BY MICHAEL TOLAND
The Verlaines were/are one of the most unique acts on the venerable Flying Nun label. Not that the band isn’t well-conversant in the jangling, postpunk guitar pop that’s been the New Zealand company’s raison d’etre since the beginning. But leader Graham Downes’ classical training has always given the group’s music more sophisticated textures and a deeper feel – Verlaines songs are often a bit more challenging than the average two-minute janglepop rush.
The Verlaines’ excellent body of work has been unfortunately out-of-print in the States, despite a healthy number of all-things-Flying-Nun lovers here. As part of its new deal with the label, Captured Tracks has been steadily dipping into the back catalog, and now reissues the Verlaines’ first two albums on vinyl.
Though a compilation of singles, Juvenilia holds together as an album due to Downes’ consistency as a songwriter and a visionary. Using uncommon chords to create accessible melodies, Downes makes pop tunes that tickle the right fancy without relying on clichés. Veering between cheeky literary references (“Baud to Tears”) and emotional bluntness (“You Cheat Yourself of Everything That Moves”), he leaves few lyrical stones unturned, while letting the singalong melodies carry the weight. “Doomsday,” “New Kind of Hero” and “CD Jimmy Jazz and Me” all worm straight into the earhole – even the appropriately-titled “Instrumental” (recorded live) boasts a hummable tune. “You’re just too obscure for me,” Downes complains in “Death and the Maiden,” the band’s first single. But despite his high-brow pedigree, there’s nothing on Juvenilia that would cause any discerning listener to say the same. (Note: Juvenilia is also being reissued as a CD; the vinyl includes a download code for the CD bonus cuts.)
The band’s first proper LP, Hallelujah All the Way Home experiments with new wrinkles in the Verlaines guitar pop suit. A banjo backs up the jangle of “All Laid On,” while “Don’t Send Me Away” translates the kind of melody you’d find at a Christmas choral concert into a gentle folk tune. “For the Love of Ash Grey” adds some French horn to the mix, while “It Was Raining” strips down to unamplified sounds for a lonely ballad. “The Ballad of Harry Noryb” and “The Lady and the Lizard” stretch the jangle to near-epic length, adding acoustic guitar/French horn/clarinets interludes that bring the bristling clang down gently. Fans who want the kind of fizz found on Juvenilia should skip immediately to “Lying in State” or “Phil Too,” but sticking to trad guitar pop misses the point of this ambitious LP.
The Verlaines have plenty of other record hiding in the Flying Nun catalog. Here’s hoping these snappy reissues are just the first of many.
DOWNLOAD: “Doomsday,” “You Cheat Yourself of Everything That Moves,” “The Ballad of Harry Noryb”