Song of the Day, June 21: Open For You by the Triffids

TriffidsOpenToday’s song is deceptively peppy. The Triffids’ fourth album, the brilliant Calenture, is a mostly dark affair, with even the brightest songs bearing themes of death and loss. Keyboard player and sometime vocalist Jill Birt wrote Open For You, an upbeat number with a mostly positive theme — that finds darkness around its edges.

Birt and band leader David McComb share vocals on the song, her chirpy harmonies brightening his dark tones. The chorus assures a wandering lover that “the door is always open for you.” Musically, the song is bright pop, an almost danceable track. The verses, however, are more brooding, with images of burial and exhumation and lines like “so tired and full of pain.” The open door is a wonderful thing, but the listener is left wondering if the lost love will have the strength to find it.

Enjoy this complicated song today.

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Album of the Week, March 27: Robert’s Desert Island Discs

RBHSJDIDBadgeToday’s entry is something a little different. As I was looking over the almost 200 albums I have featured over the years, I asked myself the question that drives the famous BBC Radio 4 show Desert Island Discs: If I were stranded on an island, which discs would I be sure to have with me?

The task proved more daunting than I imagined, so I established a few guidelines and started over. These parameters made the selection a little bit easier.

  1. Original, legitimate releases only: no bootlegs, re-issues with bonus tracks, or any other chicanery to pad the offerings.
  2. Enjoy every track: If this is all I ever get to listen to, it had better be great. A perfect test case is Rubber Soul: it’s an unquestionably brilliant album, but if I had to listen to Michelle or Girl more than once a month, I’d throw myself into the shark-infested waters.
  3. Balance, balance, balance: I tried to embrace the breadth of my tastes and represent a good cross-section of the artists I love.
  4. When in doubt, favorite artists win: My collection includes several acts represented by one great album. In order to represent the artists whose whole catalogs I appreciate, I dropped the one-only artists. That included the hard decisions to eliminate Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, London Calling, Rumours, Blood On the Tracks, and I Am A Bird Now.
  5. Greatest hits: I pondered banning these as a corallary to rule 1, but decided to take them on their own merits. As it turns out, I didn’t wind up with any of these on the list, although I looked closely at a couple. In the end, rule 2 trumped them.

I set my album allowance at 13. Why that number? I could say that it represents the bad luck of being stranded on a desert island, but honestly trying to get to eight — the BBC number — was maddening. My list, my rules, so if this Gilligan-adjacent experience includes a weatherproof sound system, it has room for 13 discs.

Without further ado, here they are, in the order in which I finalized their placement on the list.

Richard & Linda ThompsonShoot out the LightsHIGH RESOLUTION COVER ARTShoot Out the Lights (1982, Hannibal) Richard & Linda Thompson
Surprising no-one, I’m sure, this was my first choice — brilliant lyrics, stellar playing, solid band, two of my favorite artists on one disc. Harrowing but hopeful, it captures the human spirit better than anything else for me. Linda delivers some of her best vocals and Richard some of his finest solos. If I had to pick 25 songs to take to the island (please, no!), at least four of them would be from this album.

DifferentKindofLoveSongA Different Kind of Love Song (1983, Appleseed) Dick Gaughan
Another easy choice for me, with some of the best protest music ever written. Gaughan is in fine voice and his guitar work is impeccable. It’s a collection of often dark songs with a shining heart beating at its core. The title track sums things up brilliantly, and inspired me to write an essay for Michael’s blog on the importance of looking at the darkness if we want to get to the light.

AbyssiniansAbyssinians (1983, Topic) June Tabor
June Tabor had to be on the list, but picking the album was tricky. This is my favorite by a narrow margin, and includes a stunning cover of a Waterson song, so it won the day. As Elvis Costello has famously observed, if listening to June Tabor’s voice doesn’t move you, give up music. (Bonus fact: She has worked as a librarian and restaurateur, so she covers the bases of my passions nicely…)

Robyn_Hitchcock_-_I_Often_Dream_Of_TrainsI Often Dream of Trains (1984, Hannibal) Robyn Hitchcock
Another artist I had to have on the island, but a tougher choice. The Soft Boys’ Underwater Moonlight and the Egyptians’ Element of Light are co-equal with this disc for me. It came down to the essence of the album. The spare setting of Trains lets Robyn shine through in all his eccentric glory.

