THE STEADY RETURN OF THE VERLAINES (2024): Taking good care of it

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THE STEADY RETURN OF THE VERLAINES (2024): Taking good care of it

Although Graeme Downes retired from the field of play four years ago, his legacy of music with the Verlaines – and with students who passed through his courses at the University of Otago's music department – is assured.

Tall, dark and interesting, Downes always seemed more mature than his peers on Flying Nun when the Verlaines emerged alongside the Clean, the Gordons, Balloon D'Essai, Chills and others in the early-mid Eighties.

Where some of those artists enjoyed comics and pop culture, Downes' references were to poets, writers and classical musicians.

He named his band after the French Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine – namechecked with Arthur Rimbaud in their song Death and the Maiden – and in many ways stood apart from others on the Nun label.

In his book Positively George Street, Matthew Bannister (Sneaky Feelings, Dribbling Darts of Love etc) wrote of Downes: “Graeme was smouldering and Byronic. He had gaunt cheekbones and eyes of the clearest blue, which he set off by playing in a white shirt and sometimes a red bandana round his neck.

“He whipped himself into an expressionistic frenzy on stage and dropped literary references by the bucketload . . . his classical training gave him a broad palette and all his songs were structured carefully with an ear for clever harmonic twists and sidesteps.

“They also did a lot of speeding up and dramatic pauses and stops which gave them impact.”

The Verlaines albums Hallelujah All the Way Home, Bird Dog and Some Disenchanted Evening remain essential listening for their complexity, intelligence and songcraft. They are also shot through with barbed and sardonic humour in places.

Those were the last albums the Verlaines did for Flying Nun and the band took flight onto the American label Slash.

Through the agency and enthusiasm of the band's drummer Darren Stedman, there have been reissues (on vinyl) for Record Store Day.

This year the album is the band's 1993 release Way Out Where, their second and final album for Slash.

V_way_out_whereThe album was written on a tight deadline imposed by Slash and while Downes was finishing his doctoral thesis on classical composer Gustav Mahler.

The album – remastered at Abbey Road – will be released on Record Store Day, Saturday April 20.

It follows a series of Verlaine's vinyl reissues for RSD so we draw attention to them here and note the extensive Verlaines' catalogue can be found at bandcamp here


Dunedin Spleen (released 2019)

This 19 song CD originally appeared in 2019 as a digital download but it was picked up by the American label Schoolkids Records and released on vinyl for Record Store Day in 2020, then on CD the following year.

Although Downes was noted for his literary writing and intellectual allusions in his lyrics, he also delivered social comment, notably on the 2009 album Corporate Moronic.

On Dunedin Spleen he's at his cynical best on the cabaret jazz swing of Church And State (“your banking system's rotten, they're all racing to the bottom, thank God they gave us Jesus”) and Canterbury South (“there's but half a braid left in the Rangitata, and these days no one finds a man with a fly rod on the Hinds”).

a1356202761_10Here too is Anthem (“they've paid their Nike tithes . . . they've sung their Mass to Adidas”), the bitter This Will Not Go Down (“So I'm 'just an entertainer' . . . ah those little belittling words, that 'just', how it enslaves”) and the observational Man Selling Poems (“A guy who bought at the top of the market now watches his equity shrink”).

There's a folksy element to many of these songs brought to life by the core band of Downes, Stedman, keyboard player Stephen Small, bassist Rob Burns and guitarist Thomas Healy.

They can shift easily from folk-rock to cabaret (AWCWD with its woozy saxophones).

Downes had an affection for his hometown but also saw the darkness and oppressive nature of Dunedin: “Under a pot-lid sky, the hills corral us still, a prison cosy or cloying depending on what life one can sometimes spy and even touch . . . . outside” (I Am).

And on the title track, in his mid-Fifties and ailing, he feels the weight of the place, his life and the young students he sees in his daily life as a lecturer at the university: “Ah Downes, you sad old fuck, you might have stayed too long, take your disconnection and your constant weary bones, lock yourself in solitude, write yourself a song”.

But writing a song is not just an escape but a reward in itself, it has given him the life he's had and leads to the final words on the album: “We've taken the oath, a songman's vow. And we're way too old to grow up now”.

A fine collection of recent material with breadth, humour, sharp skepticism and barbed lyrics about corporate and political figures.

Downes would later considered it “a double album of extraordinary scope”.

None of These Chords


Live at the Windsor Castle 1986 (released 2022)

Recorded at the famous Auckland venue by Victor Grbic and remastered by Stephen Stedman, this previously unreleased concert largely favours material which would appear on the studio album Bird Dog the following year.

a3931398462_10_1Considered by many to be the classic line-up of the early Verlaines – Downes, bassist Jane Dodd formerly with the Chills and drummer Robbie Yeats – and this period finding Downes at his most ambitious (Just Mum) and consistent.

Presented as a gatefold double vinyl through Schoolkids in 2022 (download card included) it comes with extensive liner notes by Downes who describes their touring rituals (whisky, Camel cigarettes, throat lozenges), the “dark ages” when it came to technology and the songs: “Angry, dark, negative, mocking – yet uplifting”.

The album reminds you also of the whirlwind of fury the Verlaines could unleash (the desperate headlong flight of Lying in State, the hugely popular Pyromaniac and Doomsday), their idiosyncratic sound (Lover's Armageddon, You Cheat Yourself of Everything That Moves) and ability to take everything right down and keep the attention (the torturous vocal on Slow Sad Love Song).

Live at the Windsor Castle in an important album in the Verlaine's catalogue because it captures the raw energy of a young band with an album, an EP and a few others songs behind it but already punching above its weight and moving fast, which takes us to . . .

Lying in State (live)


Bird Dog (re-released 2023)

For the 2023 vinyl reissue of this 1987 classic Verlaines album, Schoolkids Records had it remastered at Abbey Road.

a1085413780_10In a memorable cover by John Collie of Straitjacket Fits, Downes, Yeats and Dodd delivered something close to a masterpiece which opens with the slow Makes No Difference with flugelhorn by George Chisholm and along the way has parts for piano and bassoon (by Tim Dodd) saxophones (Rick Robertson) and trombone (Merv Thomas),

Downes was stretching himself in the arrangements and in many places using straight-ahead rock as the jumping off point for music which was dextrous, nuanced and complex (CD Jimmy Jazz and Me with strings and horns).

There was real lyrical depth, anxiety, meditations on mortality and much more. It was, and is, adult music.

It's interesting to compare the studio versions of songs like Just Mum (more measured, less aflame) to them live at the Windsor.

Astonishingly Bird Dog had never had a vinyl reissue in many decades until this arrived.

It's the album they should give kids in school along with their free lunch.

CD, Jimmy Jazz and Me


We will consider the reissue of Way Out Where closer to its release, meantime this is a lot of Verlaines for you to be getting on with.

There is more on the Verlaines at Elsewhere starting here, and an audiocultre profile of Graeme Downes here

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