(February 2010)

Growing up as a music fan in mid-1980'sm Ireland was one crouton of comfort that floated amidst the national dole-soup of economic depression, stagflation and emigration. If you needed to hear stuff from further afield (and like me, just couldn't access John Peel's BBC programme), then trawling the pre-Internet paper-chase sprawl of broadsheets and fanzines provided one other vital means of discovery. At one point in time in mid to late 1986, distant New Zealanders summoned me via the UK weekly mag, Sounds. I read a review of The Chills and by chance, found Flying Nun label's flagship sampler compilation album in Dublin's branch of HMV records on a freezing December evening that year.

The collection was called Tuatara (an extant reptile entirely peculiar to New Zealand) an apt epithet for this snapshot of the New Zealand music scene 1 and it was a fresh, strange creature that enchanted your ears off. The wares within the grooves ranged from the mad-as-a-platypus-mountain-man-synth-bop of the Tall Dwarfs to the altogether more pragmatic and homesteady guitar-pop of The Bats. The collection's truly awe-inspiring moment though, came in the form of The Chills' "Pink Frost" a majestic melodic invocation which seemed to speak in tongues from some parallel spirit-world. A revelatory musical experience. Lurking some way behind this in my estimation was "Death and the Maiden" by The Verlaines, a track which had passed me by the first couple of times I heard it. I thought it was the work of some guys who probably listened to The Jam and The Teardrop Explodes a fair bit. It was just OK. After a while, I found myself hooking onto its naggingly catchy chorus and weird cabaret-style interlude. Typically of The Verlaines, the song was a "grower" - its subtle attractors continually drawing me back to the song and after a few more exposures, the band began to paint themselves into my imagination.

On a mild, overcast, insistently soggy Dublin afternoon in Summer 1987, I walked into Dublin's Freebird Records, the city's second-hand record-buyer's mecca of that time- great condition discs, reasonably priced and in constant supply. Nowhere else in Dublin would something like a mint condition copy of The Verlaines' Hallelujah all the way home turn up for 3 quid and change but it did - and with a twist. Someone had replaced the original inner sleeve with a British 1970's EMI paper bag which advised "care of your records" in a box at the top and blared out one of those "important notice, copyright exists..." signs at you lower down- an apt incidental throwback all told, since the sleeve design could have easily housed an English 70's prog/folk effort. I brought it home and got dried out and after two plays, I was still mystified. Damn, it was hard to get your head around an odd tapestry of chromatic chords and dissonant harmonies. A difficult record. I was almost certain that this would be at the back of the pile for some time to come.

I recorded the album onto a blank cassette via an old Bush twin-tape-deck "hi-fi" system which cataclysmic teen penury had forced me to endure for some months 2 My no-fi ensemble was complimented by a beat-up Panasonic walkman (you know the story...loose headphone wires that cut the sound... slow/fast reels...holes in the foam bits on the headphones). I did a lot of walking that Summer and if my ears weren't simmering in some cheapo World of The Kinks compilation cassette, I was mostly tuned into Hallelujah... everywhere I walked... amongst sodden public parks, along murky, brooding seafronts, down deserted suburban avenues and on long mosies back from the city (school Summer holidays being long, and broke, and dull). Slowly, the album's patterns began to emerge and its narratives unfolded. I began to dig on its frenzied attack and recoil, the labyrinthine, baroque structures, the slashing hooks of open-tuned guitar and the overall eccentric current of the thing. It was dawning on me that I'd discovered something totally intriguing, supremely confident and utterly unique.

Like Tuatara, Hallelujah all the way home was yet another very odd fish from the New Zealand school. Which is to say that it was devoid of any obvious musical forefathers and totally sidestepped the big '60's flashback which dazzled many indie bands of the mid-80's. The innovation and gallantry of Graeme Downes' vision extended The Verlaines' modus operandi far beyond what most people would have considered at the time as "indie" or "garage pop." Downes' design was grandiose and rigorous and the band's experimental focus was trained on totally different targets to those of their contemporaries - even given the relative originality of some of Flying Nun's stable at that time. Blending the restless dynamism of punk with the conceptual depth, breadth of instrumentation and tonal range that characterizes later 19th-century classical and early Romantic period music was on paper, a potential no-no. However, Downe's bawdy lyrical suss and caustic vocal delivery clip the wings of any pretentious Icarian flights and the structural economy of the songs preclude any epic meanderings of prog proportions.

