way out where the west commences

Part two and final of my li'l holding-forth on musicers who are also good worders. Ladies and gentlemen: look south, please, New Zealand-ward, to Mr. Graeme Downes of the Verlaines. Yet another over-educated chap with a Ph.D (in musicology, no less), the Big Fat Nerd in me goes moony swoony when he name checks Dostoevsky, the library at Alexandria, Lord Byron, and Paul Verlaine. I think sometimes bands refrain from printing their lyrics in their CD sleeves, or even from enunciating clearly, because they are afraid they will be revealed as insipid. You rarely miss a word of Graeme's, though, because those vocals are mixed crystal-clear and most of the records I've seen come with handy lyric sheets. The best part is, you could (if you wanted) read said lyric sheets and appreciate the Verlaines almost without pressing play; but of course you should press play and get swept up in the Kiwi-style post-punk-rock-orchestral-pop.

Graeme is a dramatist, and I mean that in the best sense of the word. He writes soaring anthems and he writes aching folktales of betrayal and loss and he writes gentle lullabies complete with twinkling harp and cooing clarinet. Above it all, he tells stories, the kind that stand just this side of purple (we get the word 'salvation' now and again, and the occasional reference to trains or dreams or graves, all of which, as you know, can represent terror).

My favorite Verlaines songs? Let's tip our hats to "Don't Send Me Away" from 1986's Hallelujah All the Way Home: "...the dirty midnight drunk walk/Fucking know-it-all pub talk/Slum chums in the doldrums, on a good day they feel nothing." This is sung calmly, reverently, over Renaissance-style harpsichord sighs and soft percussion; I imagine a medieval court attendant strumming a lute, a lady lounging by a fountain, Graeme standing by with a dagger 'neath his cloak.

1989's Some Disenchanted Evening features the rockinest tale of doom I ever done heard, it's called "We're All Gonna Die" - "They've got blood in their eyes/And they're drunk as lords/And we're all gonna die, by the end of the night."

Way out Where was released in 1996 and is a muscular, guitar-y album; each song on it is a winner, if you ask me, but I am probably most fond of the last lines of the first track, "Mission of Love," which implores us to "Hail! Hail! Hail! Hail each dauntless pursuit of the pointless!"


I couldn't find any free mp3s online, but a dedicated fan maintains an excellent Verlaines site here, complete with biographical notes, discography, and lyrics.

Graeme is doing solo work now; Epitonic has a page.

The Verlaines were on the legendary NZ label Flying Nun, the same people who brought us the Chills, the Clean, and the 3Ds.


Blogger Pete Galub said...

Listen to Mary! She knows what she's talking about!
Graeme Downes is one of my favorite pop-song writers of the last 20 years. He is a rarity- a guy who is deeply into the craft but writes songs that sound inspired to say the least! This man has a SERIOUS gift for harmonic structure and beautiful sweeping arrangments. His music is just as good or better than his words. For Christsakes, he lectures on Mahler at Otago University in Dunedin!
My fave Verlaine CD's are "Juvenaila" (a comp. of early singles), "Bird Dog" (a masterpiece album from 1987), and "Ready To Fly" (the title track alone is worth the price of admission). His only solo record "Hammers and Anvils" has some really nice stuff but is hit and miss.
I have corresponded w/ Graeme on various occassions by email and he seems like a really cool guy- friendly and willing to share info and lesson plans!
There's a comp. that just came out in NZ but is rather cheap called "You're Just Too Obscure for Me"
You can get it online at smoke cds
as well as a lot of other great NZ bands (I would add The Great Unwashed, The Gordons, and The Able Tasmans to the list that Mary mentioned)
And of course you can hear various songs by most or all artists somewhere in the WFMU archives (see the previous post I entered a few back)
Enjoy GD!

1:00 AM, April 06, 2005  
Blogger mary said...

You wrote to him?! Wow. I'm making the fangirl face even as I type.

8:34 AM, April 06, 2005  

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