Saturday, 31 May 2008

The days of The Triffids

The Triffids re-issue series
feature for the skinny
If the character of English indie-rock was formed in the 1980s by bands like The Smiths, The Cure and The Wedding Present, then Australia's indie personality was shaped by The Go-Betweens, The Birthday Party and The Triffids. Oz's very own David Gedge was David McComb, the singer and songwriter for the Perth-based Triffids. He was a similarly romantic auteur who could write about individual loneliness and unrequited love in a juxtapose with the loneliness of his hometown, stuck out on the South-West verge of a vast continent-sized landscape, and the musical backing to his stories often felt like anthems for driving across that outback, in search of a special someone or something else. Last year Domino began an extensive reissue campaign to cover The Triffids' entire career, commencing with three of their studio albums last year, and this month two further albums and an EPs & singles collection were released.

1983's debut album Treeless Plain (***) began with the majestic but disquieting Red Pony, a string-laden waltz that provided the clearest evidence of this new young band's talent. Not only was it the cornerstone of their early success, it also provided the name for one of McComb's post-Triffids projects, The Red Ponies. Though Treeless Plain never sounded quite so grand again, it's still a decent enough indie-rock record with plenty of hooks, and flashes of folk and the odd country twang. Here and there are glimpses of Echo & The Bunnymen and the aforementioned Wedding Present, though Treeless Plain of course came before the latter were formed. Were it a new release by a new band, we would be hailing their promise and expecting bigger things, without going overboard for the moment. The reissue attaches a short radio broadcast gig onto the end, where six of the catchier songs are perfunctorily performed in what is a nice document for fans, but of little interest for the unconverted.

Beautiful Waste and other Songs (****) contains plenty to suggest those indications of promise were being fulfilled. It's not a studio album, but a specially compiled disc of singles and EPs recorded between Treeless Plain in 1983 and second proper album Born Sandy Devotional in 1986. Immediately it's clear that McComb's songwriting has matured to stretch beyond simple indie-pop songs, with ambitious arrangements throughout, including a Tom Waits-like cover of Louis Armstrong's St. James Infirmary Blues. Raining Pleasure features the disaffected tones of Jill Birt on vocals, supported by droning, mournful strings that combine to sound like a downbeat blueprint for The Delgados. Best of all is the Field of Glass EP, which was recorded live in a BBC radio studio. It rocks heavier than elsewhere, and nowhere are The Triffids as heavy as on the vivid and thrilling title track. Field of Glass is narrated by a maniac obsessed with a rich girl ('I'd walk a field of glass, I'd buy you anything'), who pleads to take her on a ride in his car; the song quickens as the narrator loses control, before almost everything stops to highlight his echoing demand: 'are you mine, all mine?'. Presumably the answer is 'no' as trembling cymbals give way to a furious bassline, and drums thunder like he's violently beating them, as McComb wails away like a crumbling psychopath. It's heart-stoppingly intense, and one of the highest points of The Triffids' entire ouvre.

Born Sandy Devotional (****) was reissued last year, but it's worth special mention here as The Triffids' acknowledged masterpiece - that is, as far as most critics and fans are concerned. Its package is more impressive than the others, as it contains a thick booklet which reproduces McComb's hand-written notes for the album. The notes discuss what he wants for the cover, his intension for the album to work as a coherent piece of art, and his deliberations on possible names, plus lyrics and photographs. It's actually the most interesting re-issue booklet I've ever seen, as it also includes scribblings on the books and albums he wants to influence the record, and how, for example, Tender Is The Night should specifically be reminiscent of his own Raining Pleasure, Eno's Discreet Music, and the Velvet Underground's Sunday Morning in different aspects. As for the contents of the disc, again it must be commended for being a rare example of giving real value in the bonus tracks: there are ten bonus tracks, and this whole other album is almost as good as Born Sandy Devotional itself. It begins with a trio of strong indie-pop tunes dealing with unrequited love and chicken killers, but the first real interest is sparked by the theatrical Tarrilup Bridge, where Birt again takes the lead vocals to describe in the first person the suicide of an actress. Lonely Stretch is oppressive and disquieting while Wide Open Road is, unsurprisingly, an expansive and liberating driving anthem. Stolen Property is a string-based epic which closes with McComb ranting angrily, not unlike Nick Cave, over a decaying but restorative outro. The bonus tracks suggest a very different Born Sandy Devotional exists in a parallel universe, where McComb made different choices and released an album with minimalist arrangements and intimate vocals. When a Man Turns Bad features no more than a scurrying overdriven guitar and threatening schizophrenic vocals to build bone-shaking tension, while White Shawl and Wish To See No More are monologues without backing that sound like they were recorded in a cardboard box. They're just as interesting as the released album and greatly add to the value of the package; the reissue of Born Sandy Devotional is the obvious entry point for any newcomer.

Immediately after recording Born Sandy Devotional the band retreated to a shed in the Australian outback to record In The Pines (1986), famously spending only $1000 on the entire recording session, a quarter of that accounting for the essential creative lubricant, alcohol. But as the band were experiencing far more success in the UK than in their homeland, their constant commute between home and work began to take a serious toll. Fourth album Calenture (1987), named after the delirium sailors experience when they've been away from solid land for too long, did little to increase their profile at home, though again it was well-received critically. Both of these albums were reissued by Domino last year.

1989's The Black Swan (**) was, appropriately, The Triffids' swan song. Renowned as a love-it-or-hate-it album, that reductive stance can be more precisely explained as a likelihood to like some songs and hate others. The start is certainly disappointing, as glossy over-production courtesy of Stephen Street, predictable melodies, and a misguided attempt at rapping combine to ruin the first half of the first disc. Unlike the concise original album, this reissue is a double-disc marathon clocking in at 36 songs over two hours. Apparently this was what McComb originally wanted before it was pared down to a more commercially palatable single-disc release - he wanted an eclectic and sprawling White Album to close The Triffids' story. There's something extremely puzzling about this reissue though - the original release was 13 tracks long, and there are two versions of each of those tracks spread across both discs, plus ten discarded tracks from the same sessions - but they are all intermingled, with both versions of the same song appearing before many of the 'new' tracks. This all means that what should have been easily demarcated into 'originally-intended double album' and 'bonus alternate takes for standard added-value reissue purposes' is actually all mixed, abandoning any hope of album-coherence and forcing 'sprawling' to be more accurately reinterpreted as 'messy'. As a collection of 36 contemporaneous songs then, as opposed to a double-album in the traditional sense, The Black Swan is understandably inconsistent. After that initial poor spell, songs like Black-Eyed Susan and the French-aping Clown Prince work somewhat to recoup the losses. There's the genesis of a touching song about, well, casual sex in American Sailors, and the Tindersticks-esque ballad Why Don't You Leave For Good This Time? inspires reflection for all of a minute, but neither song feels fully developed. Over two hours, there's just not enough quality to keep this issue of The Black Swan from feeling like a test of endurance. Single disc albums are more commercially palatable because shorter records are more aurally palatable, and like almost every double-album ever made, a good case could be made here for chopping much of the filler to produce a far more consistent, concise document.

The Black Swan didn't achieve the levels of success The Triffids were hoping for, and the group disbanded having seemingly hit a brick wall in both commercial terms and with their own physical exhaustion. Bass guitarist Martyn Casey joined Nick Cave's Bad Seeds, while McComb and guitarist "Evil" Graham Lee pursued a side-project full-time, the Blackeyed Susans, to little success. After an aborted attempt at a solo career, McComb developed a heroin addiction and needed a heart transplant in 1996. Three years later, David McComb died at home, three days after apparently emerging unscathed from a car accident; he was 36.

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