Stylistics notwithstanding, the scale of ambition shown in this experiment was immense for a band of such small stature when many people in the musical 'provinces' or 'colonies' at this time still felt that the first move to be made in breaking a band was to try and make it over in the UK scene first through touring (a tactic employed and later disbanded with by erstwhile Flying Nun heroes, The Chills). According to Downes, The Verlaines spent 2 years playing live in order to finance the recording of Hallelujah...3. Separate sessions for each instrument were carefully mapped to the studio hour and this rich and diverse range of instrumentation is tastefully prevalent throughout the album - flugelhorn, clarinet, French horn, wooden flute, oboe, organ, banjo and piano all embroider The Verlaines' traditional guitar/bass/drums core and frequently, exquisite string arrangements encoil the album's svelte scaffolding.

Set down amongst these orchestral arrangements and classical song structures, The Verlaines performances are amazingly adroit and expressive. There's a feverish intensity of focus on the dynamic of each song and in the manner of executing the peaks, troughs and tensions to reflect the narrative drama within. The Verlaines' core elements fuse together superbly on this recording - Downes' rattling chainmail saber-strum and fraught, smoked-out vocals an intense, bedsit Raskolnikov fretting on a diet of cheap wine and cigarettes. Bassist Jane Dodds' pulsing harmonic undercurrents and phantasmal backing vocals- a voice that soars and arcs majestically like overhead cathedral vaults, soothing Downes' oft-anguished howl with peals of cold church stone. And then there was the propulsiveness and sensitivity of Robbie Yeats' drumming animating every dynamic shift of the songs with pulsing patterns, explosive cymbal flares and accented off-beats or else just softly shading the hollows and quieter moments.

Hallelujah... is arranged and structured as a song cycle, a thematic loop that's tethered by musical references and/or a narrative persona who poetically links the songs together. The narrative threads that bind the works together feature some frequently re-surfacing Verlaines tropes - the artist as outsider and self-sacrificing, self-deluding fool ; the fleeting capricious tributes of fame; the slings and arrows of shattered relationships: treachery, bitterness, isolation, sorrow and regret; maudlin drunkenness; pyromania; classical allusions...and inevitably, a few cigarette references thrown in for good measure. There's an omnipotent gloomy eye set wearily upon the darker side of romantic trysts - the lovelorn's stony silences that build the break-ups amidst the bitter salvos of the cheated and the furious. Downes has intimated that Hallelujah... was intended to convey a deliberately dark atmosphere 4 and although there's not much redemption in sight at times here- there's still a wryly humorous and weary recognition of the trials of love and ambition at play throughout.

The album sets sail with a minor prologue. "It was Raining" sees Downes and a piano accompaniment act out a Greek chorus of one addressing his listeners as kindred "sordid inmates". One snare hit and you're suddenly ushered into a tense arena of complex chromatic chord sequences and key changes, dynamic shifts, sudden lulls and dark, shadowy gulleys that progress towards a sublime finale. "All laid on" is pretty prosaic by contrast - a folky banjo riff bounces underneath a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of praise and the complex and sour contract between performers and patrons. The real gem of this collection for me is "The Lady and the Lizard" though. The suspense is propelled by an urgent, winding, dissonant overture that eventually breaks through to a heady, fragrant main theme that provides the backdrop to some of Downes' most savage and bittersweet lyrics. An icy scorn that's tempered by a stupendous breakdown in waltz tempo linking a sublime clarinet and cello arrangement. Side one closes with the delicate flute and lute pageant play of "Don't send me away" where a worn-out, pissed off modern-day troubadour pens a mocking paean to the ins and outs of courtly love, bemoaning the dreariness of small-town entrapment and begs of his muse for deliverance from social atrophy...

