The Verlaines – Bird Dog

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

Another excellent New Zealand band, the Verlaines are the most highbrow of the lot, which means they also stand the most to lose. Singer and songwriter Graeme Downes was an academic who specialized in 19th century symphonic music, and specifically was an expert on Gustav Mahler; he eventually became a lecturer at and then head of the music, theatre and performing arts department at the University of Otago, where he taught courses on musicology and composition. He named the band after poet Paul Verlaine, for goodness’ sake. The band’s lineup varied greatly, and the sound eventually stripped away the orchestral trappings, but almost no matter which album you listen to, the Verlaines make some great music. Downes stepped out of the public eye after a cancer diagnosis in 2020.

What I Think of This Album

This album is the sonic equivalent of one of those growth charts that you keep in pencil on a kitchen door jamb – with a couple of exceptions, Bird Dog gets better with each tune.

This is certainly true for the first five tracks, as excellent songs (angular and dramatic “Take Good Care of It,” which somehow folds in some avant-garde piano strumming – yes, piano strumming; bass-driven and grey “Just Mum”) are stacked on top of a great song (thrummy “You Forget Love,” featuring angelic harmonies from bassist Jane Dodd and guest Caroline Easther), which rests upon the shoulders of a good song (the spare “Makes No Difference,” complete with flugelhorn), culminating with the glorious, keening howl of “Slow Sad Love Song.”

There is some regression with the somber jazz of “Only Dream Left,” but things pick up again with the bouncy “Dippy’s Last Trip.” Tim Dodd – likely relative of bassist Jane – plays the piano on this and one other track. The wonderful title track is a feverish, surreal tale of frightened preachers, a dog-skin coat, and imported German beer.

“Icarus “ disappoints (Gregorian chants? really?), but colorful closer “C.D. Jimmy Jazz and Me” is phenomenal, ending in a cinematic burst. Okay, so maybe not like a growth chart, but maybe a spin class workout.

By the way, “C.D. Jimmy Jazz and Me” is about Downes palling around with Claude Debussy and James Joyce in Paris . . . but it doesn’t sound like it. That’s the key (it probably helps that what Downes actually sings is that the three of them “fucked off to Paris to write of the sea”). This could all come across as stodgy, pretentious crap particularly given the tuba, bassoon, strings and horns – but it absolutely is not. It doesn’t sound like rock, certainly, and it’s barely pop, but it’s still incredibly melodic and somehow both straightforward and complex at the same time. Downes not only sings and plays the guitar, harmonica, and piano on this, he also is responsible for all the oboe parts.

Bird Dog is the second Verlaines album; I’ve never listened to the debut. Obviously, this is a Flying Nun release.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Slow Sad Love Song” is a killer track.

Release Date

1987

The Cover Art

Honestly, probably the darkest, saddest cover art I’ve ever seen. Don’t do this to me, the Verlaines.

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