Friday, 22 July 2011

MUSIC: The Triffids... and a meditation on obscurity

The Triffids, Come Ride with Me: 10xCD BOX-SET (Domino)

Way back at the beginning of the Britpop era, the Melody Maker published a paperback of Great Lost Albums, in which Andrew Mueller asked rhetorically “Why REM, and not the Go-Betweens?” It’s a question I’ve pondered for many rival bands, because the answer is always a sad combination of market forces and the unglamorous X-Factor competition that naturally selects (or de-selects) all artists. A band like the Go-Bs might be too twee, or too loose, for mass appeal, whereas an REM would get in the back of the van, and learn how to play to tough crowds. (Of course, REM also had a great intuitive surrealist whose voice sounded sensual before his actual meanings crept up on you, whereas liking the Go-Bs required a taste for metaphors that walked the line of ridicule.)

So – in a race between Australians only – “why The Go-Betweens AND The Bad Seeds, but not the Triffids?” Pitching their tent somewhere between the Twee and the Bad-Ass, The Triffids should have been contenders… and almost turned coming-from-the-most-remote-city-on-earth to their advantage. They had the literate lead-singer, with the heroin habit (David McComb); they had a future member of the Bad Seeds (Martyn P Casey); they had a female singer for duets and twee solos (Jill Birt); they had their own take on country rock… and they had string arrangements years before the Bad Seeds. Oh Yes, and they had that sine-qua-non of Antipodean pop: the male voice choir, sounding both spiritual and rugged.

If the previous Best Of (_Australian Melodrama_ – worst artwork EVER) suggested The Triffids were unsure where they stood (but had the songs to guarantee cult status) the box-set explains it all: you’d be overwhelmed if you had this much material to choose from. Basically, this 211 (that’s Two-Hundred-and-Eleven) track box-set offers up a slightly re-sequenced Best Of; 4 CDs of early material, running to almost 5 hours; 3 live-shows from St Kilda (1984), LSE (1984), and Melbourne University (1988); and the Jack Brabham sessions.

Perhaps most desirable here is CD2: _Early Singles and EPs_. Without being overtly twee, it’s where the banded sounded the closest to The Go-Betweens, or early Belle & Sebastian. Gradually, the darker songs creep in (‘Twisted Brain’ and ‘Left to Rot’), but so do the songs with simple violin arrangements, culminating in ‘Beautiful Waste’ (Track 13) where trumpets join the strings. By ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ (Track 15), where the Hammond swirls eerily as the drums pound, they’ve shown themselves almost the equal of the Bad Seeds, even managing to pull off a nine-minute cow-punk epic (‘Field of Glass’).

The six early cassettes offer a glimpse of the Triffids in their wonky DIY phase: a little bit Half Japanese, a little bit Moldy Peaches; often, uncannily like Beat Happening before Beat Happening. Granted, they lack the laugh-out-loud jokes of the AFNY bands at their best, but it’s always endearing, like The Quadratics in Todd Solondz’ debut, _Welcome to the Doll’s House_, especially on Track 5 with its coconut percussion and everyone a beat behind everyone else, or a note below, yelping “grow old! Grow old! Philosophical stroll – if you can’t dig it, it’s your bad luck!” By their fifth cassette, The Triffids have written the first track to get a proper release (‘Farmers Never Visit Nightclubs’), and tightened up considerably, with prominent, chiming bass lines; plus, McComb’s geeky, adolescent lisp has all but vanished, as the singer flirts with a more yobbish persona, not unlike The Feelies (in the US) or The Television Personalities (in the UK). Still, they’re not faking anything, being aware of their own preposterousness when they sing: “surfer boy, surfer boy / in chains and leather” (Track 6) against chirpy keyboard lines and the first female vocals (hopelessly out-of-key). In fact, the punk stylings are gone as soon as they arrive, replaced by a dalliance with 60s pop pastiche. It’s here that the Triffids sound most Belle & Sebastian with a nice line in comic juxtapositions (“Now the orderly takes your elbow / now the angels want back their halo”).

Moving on… it’s impressive just how tight and crisp-sounding the live albums are, compared to the foregoing five hours. For a ten-album box-set, there’s very little sense of the material being repetitive, and it’s great to be able hear the 1984 and 1988 sets back to back (the latter opening with ‘Wide Open Road’, with supreme confidence; it’s keyboard-heavy in lieu of a choir, but this makes it a desirable alternative rather than a weak compromise). To be brutally honest, the St Kilda set (April 1984) sucks – sound and song-choices both – but by October 1984 they’re playing some of their classics, and by 1988 they’re playing a set to rival the Best Of. The only mystery is why they repeatedly murder ‘I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You’, having learned nothing from 1984 to 1988. David McComb is a fine crooner in his own right, so why leave out all the grace notes and glide, belting it out one word at a time? To be fair, the Elvis-in-Hawaii arrangement (for the 1988 version) is a reverent fan’s joke, but it’s not a classic cover. In a similar vein, the retro-country and synth-schmaltz pastiches on the Jack Brabham sessions (CDs 9 & 10) occasionally fall flat as jokes, as they hadn't when the band actually were kids, but you get unlikely covers of Kraftwerk and Madonna, and it's worth digging around for tracks like 'Femme Fatale' or 'Into the Groove'. Look out for an interview hidden on CD5, as well.

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