Hammers and Anvils
US release date: 28 August 2001
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New Zealand is the home of over 60 million sheep and what seems like just as many interesting bands. Whether it's off-kilter pop craftsmen (the Chills, Bird Nest Roys, Jean Paul Sartre Experience) or darker, nosier acts (the Gordons, this Dead C, This Kind of Punishment), for the past twenty-odd years, this small country has produced a wealth of music disproportionate to its populace. Two veterans of this tight-knit community have recently graced us with new product: the Clean (Getaway) and Graeme Downes (Hammers and Anvils).
The Clean may well be New Zealand's most influential band. Their mixture of gnarled pop, psychedelic exploration and punkish amateurism has served as a blueprint, not just for many of the New Zealand groups that have come in their wake, but for the Pavements and Yo La Tengos of the world as well. In the trio's earliest incarnation (1978-83), the Clean put out a slew of incredible singles and EPs, released only in their native land on the then tiny Flying Nun label. Fortunately for us, many of the songs from these hard-to-find releases were collected on the 1986 album Compilation, an essential purchase for anyone with even a remote interest in New Zealand rock, lo-fi or indie rock in general. Members of the Clean participated in several projects in the mid-'80s (brothers David and Hamish Kilgour spent time in the Great Unwashed; bassist Robert Scott formed the Bats) before reuniting and releasing their first proper album, Vehicle, in 1990. The Clean have been an on-again-off-again affair since then.
Their latest album, Getaway, continues the pattern of their post-Compilation work. It mixes delightfully skewed pop songs with moodier, mildly psychedelic excursions. Of course, in the Clean's hands, one element is never completely separate from the other. The album's most accessible tracks, like "Golden Crown" or "E Motel", have a sense of instability to them. Even while humming along, the listener feels as if the tunes can veer off into any direction at any moment. Similarly, Getaway's more experimental tracks, such as "Twilight Agency", never feel completely esoteric.
While nothing on Getaway matches the power of early Clean classics like "Tally Ho!" or "Point That Thing Somewhere Else", certain songs recapture some of the old magic. The album's opener, "Stars", is one of those songs that you won't realize is catchy until you're singing it to yourself days later. The previously mentioned "E Motel" is a radiant pop tune, on a par with Robert Scott's best work with the Bats. "Circle Canyon" (which features guests Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley of Yo La Tengo) swipes the riff from Pearl Jam's "Alive" and transforms it from arena-rock bombast into something much more intimate. "Aho", which never drags over the course of its six minutes, suggests the Velvet Underground playing surf rock underwater. Yes, I know surfers are supposed to stay above the water but subversion of convention is what makes the Clean so marvelous.
Less influential than the Clean but just as wonderful were Graeme Downes's Verlaines, a band whose music was often as gorgeously evocative as the work of the French symbolist poet from whom they took their name. Longtime Verlaines fans had expressed some worry that Downes's first solo album, Hammers and Anvils, was filled with "drum machines and samplers and shit" (as one fan put it to me). Though this is true, the electronic backing tastefully compliments Downes's guitar and vocals and never sticks out like a sore thumb. Still, one may get the feeling the record might have been better had Downes been supported by actual, you know, human beings. However, Downes's songwriting is strong enough throughout to carry the album, regardless of the arrangements.
Backing arrangements aren't an issue on the album's opener. The title track, which features only Downes's voice and electric guitar, achieves an elegant, mournful grandeur. While its lyrics don't follow a specific narrative, lines like "She was laughing with slaughterhouse eyes" conjure powerful images in the head of the listener when matched with Downes's plaintive wail. The next track, "Cole Porter", a love song about the inability to write a love song ("A stone can't praise a diamond", Downes sings), nearly matches its titular hero in refined tunefulness.
Nothing else on Hammers and Anvils quite equals the potency of its first two tracks but there is other strong material on the album. "January Song" perfectly captures the very particular feeling of melancholy in a summer of a "mind-fucking heatwave" (remember, we're talking southern hemisphere). "Day of the Dead" is about as amiable as a song with that title could possibly be, while still conveying an inherent sense of loss. "Gucci" has quiet, contemplative verses that give way to an intense chorus with the revelation that its protagonist has "bought straight into a monstrous lie".
Though they may be short on moments of true rock 'n' roll transcendence, Getaway and Hammers and Anvils are worthy additions to the respective catalogs of both the Clean and Graeme Downes. Considering the impressive nature of their previous work, these are fairly exceptional accomplishments for both artists. But what do I know? The only time I've ever seen sheep was at a petting zoo.