Wednesday, 17 July 2019

The Triffids ‎– Born Sandy Devotional (1986)

Style: Alternative Rock, Indie Rock
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: BMG, Virgin, Rough Trade, Megadisc

01.   The Seabirds
02.   Estuary Bed
03.   Chicken Killer
04.   Tarrilup Bridge
05.   Lonely Stretch
06.   Wide Open Road
07.   Life Of Crime
08.   Personal Things
09.   Stolen Property
10.   Tender Is The Night (The Long Fidelity)

Backing Vocals – Fay Brown, Sally Collins
Cello, Keyboards – Adam Peters
Piano, Vibraphone – Chris Abrahams
Viola – Lesley Wynne
Written-By – David McComb
Arranged By – The Triffids
Producer – Gil Norton, The Triffids

Hailing from Western Australia, the Triffids sound something like a cross of two of their mid-1980s Aussie compatriots, the Go-Betweens and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (which Triffids bassist Martyn Casey would later join). On this album (produced by Gil Norton, who would become famous for his work with the Pixies) the band integrated a steel-guitar player with guitar, violin, and keyboard and conjured a wide-open atmospheric sound that counterbalanced the claustrophobic lyrics of singer-songwriter David McComb, who here seems largely fixated on betrayal, loneliness, death, suicide, and other such cheerful topics. (McComb would later die after a car accident and subsequent drug overdose in 1999.) 
Like an antipodean Stan Ridgway, McComb spins noirish tales from a first-person perspective that invite comparison to short stories even though they unfold in evocative fragments. Born Sandy Devotional's first track, "The Seabirds", is a perfect example, opening straightaway with the Didionesque line, "No foreign pair of dark sunglasses will ever shield you from the light that pierces your eyelids or the screaming of the gulls". Over sweeping steel guitar licks and punctuating string flourishes, McComb relates the story of a man planning to drown himself in the ocean, interspersing it with gruesome imagery of birds picking carcasses on the strand and climaxing with an encounter with caustic, nameless strangers in a seashore motel who castigate him for his drunken futility.
That's followed by the album's most inviting song, "Estuary Bed", which also conjures up the seaside, but in nostalgic and picturesque tones. What the repeated tagline "Sleep no more, sleep is dead" means, however, remains open to interpretation. "Wide Open Road" tells of a man tracking the lover who deserted him, cutting his friends and family off "like limbs" as he goes, and "Stolen Property" is both a slow-building admonition to an absent lover who is "just an aphorism for any occasion" and to the singer's own uncooperative heart, either of which may be the object to which the title refers. 
But as nuanced as his lyrics could be, there's nothing subtle about McComb's vocal delivery, which is booming, declamatory, and deadly serious in every instance. He has a deep, full-throated croon, similar to Nick Cave's, but unlike Cave McComb doesn't always modulate it so as to avoid the pomposity and inadvertent Jim Morrison parody such a voice can suggest. "Lonely Stretch", which opens like an outtake from Springsteen's Nebraska, telling of a night drive to nowhere, builds to a foreboding sha-la-la chorus reminiscent of the Sisters of Mercy, and the overplayed dread grows maudlin and undermines the menacing mood the band seemed to be shooting for. If McComb's voice has its shortcomings, that's nothing compared to keyboardist Jill Birt, whose thin, tuneless, and bodiless voice detracts from every song on which it is discernible. Her lead turns on "Tarrilup Bridge" and "Tender Is the Night" ruin otherwise compelling songs, and her harmonies on "Chicken Killer" do nothing to help the unfortunate chorus: "Here he comes, the chicken killer again". 
Nevertheless, Born Sandy Devotional works well as an entire album; the weaker cuts support the stronger ones even if they can't stand alone. They sustain the melancholia while throwing the better songs into heightened relief, making playing the album in its entirety feel like a well-rounded, complete experience. Such experiences are becoming rare; with sales-by-the-song services and expanded reissues repeatedly coming out, no one worries too much about the integrity of an album as a whole. Hence, this Domino reissue includes nine bonus tracks -- some worthy enough ("Time of Weakness", "Convent Walls"), some sounding unfinished (the title track, "White Shawl", "Wish to See No More"), but all obviously were excluded originally for a reason. 
Still, the experience of Born Sandy Devotional is not one you're likely to want to have every day, but on that day when you want to be carried away to a fully imagined place where emotions are a little more desperate and extreme, when you want your desire to escape dramatized in romantic terms without losing any of its complexity or ambivalence, you'll be glad to have this. 
Bob Horning / popMATTERS