LastWordThe Last Word (1992, RNA) Gregson & Collister
Another nice package, with two of my favorites on one album, both at the height of their powers. Clive Gregson’s observations about life and love are timeless, and this set includes a couple of tracks written with Boo Hewerdine, another favorite. Christine Collister has a wonderful voice that sometimes gets over-emphasized on her solo discs. Here, the production is flawless.

MitchellC&SCourt and Spark (1974, Asylum) Joni Mitchell
One of the few commercial successes on my list, it’s a little jazz, a little pop, a little folk, all tied together by the singular talents of Joni Mitchell. It also features her finest vocals, not as airy and bright as her earlier work and not as Cohen-adjacent as her later. All of that, and songs about David Geffen and James Taylor! What could be finer?

Til_Tuesday-Everythings_Different_NowEverything’s Different Now (1988, Epic) ’til tuesday
A sentimental favorite, this is an album I play when I’m feeling lost. It’s a powerful look at relationships and how they go wrong — and right. It landed at just the right time for me, providing insight and outlet as I worked through my own issues. Aimee Mann found her lyrical voice, presaging her later solo work. The band is crisp and smart, lending power to the songs. This is as close to flawless as 80s pop gets.

yaz-you_and_me_bothYou and Me Both (1983, Sire) Yaz(oo)
Speaking of 80s pop… A quick look at my Songs of the Day reveals my fondness for the music of my teen years. As I’ve aged, my favorites tend to be the more obscure music, especially synth-pop and smart dance tracks. Alison Moyet and Vince Clarke perfected both. Their brief collaboration as Yazoo (Yaz in the States) turned out two fine albums. This is the better of the pair by a safe margin. Creative synth work, good lyrics, and Alison Moyet’s rich, wonderful voice — magnificent!

FogelbergInnocentThe Innocent Age (1981, Full Moon / Epic) Dan Fogelberg
Not quite the first album I ever bought — an honor that goes to Helen Reddy’s Long Hard Climb — I consider this the launch of my serious music collecting. It’s also a great collection of songs, singer-songwriter magic at its most compelling. Fogelberg gets pigeonholed as an AC balladeer, but his songs could rock, jig, or soar as well. This beautiful song cycle, created as a cradle-to-grave series, shows off all his talents to great effect. A sentimental and musical favorite, packed with hits.

watersonlOnceinaOnce In A Blue Moon (1996, Topic) Lal Waterson & Oliver Knight
The only reason the extended Waterson family shows up this late is that it was nearly impossible to pick one album. While a stay on Waterson:Carthy island would be delightful, Rule 3 demanded a choice. In the end, a dash of Rule 2 combined with the fact that Lal Waterson is one of my favorite songwriters ruled the day. A brilliant set of songs told in her distinctive style with sympathetic support from her talented son, it’s one of the rare albums that I’ll sometimes put on repeat. As an added bonus, Some Old Salty wraps up the album with a good old family sing-along, sneaking some talented relatives onto the island. Family runners-up included Martin Carthy, Bright Phoebus, Norma Waterson, and Red Rice.

Fairport_Convention-Liege_&_Lief_(album_cover)Liege & Lief (1969, A&M) Fairport Convention
Another tough choice. Fairport belonged on the list (although the Richard Thompson double-dip almost got them cut), and What We Did On Our Holidays is my favorite of their albums. This is a close second, however, and Rule 3 brought it home. A pioneering disc, creating the trad-rock genre, it shows the band at the peak of their powers and adds more traditional British music to my island mix.

FearingIndLulIndustrial Lullaby (1997, True North) Stephen Fearing
Another Rule 3 decision, made with great difficulty. I encountered three very different modern folk talents in the same year (1993) and they form a musical trinity for me. Stephen Fearing, Patty Larkin, and Ellis Paul have unique voices but could easily share a stage. (I’d pay to see that!) Since they weren’t here to play rock-paper-scissors, the decision came down to the sheer poetry — lyrical and musical — of Fearing’s album and its astounding cohesion.

