By the time some indie bands finally catch the attention of major labels, it’s often too late — they’ve already used up their best material and shot their creative wad. Such, happily, has not been the case with New Zealand’s Verlaines. Following a series of promising but inconsistent import and indie albums the group inked a deal with Warner Bros.-distributed Slash and proceeded to release the two finest albums of its career.
Named after the French symbolist poet and fronted by a classical music student, the Verlaines hail from Dunedin, New Zealand, the same hometown as the Chills and the Clean. From the band’s first single, “Death and the Maiden” (inspired by an Edvard Munch painting), poetry and high art have had a large impact on singer/songwriter/multi- instrumentalist Graeme Downes’ approach to rock music. Besides his anguished, mournful voice, the trio’s sound is characterized by furious electric guitar strumming and deft time shifts.
The band’s early career is documented in the Juvenilia compilation. Combining the six-song Ten O’Clock in the Afternoon EP, “Death and the Maiden” and three songs from a Dunedin scene compilation, this fine anthology has a punkish immediacy and an almost pastoral freshness. Downes’ tales of drunkards, romantics and kids on the dole are punctuated by feisty drumming and such instrumental flourishes as oboe and carnival organ.
Hallelujah All the Way Home is the group’s attempt at stylistic definition and refinement. Although ambitious and pretentious (lyrics harp on the antiquated concept of the artist as exile), the album is nevertheless grounded in Downes’ exquisite and inventive sense of melody. Bird-Dog is a stronger, more realized effort. Augmenting their sound with horns, strings and piano, the Verlaines craft a truly memorable album that builds from delicate, hushed ballads to explosive rock’n’roll burlesque. “C.D. Jimmy Jazz and Me,” “Slow Sad Love Song” and “Just Mum” are standouts, but each track seems to surpass the one before it.
Lacking the exhilarating richness and devastating melancholy of Bird-Dog, Some Disenchanted Evening is more restrained and a bit less confident. “Jesus What a Jerk” and “The Funniest Thing” are straightforward guitar-pop — solid and listenable, but without the spark of unpredictability that elevated the band’s early work. The album’s coda, a piano ballad styled after Randy Newman, is actually the collection’s crowning achievement; harnessing a dapper melody to a bitterly sardonic lyric about failure, it reveals new-found subtlety and clarity in Downes’ writing.
Ready to Fly kicks off with “Gloom Junky,” a title that sets the mood for an album of glumly effective songs about lost love. While it’s de rigueur to mention Downes’ doctorate in music, it’s a point that bears repeating when discussing an album that pulls off so many potentially disastrous songwriting styles and production details so successfully: “Tremble” and “Moonlight on Snow” feature orchestration; “Such as I” is drawn purely from musical theater (one can almost see the chorus line dancing behind Downes); “See You Tomorrow” is a blues. Throw in Downes’ strongest bunch of guitar-pop tunes and you’ve got the Verlaines’ best LP.
Until Way Out Where, that is. After years of leading the Verlaines as a trio, Downes added a second guitarist to the group for this record, and the results are apparent from the very first moments of the album’s bracing opener, “Mission of Love,” by far the band’s most electrified tune ever. With the strings, reeds and genre exercises largely shelved, this is a true rock’n’roll album (arguably the Verlaines’ first), and Downes rises to the occasion with enough top-drawer material to mark him as one of the best singer/songwriters currently plying the trade. Choice cuts abound, including “This Valentine” (an exhortation for a romantic fool to get over it already), “Stay Gone” (a send-off to a departed lover) and the title track (one of rock’s most effective odes to a raped environment). Highly recommended.