The Triffids ‎– In The Pines (1986)

Style: Folk Rock, Pop Rock, Indie Rock
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: Hot Records, Virgin, BMG, White Hot

01.   Suntrapper
02.   In The Pines
03.   Kathy Knows
04.   25 To 5
05.   Do You Want Me Near You?
06.   Once A Day
07.   Just Might Fade Away
08.   Better Off This Way
09.   Only One Life
10.   Keep Your Eyes On The Hole
11.   One Soul Less On Your Fiery List
12.   Born Sandy Devotional
13.   Love And Affection

Producer – Bruce Callaway, David McComb

In the nearly 20 years that have passed since Aussie rockers the Triffids disbanded, memory of their work has largely faded. But for a couple of years in the middle of the '80s they were a promising young act, releasing three excellent albums in succession, starting with 1986's Born Sandy Devotional. That record, generally regarded as their masterpiece, was reissued by Domino last year to critical acclaim. The other two -- In the Pines and Calenture -- now follow, completing the picture of a band at the height of their powers and giving '80s fans a chance to discover one that decade’s forgotten talents. 
Calenture, the later of the two discs, is the Triffids' most ambitious effort. Produced by Gil Norton, who also helmed work for Echo and the Bunnymen, the record's majestic gloom makes comparisons to their more popular English counterparts inevitable. But thanks to songs like "Blinder By the Hour" and the gospel-tinged "Bury Me Deep in Love", the Triffids are able to weather them. David McComb's formidable voice drives the songs like an engine, equal parts Nick Cave and Bruce Springsteen, as choirs, pianos, strings, horns, woodwinds -- even bagpipes and harpsichords -- swirl around him. By time the album's last chords have faded away, it's easy to see why Domino felt the Triffids were worthy of a re-release -- why they haven't already found a home on the retro airwaves like so many of their contemporaries is less clear. 
In the Pines, in contrast to the album that came after it, is a stripped-down affair. Looking to return to their roots after the break-through success of Born Sandy Devotional, the Triffids set off into the Australian outback to record their follow up. Laid down on an eight-track in five days with a budget of only a thousand dollars (alcohol: $340), In the Pines peels away the sheen of '80s production, allowing McComb's songwriting talent to take centre stage. The modest instrumentation exposes a band with a range of talents that extend far beyond the contemporary influences displayed on their other records: the sharp electric guitar on "Love and Affection" recalls the Velvet Underground; "Do You Want Me Near You" foreshadows the Britpop harmonies of the Super Furry Animals; the sing-along cover of Bill Anderson's "Once a Day" showcases a love of country music usually limited to an occasional steel guitar. In the Pines maybe not have the same grandiose sweep as Calenture, but it does have plenty to offer. 
The creative flurry of those few days in the spring of 1986 are made even more impressive when seen in the light of the extra tracks resurrected for this reissue. "Blinder By the Hour", "A Trick of the Light" and " Jerdacuttup Man" are all among Calenture's best tracks, and each is revealed here to have been originally recorded during the making of In the Pines. The woolshed sessions not only produced that album, but laid much of the creative groundwork for the record that was to follow. While Domino's decision to scatter these songs among the original tracks rather than placing them at the end of the record seems questionable, to have them unearthed here makes for a valuable discovery. Along with a feminized cover of The Crystal's hit "He’s Sure the Boy I Love" and a fleshed out version of the originally too-brief "Born Sandy Devotional", they lend more depth to an already satisfying listen. The bonus tracks included with Calenture, by comparison, are weak and unappealing, seeming to foreshadow 1989's disappointing The Black Swan (there’s rapping). 
Together, Calenture and In the Pines make for an impressive listen and show the Triffids to be a band worthy of their influences. They may not have won themselves a place in the cannon of ‘80s rockers, but these are two records that should find a happy home in the record collection of anyone who loves the sweeping melancholic sounds of the Me Decade. 
Adam Bunch / popMATTERS