TriffidsCalentureCalenture (1987, Island) The Triffids
I had five albums left on my list, and the Triffids dark masterpiece won the final spot. This album is the least like anything else on the list (with Yaz coming in a close second), a strong rock sound with a uniquely West Australian perspective. Urgent and compelling from start to finish, it’s one of the strongest Rule 2 albums in my collection. It didn’t hurt that the title refers to hallucinations caused by too much time at sea.

There you have it, my island playlist is complete. Before I close, I’d like to acknowledge the many amazing artists that bring me musical joy who stayed safely on dry land: The Bats, Peter Blegvad, Nick Drake, the Finn Brothers in all their incarnations, Jethro Tull, the extended McGarrigle – Wainwright family, Stephin Merritt and his many projects, Oysterband, R.E.M., Spirit of the West, those mentioned above, and many more. I’m VERY glad that I don’t have to make this choice as anything but an interesting exercise.

Finally, a note of farewell to my Album of the Week feature. I truly enjoy writing these pieces — and there are certainly more albums to explore — but the limits of my time, collection, and budget demand closure. It seemed fitting that I bookend the regular features with two Richard & Linda Thompson albums and close out these posts as my Jukebox celebrates its fifth anniversary. I will continue my Song of the Day every weekday and Saturday Time Capsules; I may also add an album now and then as inspiration strikes.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, the music of my island is calling…

Song of the Day, January 26: Just Might Fade Away by the Triffids

TriffidsFadeToday’s song is a dark bit of rural mystery from the outskirts of the Outback. The Triffids recorded their third album, In the Pines, in a wool shed on property owned by singer David McComb’s family. After the rich production of Born Sandy Devotional, they wanted a more spare sound. Played on found instruments and fueled by long nights with free-flowing booze, the album was born in a loose, creative atmosphere.

Just Might Fade Away is a tale of foreboding and loss. With creaking sounds and eerie percussion lurking behing McComb’s dark vocals, it’s a perfectly creepy song that could serve as a theme from a horror film. The band make the most of the setting, crafting an urgent musical backdrop. In a career filled with powerful stories, this is a standout.

Enjoy this haunting track today.

Song of the Day, October 20: Falling Over You by the Triffids

TriffidsFallingToday’s song is a standout from the Triffids’ ambitious final album, The Black Swan. Intended by band leader David McComb to be the group’s answer to The Beatles (aka “The White Album”), it’s a complicated set of songs in a wide variety of styles. The experiments range from the brilliant to the bland, with the whole package managing to work in spite of itself.

Falling Over You is one of the best moments. McComb recites the verses, barely singing them, emphasizing their role as an internal monologue. He ponders past events in a relationship, trying to piece things together in his mind. On the chorus, however, he turns in a beautiful vocal, singing a clean, wistful celebration of those events. The result is smart and effective, with the band lining up behind him as the tight unit they had become over the years.

Enjoy this great song today.

Song of the Day, July 23: Hell of A Summer by the Triffids

TriffidsTreelessHellToday’s song is Hell of A Summer by the Triffids. During the early years that the group which became the Triffids settled into a steady lineup, singer and songwriter David McComb crafted dozens of songs. Many appeared on self-released cassettes and in the group’s live performances. After signing with Hot Records, the band took the best of their current live repertoire and started recording.

The tracks for their first album, Treeless Plain, were recorded in twelve stealth sessions using down time between midnight and the early morning hours. The well-honed material and intense recording circumstances resulted in a powerful album that set the stage for the band’s decade-long run of amazing music. The album’s title refers to Nullarbor, the desolate stretch between the group’s home in Western Australia and the nearest city, Adelaide. That sense of isolation fills many of the tracks including this standout.

Hell of a Summer is classic Triffids, a wrenching song of man against nature as he tries to cope with emotional upheaval. McComb is in fine vocal, declaiming “it’s been Hell” with a grim certainty that makes one wonder if that’s just a turn of phrase. The band are tight and compelling behind him, making this gem an early masterpiece in the Triffid catalog.

