Album of the Week, August 18: Calenture by the Triffids
August 18, 2013 2 Comments
The Triffids began as a school project in Perth, Western Australia, between singer and musician David McComb and percussionist Alsy McDonald. During their first few years, they went through a number of personnel changes and a few names before settling on the Triffids and a core of McComb, McDonald, and McComb’s brother, Robert. Their music drew on folk and blues roots as well as a love of the Velvet Underground. At its center were David’s powerful voice and dark lyrical bent, often drawing on the stark isolation of his rural upbringing. He wrote over 100 songs that the early band self-released on cassette.
Eventually adding Jill Birt, Martyn Casey, and Evil Graham Lee, the band spent a lot of time on the road. The journey from Perth to Sydney and Melbourne for gigs was monumental. After recording their first official releases, Treeless Plain and Born Sandy Devotional, they developed a following in the UK. That led to even more travel. After recording the stripped-down In the Pines in a shearing shed, they started work on their fourth album, the difficult work that became Calenture.
|Label||Island||Release Date||November 1987|
|U.S. Chart||n/c||U.K. Chart||n/c|
By the time the album was completed, the band had worked with three different producers and recorded and scrapped the same songs multiple times. The arduous creative process combined with the incessant travel took its toll but paid off with a magnificent set of songs. “Calenture” refers to a disorienting fever that sailors too long at sea in the tropics experience. It’s an apt metaphor for the band’s state of mind and a nice unifying theme for the disc. The cover photo of David McComb is perfectly evocative of these themes as well.
Things kick off on a high note with Bury Me Deep In Love. A land-locked song, it still evokes travel and peril but resolves these themes with hope and redemption. The chorus is hymnal in quality and David is in fine voice and he soars through the powerful lyrics. The journey gets darker quickly, with the stark Kelly’s Blues, a tale of isolation and sorrow. Lovely keyboard work and choral harmonies enhance the mood and continue the feel of the opener.
A Trick of the Light is one of the album’s finest moments, playing on the idea of deception and illusion as it explores a disintegrating relationship. It features one of David’s finest lyrics, and he sings with a mixture of wistful happiness that is spot on. Hometown Farewell Kiss is another song of departure. A reworking of a skeletal song from In the Pines, it’s a “good riddance” to a town that did the singer no favors. Another potent vocal mixing anger and liberation caps of a perfect track.
The band knock through the next three songs nicely, showing off their chops as a tight unit, not just a backdrop for David McComb’s powerful vision. (Rumor has it that Island signed the band mostly to get him, something that made the Calenture sessions particularly challenging.) Unmade Love is a bleak tale countered nicely by the welcome of Open For You, one of the Triffid’s happiest songs. Holy Water kicks off the vinyl side two on a spiritual note that echoes Bury Me Deep In Love, a nice bit of consistency. It’s more revival meeting than church hall, with a driving beat that brings back the journeying theme.
The rest of the album works as a cohesive whole, taking the overall concepts of the album and compressing them into a dark song cycle. Blinder By The Hour begins the descent, with McComb taking his vocals into cavernous regions. More nice keyboard work accompanies him as the fever takes hold. Vagabond Holes is a harrowing song about loss, with McComb’s vocals pouring out in a torn howl by the end. The band crash into chaos around him, creating a stark power. Jerdacuttup Man feels like a fever dream, the biography of a bog mummy preserved for hundreds of years after a life of recklessness. First person narration from such a character seems odd, but McComb carries it off beautifully.
Calenture is a brief instrumental that perfectly evokes the fever of the title. Haunting and disquieting, it continues the fever dream of the previous trio and then lifts it just in time for the redemption of the closing track. Save What You Can is one of the band’s best songs, a perfect resolution to the disturbing journey that is Calenture. A testament to figuring out what’s really important and making the most of your circumstances, it is realistic without being resigned and ultimately uplifting.
FURTHER LISTENING: All the pressures took their toll, and the Triffids only lasted for one more album,disintegrating in 1990. David McComb suffered substance abuse and health problems, working on a number of projects before dying mysteriously after a car accident in 1999. Graham Lee has ensured that the band’s output is lovingly maintained through reissues. All the full albums are worthwhile, demonstrating the cohesive, flexible power of the band and the striking musical vision of David McComb.
- Treeless Plain shows off the raw power of the early Triffids in a strong set that lacks the polish and cohesion of later work. The reissue includes a great live set of several of these tracks, showing the roots of the album nicely.
- The band kept busy between their first two albums, nearly flooding the market. David McComb was writing like mad and provided material for a great single, two EPs (including one by the country-tinged alter ego Lawson Square Infirmary), and an extended single. Lee and Lawson Square participant James Paterson compiled this period onto Beautiful Waste and Other Songs, an uneven but fascinating look at the creative period that set the stage for the best of the Triffids.
- Born Sandy Devotional is a magnificent leap forward, considered by many to be the band’s masterpiece. It’s a stirring set of romantic obsession and devastation songs, presented with a distinctly (but not distractingly) Australian sensibility. McComb’s clear musical vision shines on this brilliantly constructed disc. Lee adds a number of interesting but not vital bonus tracks to the reissue.
- Taking a 180° turn, the Triffids recorded In the Pines in a few days in a woolshed. That this disc — while not as magnificent — is nearly as cohesive as its predecessor is a testament to McComb’s vision and the band’s passion and collaboration. The reissue bonuses add significantly to the experience and plant the seeds for tha magic of Calenture.
- After Calenture, McComb envisioned a double-disc set like The Beatles (aka the White Album), something that found unity in disparity. Sadly, Island released The Black Swan as a one-disc set of the finest songs that works but lacks the chaotic magic. Lee’s reissue presents McComb’s full vision, the “sprawling, messy masterpiece it promised to be.” It’s the only way to appreciate this final album by the band.
For casual fans, the compilation Australian Melodrama is a nearly perfect overview, capturing highlights from the band’s splendid, chaotic decade.
Serious fans should check out Bleddyn Butcher’s meticulous history of the band, Save What You Can: The Day of the Triffids. The book is an in-depth look at the inspirations and obsessions of David McComb, an exhaustive but well crafted look at what made the Triffids the band they were.