“We stayed in the Garden of Eden/We can’t pay the bill so we’re leaving,” sings Graeme Downes on “Mastercontrol,” the closing cut on his solo debut, Hammers and Anvils. Downes knows whereof he speaks: The song is named for the L.A. studio at which the Verlaines — the New Zealand–based band he fronted for 17 years and six albums — mixed their final U.S. release, 1993’s Way Out Where, with high-rent producer Joe Chiccarelli. That album’s attempt to arm Downes’ elaborate songwriting with then-fashionable grunge firepower was a commercial washout, and the downsized “Mastercontrol” — a Randy Newman–esque piano miniature — speaks volumes about the group’s sojourn in the belly of the pop beast, and its aftermath.
Along with the Clean, the Chills, the Tall Dwarfs and numerous lesser-knowns, the Verlaines first gained notice during New Zealand’s unlikely, early-’80s rock renaissance. Enthusiastically documented by the Flying Nun label, the “Dunedin Sound” was a sort of pastoral post-punk, with strong melodies and woolly, colorful guitars taking precedence over tight performances or “normal” production. (The revelatory compilation Tuatara, along with several licensing deals with Homestead Records, helped build the scene’s stateside cult.)
The Verlaines’ first recordings fit this mold well enough — their early single “Death and the Maiden” was a heady rush of Symbolist poetics and charmingly ill-timed drum breaks. But Downes’ ambitious songs and melancholy, closing-time baritone set themselves apart from the pack. The band’s later albums (for Flying Nun and, later, Slash) are dense with careful harmonic and formal touches that betray Downes’ classical training — his doctoral thesis was titled “Gustav Mahler and Progressive Tonality” — but they’re also non-“progressive”-rock records that rarely sacrifice catharsis for craft, much less instrumental technique.
Downes’ return to recording after a hiatus of several years couldn’t be mistaken for anyone else’s work, but it’s also a conscious attempt not to make a Verlaines album under another name. Some differences are a result of the disc’s nonexistent budget: The frequent looped drum parts work well enough, but there’s no use pretending that the use of sampled horns and strings is as effective as the live instrumentalists on earlier efforts. There are real differences in the writing as well. Though Downes can still pull off high drama when he cares to, his most powerful songs are anything but grandiose, couching tales of post-traffic-jam escape to the beach (“January Song”) or a pickup soccer game after a hospital visit (“Sunday Kickaround”) in unstable, bittersweet music. Hammers and Anvils may be a tentative toe back in the water, but at its best — the cryptic title track, or the rhythmically tricky “Day of the Dead” — it’s more like a bracing dive into the deep end.
Of course, the Verlaines’ indie-to-major-to-now-what? parabola (also described by countrymen the Chills and Straitjacket Fits) isn’t the only way to run a rock band. To take one case: Between the Tall Dwarves and his homespun solo work, Chris Knox will stop making records when they pry the Omnichord from his cold, dead fingers. Or another: the Clean, pioneers respected as much for their anti-career as for their music. (Not that the latter hasn’t made its mark: Indie tastemakers Pavement and Guided by Voices both contributed tracks to a tribute compilation several years back, and Yo La Tengo enlisted guitarist David Kilgour as a sideman on a recent U.S. tour.)
The Clean’s 1981 “Tally-Ho!” single was Flying Nun’s second release, and a surprise chart hit at home, but they didn’t record a full-length until 1990’s Vehicle. Ever since, Kilgour, brother Hamish and Robert Scott have devoted as much or more time to other projects without ever quite giving up on the franchise. The seven-year break preceding their new Getaway is long even for them, but it’s as if they’ve never been away. A typical Clean album encompasses about eight chords and nine dozen guitar textures; this time, these range from the Sun Ra–in–Bollywood “Jala” to the astringent distortion of “Alpine Madness.” Sound wins out over structure, mostly; a good number of the tracks are instrumental, with six-minute psychedelic explorations like “Aho” seeming closer to the band’s hearts than the two-minute pop miniatures that recall the group’s ’80s work.
It may sound as though the Clean’s music is as offhanded as their release schedule, but they’re a canny bunch. The strangest and most revealing track on Getaway is “Reprise 1, 2, 3 & 4,” which strings fragments of earlier recordings of four songs found elsewhere on the album. The full version of the layered, semiacoustic “Stars,” lovely as it is, gives the impression that the band isn’t always arriving at the chord changes at the same time — it’s a surprise to learn, via its demo-ish recap, that that’s just how it’s supposed to sound. As with most of the Flying Nun bands worth hearing, their apparent diffidence — or in Downes’ case, diminished expectations — cloaks pop-derived music too ambitious to rest on populist formulas.
GRAEME DOWNES | Hammers and Anvils | (Matador)
THE CLEAN | Getaway | (Flying Nun)