[19 February 2007]
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.