Side Two opens with "Lying in State" which is (with the possible exception of "Mission of Love" from 1993's Way Out Where album). The Verlaines at their most stripped down and primal. Downes' merciless strumming and bilious cascade of fury ride upon a whirlwind clatter shorn of any orchestral ornamentation or romantic sensibilities....the pulsating "Phil Too ?"5 follows on and it's another indignant portrait of the prize of bitter betrayal a hard-won, sardonic wisdom captivated in a totally thrilling, manic, organ-led, winding-stair-chase progression... the stately, dreaming-spire fanfare of "For the Love of Ash Grey" arrives next and is the record's warmest and most welcoming place with it's jubilant French horn, cavalier flightiness and sublime chromatic climax leading us towards the album's final and bloodiest act. "The Ballad of Harry Noryb" is the most complex, exacting and powerful Verlaines piece that I've come across. Lyrically, this is another bitter wind blowing through a similar musical landscape as the album's opening track. Underneath, a clenched, steadily intensifying development winds its way into a molten cathartic blitzkrieg of guitars that's unleashed just before a pained and plaintive coda puts the record to rest. This final epic, if cast alongside subsequent Verlaines masterpieces such as 1987's "Slow Sad Love Song" and 1993's "Dirge" makes me suppose whether or not The Verlaines' "darkest" outings might well be their finest.

Subsequent Verlaines records all continued to testify to Downes' considerable talent as an arranger and songwriter. The original line-up would go on to record Bird-Dog until Jane Dodd left for The Able Tasmans afterward whilst Robbie Yeats would contribute to 1989's Some Disenchanted Evening before departing to work with The Dead C. Preceding and successive Verlaines outings constitute a body of work that's far more of an accessible listening experience yet these still manage to display some of the adventurous, experimental streak so prominent in Hallelujah.... And they are, of course, chock-full of sublime songs - "Wind Song," "Angela," "Pyromaniac," "Joed Out, "Whatever you run Into," "Black Wings," "Slow Sad Love Song," "Dirge," "Anniversary," "When I Fall," "War in my Head"... It's tempting to name even more since there is a such a long set list.6 For me though, the band never sounded as startlingly original or ever performed together as well as they did on Hallelujah... - timeless, thrilling and just one example of the verve and expressive originality that characterized New Zealand music from the mid-80's.


FOOTNOTES:

1. From a local perspective in the early 1980's, New Zealand's relative geographic isolation and lack of exposure to the prevailing mores of indiedom were both factors that contributed to the establishment of a unique domestic independent music scene. The vagaries of international supply lines ensured that the latest offerings from UK/US music press adorees were already outdated or defunct by the time they reached New Zealand's shores. Meanwhile, conservative-minded local radio programming put the kibosh on local independent music receiving any airplay. New Zealand bands thus turned their focus inward by checking out each other's live shows and sharing equipment, rehearsal spaces and exchanging ideas. Musical styles began to cross-pollinate amongst artists and a particular and peculiar sound began to emerge from this localized experience. The emergence of the so-called "Dunedin Sound" can be attributed to in some part to these factors.

2. This machine had an endearing habit of interrupting your listening sessions with an intensely loud and arresting off-key electronic buzzing sound every 10 minutes or so. The reaction to this event was twofold: (1) sheer, heart-scalding fright and (2) a resultant royal display of the kind of cheated fury that people usually reserve for rebellious inanimate objects. Fortunately, the only way to stop the machine from its insane buzzing was to smack it. Hard. In the "face." Which was immensely enjoyable.

3. See "Discography and lyrics" section at "The Verlaines The Heady remembrance (THR)" site at http://grimalco.com/verlaines/discography/index.html

4. See "UPSIDE DOWN UNDER: The Verlaines' Poetic License" by Karen Schoemer (Option Magazine No. 20, May/June 1988) at http://grimalco.com/verlaines/upside_down_under.htm

5. Check out the amazing live performance of this number that was included as an extra track on the CD version of Juvenilia, a compilation of early Verlaines material.

6. The newcomer to The Verlaines should investigate Flying Nun's excellent career retrospective CD, You're just too obscure for me.


Also see the Veralines MySpace page & their homepage

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