A decent heathen

by Nick Bollinger / 12 January, 2008
The current Verlaines line-up is the most capable Graeme Downes has had.

Recording as the Verlaines for the first time in a decade, Graeme Downes shows he is still one of this country's most adventurous and accomplished songwriters. Downes's models come from the sophisticated end of popular music. With its swinging melody and crisp, bitter lyric, "All Messed Up" tips its hat to Cole Porter, while the emotional plea of "Don't Leave" makes the melodic bounds and skin-prickling changes of the best Burt Bacharach.

And there is even an uncharacteristic tinge of funk to "It's Easier to Harden a Broken Heart (Than Mend It)".

Passion and irony co-exist in songs that tackle such tricky material as suicide, religion and rejection. And there is a similarly subtle mastery in the way Downes mixes melodies and lyrics. In "Forgive Thine Enemies (But Don't Forget Their Names)", he marries an anti-doctrinaire rant ("I don't care what you believe in/But then I'm a decent kind of heathen") to a suitably agitated melody, underscored by a dogged banjo.

Elsewhere you will hear bold flourishes of horns and strings. The symphonic touches aren't new for Downes. He was incorporating orchestral instruments as early as the Verlaines' first album. Back then, the appearance of, say, bassoons amid a rock trio that had barely shaken off its garage roots made for an attractive tension.

But although the current Verlaines line-up (essentially the same one that made Over the Moon in 1996; 2001's Hammers and Anvils was a solo outing) is the most capable Downes has had, the orchestral sections suggest an approach that might have suited more of the record. A bad record can't be made good by throwing money at it, but Potboiler is a very good record that with a little extravagance could have been an extraordinary one.

Percussionist Anthony Donaldson has haunted the Wellington jazz and improvised music world with his singular artistic vision for the best part of three decades. Starting out with the Primitive Art Group in the late 70s, Donaldson has led innumerable exotically labelled groups including the Family Mallet, Bung Notes and Razor Blades, and was at the core of celebrated Six Volts.

But School of Hard Knocks is the best introduction yet to Donaldson's music. Culled from assorted live recordings made with different line-ups over the past few years, the album is surprisingly cohesive; that is, as cohesive as a record can be that sets out to jar your senses and drag you from one alien landscape to another. Imagine arriving in one of Martin Denny's fantasy villages to find that all the inhabitants were on acid. The music is part Denny, part Sun Ra, part Frank Zappa and a whole lot of stuff that is pure Donaldson.

Thirty-odd musicians appear on these tracks, which range from piano-led bebop ("Avalanche") through noir-ish overtures ("The Warrior Who Fought Forever") to what might be the ritual music of some lost tribe ("Valley of the Teen Idols"), all filtered through an imagination that is part B-grade horror movie, part Boy's Own adventure novel.

Donaldson has specialised requirements of his recruits. Guitarist Noel Clayton is featured on punchbag, while trombonist Nick Van Dijk is deployed on the far less gainly tuba.

Of particular note is singer Jonny Marks, who may do more than anyone else to articulate Donaldson's vision. Clearly inspired by the Mongolian throat-singing tradition, he fills the improvisations with the type of sounds that make you realise there are still corners of the world that haven't been explored, particularly those that exist in someone else's mind.

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