Enjoy this gripping song today.

Song of the Day, May 5: Tarrilup Bridge by the Triffids

TriffidBridgeToday’s song is Tarrilup Bridge from the Triffids’ powerful second album Born Sandy Devotional. Singer, guitarist and principle songwriter David McComb crafted the disc as set of reflections on human relations — often broken or tragic — using Australia’s landscape as a metaphor and backdrop. With this track he crafted a darkly Antipodean counterpart to Ode to Billie Joe. Unlike Bobbie Gentry’s southern gothic tale, however, this song is told in a spooky first person.

I packed my bag
Left a note on the fridge
And I drove off the end of the Tarrilup Bridge.

We come in at the end of the story, getting bitterly resigned fragments from a dramatically departed narrator. It’s a smart conceit that gives the track a special energy. McComb cleverly handed the track to keyboard player Jill Birt to sing. Her fragile, almost naive vocals make the tension and bitterness even more poignant.

Enjoy this amazing song today.

Song of the Day, February 26: Do You Want Me Near You? by the Triffids

TriffidsPinesNearToday’s song comes from the Triffids charming third album, In the Pines. After recording the brilliant, complex Born Sandy Devotional, band leader David McComb wanted to step back from that epic view to a simple, intimate approach. The band retreated to a woolshed on a remote McComb family farming property and recorded a large batch of songs. The takes were straightforward and mostly live, capturing a nice around-the-campfire sound and using found instruments to augment the sound.

Drummer Alsy MacDonald contributed this track, which he wrote and sang, a rare moment in a catalogue dominated by McComb’s powerful vision. It’s a simple, lovely song of romantic insecurity that’s well suited to MacDonald’s easygoing style.

Enjoy this charming song today.

Song of the Day, October 16: Life of Crime by the Triffids

TriffidsBornCrimeToday’s song is Life of Crime from the Triffids’ acclaimed second album, Born Sandy Devotional. Vocalist and songwriter David McComb described the disc as autobiographical, and the scenes are very evocative of life in western Australia. This track conjures up the oppressive heat of summer there, blending that feeling with a deep lust for a person who is better left alone. It’s one of McComb’s most cinematic songs and his slow, deep delivery matches the images nicely.

Sunlight was hot, and your mother was calling
My chest burning, rising falling
Dog licking drips from our garage tap
Miles from nowhere just a little dot on the map
I believe you will lead me to a life of crime

Enjoy this dramatic song today.

Song of the Day, March 11: Too Hot to Move Too Hot to Think by the Triffids

TriffidsSwanHotToday’s song is Too Hot to Move, Too Hot to Think by the Triffids. It’s the lead track from their fifth and final studio album, 1989’s The Black Swan. Intended as a double album, it borrowed its title from the novel by Thomas Mann and features a particularly dark set of storyscapes. Too Hot to Move is a perfect opener, establishing a tone of inertia and the inability to affect changes on one’s environment.

David McComb’s vocal is perfect, lugubrious and deep. The band wallow musically around him, creating the perfect morass of sound to invoke the setting of the song. After pairs of slow, methodical verses, the chorus picks up into an almost sprightly pace, ironically countering its words, making the drop back into the slower pace even more powerful.

And from this window, I can see the street below
I can hear the hit parade on the radio
There’s dirty dishes piling up in the sink
But it’s too hot to move, and it’s too hot to think

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Album of the Week, August 18: Calenture by the Triffids

TriffidsCalentureRBHSJDIDBadgeThe 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.

Title Calenture
Act The Triffids
Label Island Release Date November 1987
Producer Gil Norton
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. Bury Me Deep In Love
  2. Kelly’s Blues
  3. A Trick of the Light
  4. Hometown Farewell Kiss
  5. Unmade Love
  6. Open For You
  7. Holy Water
  8. Blinder By the Hour
  9. Vagabond Holes
  10. Jerdacuttup Man
  11. Calenture
  12. Save What You Can

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.

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