The Verlaines – Juvenelia

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 1)

This is technically part 1 and for now the first Verlaines entry, but its the most recent of my Verlaines acquisitions and this post post-dates the other Verlaines posts, so I’m not going to say much in this section and the usual part 1 narrative will be found in one of those later/earlier posts. I’d been hoping to acquire this for some time and am really happy that I finally did! It’s an excellent album that makes me appreciate the Verlaines even more. I need to get Hallelujah All the Way Home.

What I Think of This Album

Once again, a comp whose composition is frustratingly not well explained in the liner notes. As far as I can tell, it consists of the Ten O’Clock In the Afternoon EP (six songs) plus the “Death and the Maiden” single (b/w “C.D. Jimmy Jazz and Me”), and then three songs that were part of the legendary Dunedin Double EP, recorded by Chris Knox (and which also included the Chills’ first recordings). That adds up to 11 tracks, spanning 1982-84. Which means there are four bonus tracks:  the “Doomsday”/”New Kind of Hero” single from 1985 and live versions of “Instrumental” and “Phil Too?” Of course, these Flying Nun-released songs are all intermingled on Juvenilia and not presented in their original order.

Does this sound like a complaint? I suppose it is, but I can overlook the bewildering decision to not provide an accurate history through the sequencing because the music is so damn great. Even as Graeme Downes humbly details the band’s naivete and inexperience (they did not know what overdubs were or what mixing was at the time of their first recordings), the songs betray his talent as a songwriter and arranger as well as the band’s enthusiasm, charm, and bravery.

The three Dunedin Double tracks from 1982 were the band’s first recordings:  “Angela,” “Crisis After Crisis,” and “You Cheat Yourself of Everything That Moves.” These songs definitely show promise. ”Angela” boasts a warm melody, pleasant jangle, some odd arrangement choices, and an inventive drum pattern. “Crisis After Crisis” is a clear-eyed response to a haughty ex, brimming with great lines. And “You Cheat Yourself” is a slow burner with desperate vocals from Downes.

A few months later saw the release of the inexplicable and stunning “Death and the Maiden” single. Indeed, “Death and the Maiden” somehow avoids several potential pitfalls on the way to becoming a standout early track. Among other things, referencing poets Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud would be pretentious enough without also naming the song after an artistic motif juxtaposing death with the erotic (there are tons of Death and the Maiden paintings, including by Edvard Munch, Marianne Stokes, Egon Schiele, Evelyn DeMorgan, and Henry Lévy). Also, the song incorporates at least three different time signatures, including a waltzing circus organ bridge that *should* derail everything. But no, this all works and it’s a fantastic fucking song. Downes explains that each chorus features fewer and fewer voices so it sounds prettier and cleaner as the song progresses (and by the end, you can indeed clearly hear bassist Jane Dodd’s previously buried harmonies).

B-side “C.D. Jimmy Jazz and Me” would end up being rerecorded for Bird Dog. Once again, Downes’s smarty pants approach – C.D. being a reference to Claude Debussy and Jimmy Jazz a nickname for James Joyce (and alas, not a Clash reference) – fails to get the better of him. While the album version may document technical improvement, including prominent use of brass, this rougher and more straightforward single thrums with youthful energy, unspooling in a way that seems like the song will never end and leading you to hope that it won’t. 

The six songs on the Ten O’Clock EP – variously reported as being released in 1983 and 1984 – make up the plurality of the comp:  “Baud to Tears,” “Pyromaniac,” “Joed Out,” “Burlesque,” “Wind Song,” and “You Say You.”  All are fantastic.

The lyric “he hasn’t got a shit show” appears in “Baud to Tears” and it makes me wonder if that terminology (one of my favorites) is used differently in New Zealand. More important are lyrics like “you’ll never spend a season in hell / If you lie in bed all day / And you won’t ever see anything beautiful again.” I have to assume the Baud in the title concerns Baudelaire but I am too uncultured to know how (I also have to assume at the same time that this is not a song about modems).

“Pyromaniac” benefits from the same sense of urgency that drives most of these tracks. I tend to doubt Downes’s protestations of amateurism, as the playing is uniformly very good and the songwriting is inventive and sophisticated. “Joed Out” is an uncharacteristically straightforward love song, approximating the kind of work the Go-Betweens regularly produced (is it bad form to compare a Kiwi band to an Aussie one? Am I offending both in the process?); it also provides the title of the EP on which it originally appeared. The acoustic solo at the end is lovely.

The opening line of “Burlesque” tells you all you need to know about this track:  “One day you’ll be dying of triple-throat cancer / Ha ha.” This unusual and unsettling song shudders along thanks to drummer Robbie Yeats’s syncopated pattern, with an ominous and mocking organ serving as your guide.

“Wind Song” is an atmospheric marvel, augmented by a variety of children’s toys (and Downes’s oboe) and elevated by Dodd’s heavenly harmonies. Truly beautiful. For a band that didn’t know about overdubs, this is some amazing work. Downes adds violin to “You Say You,” a song about empathy in a small bedroom that sounds like it is about murder in a gothic mansion.

The “Doomsday” single is energetic and lushly jangly, with a surprising (and lengthy) instrumental outro. B-side “New Kind of Hero” rises above it bitterness thanks mostly to Dodd’s harmonies. “Instrumental” is exactly that, and a lot of fun – who needs lyrics? “Phil Too?” is frantic and that is cool for what it is but this is easily the weakest song on this comp.

Jane Dodd (the second (?) bassist in the Verlaines) had been a founding member of the Chills, along with her sister. She also played in the Able Tasmans and designed the artwork for several Verlaines and AT releases. She is now a celebrated jewelry artist. The Verlaines went through many drummers but their second (also ?) – Alan Haig – was also a founding member of the Chills.

The Best Thing About This Album

Wow. Hard to say. I guess the fact that Downes and company were able to come out of the gate so strongly and overcome logistic obstacles on the way to turning into a phenomenal band.

Release Date

1987

The Cover Art

Ok, so this is the slipcover for the CD release. The actual art on the CD is the same image but the background color is a greenish-yellow and the other colors are also altered. The band name is difficult to make out and the album title is basically indecipherable, and for those reasons I don’t really care for this art.

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