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Love and loss on the Wide Open Road: the desperate case of The Triffids and Calenture

the triffids Calenture

The Triffids were an Australian rock band whose career now occupies a fascinating place in our country’s shared consciousness. Their music was imbued with a powerful, rugged character that captured the desolate beauty of our homeland.

Full of longing and loneliness, of mateship and rowdy celebration, of catharsis and personal tragedy. They were a group touched and marked by their origins; idyllic beaches, barren countryside and people that preferred the taste of life just off the beaten track.

However, Australia’s favourite sons (and daughter) they were not. Despite a string of critically acclaimed records and international interest the Australian public treated them with general indifference. Their seminal sophomore album Born Sandy Devotional only managed to reach number 37 on the Australian album charts. This is despite having what should have been a dead-set smash hit single in Wide Open Road.

the triffids Calenture

When viewed retrospectively, The Triffids’ disheartening career trajectory functions as stark reminder of our country’s repeated failure to support some of our best creative talent.

Calenture, the band’s third album, found the group at an important crossroads where they were desperate to take advantage of the interest and acclaim their prior work had garnered. It was their first album for Island Records and bears the undeniable hallmarks of a 1980s major label debut.

It is flush with studio shimmer and luscious layers. Filled with more gadgets, orchestration, synthesisers and backing vocals than sense. In short, it was over produced. However, it was an understandable response from a band that were desperate for the success and approval that would allow them to continue.

It also contains some of the most poignant, affecting and theatrical songs that David McComb, the band’s chief singer and songwriter, would write before his life was cut short by drug and alcohol related health complications.

Bury Me Deep In Love is a colossal opening track that perfectly translates The Triffids’ ghostly meditations on love and landscape to widescreen format. When McComb sings “there’s a chapel deep in a valley, for travelling strangers in distress. It’s nestled among the ghosts of the pines under the shadow of a precipice”, the effect is both haunting and majestic.

A Trick Of The Light is personal, delicate and catchy as hell. It sounds like a hit. But it wasn’t.

Hometown Farewell Kiss is one of the finest songs the Triffids ever wrote; although I’ll admit I prefer the alternate recording that appears on In The Pines (1986). It is a song that seethes with the desire to be free of the past and everything that holds you down. It spells out the feelings of rejection and alienation that The Triffids’ associated with their country of origin. It also sounds bloody lovely.

That said, Calenture is not without its own share of problems. The production, while at times grandiose and powerful, too often works against the songs. The polished guitars and staged rock posturing on Kelly’s blues plaster over what promised to be a delightfully creepy number in the vein of Nick Cave circa Murder Ballads.

The backing vocals are also a contentious issue. They routinely come off as over the top and out of place. I feel genuinely embarrassed for whoever it was that is left repeatedly singing “bury me deep in love” as the opening track fades. It feels misjudged and forced. As if the band were convinced that these bells and whistles would finally push their music into the realm of mainstream success.

Indeed, Calenture bears the scars of hubris and unbridled ambition. It wears the face of a down and out boxer returning to the ring, with all the humility of a peacock, for one final shot at the title. It wears all of this remarkably well; thanks in no small part to the impeccable, and vastly underrated, song writing of the late great David McComb.

However, it is apparent that not all of Calenture’s scars were self-inflicted. We, as Australians, drove home the first nail. Through our rejection and indifference we eventually received The Triffids album that we deserved. An imperfect one.

 

Alastair Cairns is the singer/songwriter/troubadour of Sydney rock act Wells. He is definitely qualified for this position. He resides over here.

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November 28, 2017

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