Monday, October 5, 2009

The Verlaines Corporate Moronic

The small town of Dunedin plays host to a myriad of wonderful groups since the late 1970s, and the Clean seems to sit right at the top of that ladder. In fact, they've released a new record this year, and the Bats have done similarly. Strangely, too - the Verlaines have released a new album via a new independent label, Dunedin Music.

Once upon a time, the Verlaines released an album called Over the Moon through New Zealand's Sony branch. And at last count, about five people own this 1998 CD, and I know one of them. It was quite an interesting record - it kind of crossed the delicateness of 1991's Ready to Fly and the overcooked guitars of Way Out Where. You could feel the glue of tobacco paper seep into the microphone from Graeme Downes's lips during Writing On The Wall when he says, "don't say it's over."

Then the giant wait for Potboiler, released on the Flying Nun label nine years later. I have only played it once. Not feeling terribly game to play it again, it kind of left me stone cold. The ghastly cover doesn't help matters - but then again, Way Out Where has a rather shocking cover as well. Bob Dylan's 1981 LP Shot Of Love looks like Roy Lichtenstein's vomit but it's one cracker of a record. Judge, cover, et cetera.

On a recent trip to Christchurch, I walked into an independent record store to find the just released Verlaines album, Corporate Moronic. This worked out pretty famously as I had not planned to take any music along with me to listen to in the rent-a-car for the return trip to Dunedin. I played this album almost non-stop between both cities, pausing for small periods to listen to some classic AM rock on an FM station.

Every rock band I've grown up with in school have disappointed me in one way or another. Sonic Youth really lost the plot after Experimental, Jet-Set, Trash and No Star. Dinosaur Jr really into the ether after Where You Been? There's countless more examples to lay out, and the Verlaines sadly fall under this disappointment umbrella. I hope for each new Verlaines album to sound better than Bird Dog, and they never do. In hindsight, I guess it's that good after all.

After the departure of Robbie Yeats in 1989/90, and Jane Dodd in 1988, the Verlaines have lost a terrible amount of their poetry and zeal for complex arrangements. Some might just put it down to progress. The Velvets got more and more conventional as the years rolled on, so I guess this isn't anything too scandalous.

But in the case of the Verlaines, and Graeme Downes in particular - the band's leader, musical director, composer, lyricist, vocalist and occasional oboe player, it is as if the band of 2009 have forgotten what made them so beautiful - those countless references to cigarette smoking and pub-drinking is one major loss. And I don't think it's a good loss, either. Downes still finds room for doomed love songs, so not all is removed from the lyrical topics of yore.

Corporate Moronic completely removes itself from the Flying Nun era of 1982-1990, and all that's left is Graeme's voice. Thankfully, it's still in good form. So in today's terms it's Verlaines by name and not by nature.

Perhaps Graeme's moved on, and I haven't? He's already written Slow Sad Love Song, Just Mum, and Baud to Tears once - so why am I wanting another song along these similar lines? Selfishness more than likely.

In modern rock terms, I'd much rather listen to this album than the latest Kings Of Leon offering - so as much as this all seems like a giant whine, I should be grateful that the Verlaines exist at all.


Unknown said...

Fact is that bands become different animals when people leave and others come in. The new players need to put their own mark on things which changes the way a band sounds.
I think Graeme consciously tries to make each new record different to the last and he embraces new opportunities to work in more and more professional environments with more and more professional people and to push the boundaries in his songwriting. In that process you lose something of what you were but gain new things.(He also writes for the musicians around him). We're not still in our bedrooms recording on 4 track machines and if we were you would think we were rather quaint if not pretty odd not to mention living in the past.
Being in a band when you are 20 and on the dole is a lot different to being 40, having a job (in my case running business) and being in a band that has and still does make zero money. At 40 you cant be fucked touring and even playing one gig can become a major pain in the arse. The only rewarding thing really is the creation of new recordings and when those recordings see the light of day. it certainly has nothing to do with money - as I say, there isn't any money in it.

I think you are looking back to your own youth and the way you felt about it back then then. Back to a time when you'd discovered the band and it was all new and exciting. And there's nothing wrong with it. Like us, maybe you are a bit old and jaded now. The reflexes are slower, you're not quite as mentally sharp, all the rough edges worn away. But you've still a lot to offer. It's just isn't the same thing you had to offer 22 years ago.

The fact that we put out two records in 18 months is a fucking miracle only made possible through Graeme's employment with Otago University. Otherwise you'd have only memories.

And if you expect to "get" a Verlaines record in one listening I think you are pushing it. Give Potboiler another listen. And if it's complex arrangements you want, have another listen to Paraphrasing Hitler.

I'll finish with a quote..

"The past is another country. They do things differently there."

Darren Stedman

Unknown said...

In 30 odd years a fair bit of water has flowed under the bridge and the band's sound has varied dramatically.
For Bird Dog (recorded about 22 years ago), the members were all in their mid 20's, a time of life when smoking and drinking and hanging out in public houses seems much more romantic. (Why would Graeme at 47 years old still be ruminating over life from a stool in the corner bar of the Cook, the eternal student? )
That record works so well because the band had played the songs live many times and had been together a few years, a backdrop that has really never been repeated since. (Most later material was never road tested much at all - by circumstance, not design) It is essentially the band playing live in the studio with a few overdubs. The chemistry is all over it.
When we recorded Way Out Where for example we had played about 7 gigs. Paul and I had been in the band 4 months. I had never met him previously and I didn't know Graeme (who was 30 at the time and 9 years my senior). We recorded it in a completely foreign environment (L.A.) with a bunch of industry professionals we didn't know from a bar of soap. By our own standards we were worked into the ground by the producer. That simply the way the cards fell.We were contracted to make a record. Could things have been more different to Bird Dog?

Fast forward 15 years to Corporate Moronic and we played only one of the songs live before it was recorded. For all intents and purposes there is no "band" as such. So the record stands or falls on it's own merits I think. It is far removed from Bird Dog in terms of time and circumstance. Lyrically it is the voice of an older person. You have to find a way to say something honest and credible as an older artist. And I think Graeme is still saying something in his music and communicating. God, most music I hear these days seems devoid of meaning.
As time marches on and you can't bang away doing the same old thing. You have to change what you do. You must evolve. You may try but you will never recapture what you did in youth. Your best work may be behind you. So what if it is.


Unknown said...

Well said Darren. I'm of the mind that each Verlaines record is actually better than the last, it just takes listen after listen to get there. But if "instant"is what I want I'll listen elsewhere. CM is amazing and has just started opening up after around 12 listens. "Paraphrasing Hitler" is indeed amazing and all the tunes are reaching that standard for me. I absolutely adore "Over The Moon", Graeme's solo record and the rest. I'm so glad you are all still making music, and I mark myself as a little different from the general consensus that earlier is better. With some, sure, but with true talents with a deep passion and understanding of music I always look forward to the next installment. May you never stop.

Donat said...

You could be right Nick. Months have passed since I bought my copy in Christchurch in July and it has grown on me a great deal.

And Darren, I have a wholehearted respect for what the Verlaines are doing today, even if it doesn't resemble the days of yore. I guess I should (like the Verlaines themselves) move along with the times a little