Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The Triffids: Wide Open Road: The Best of the Triffids

The Triffids
Wide Open Road: The Best of the Triffids
Rating: 4.0/5.0
Label: Domino

In 1999, David McComb was 10 years removed from the Triffids' final studio album, The Black Swan. By most accounts, those years had been difficult for the band's lyricist and vocalist. His recorded output was minimal, as the modest 1994 album Love of Will was released to little fanfare. He continued to struggle with drug and alcohol abuse, even after a heart transplant in 1996 that most likely was necessitated by a medical condition brought on by excessive drinking. By February of 1999, he was dead just short of his 37th birthday, the cause of death attributed to a heroin overdose and complications from the transplant. Though his passing received coverage in his homeland of Australia and in parts of Europe, it went largely unreported in the United States, ultimately resulting in one of the 1980s most inventive groups being largely overlooked for far too long.

Domino's reissue campaign of the Triffids' catalog has done wonders for the band's legacy. These began in 2006 with the band's masterpiece, the epic, sweeping hymn to distance and desolation, Born Sandy Devotional. Each of the Triffids' proper studio LPs would eventually receive similar deluxe treatment with liner notes, bonus tracks and enhanced packaging. Unarguably these re-releases have also raised the band's profile in the States; prior to 2006, it would have been difficult to imagine a "greatest hits" collection like Wide Open Road: The Best of the Triffids ever seeing the light of day on these shores.

Among critics there has long been a tendency to downplay the other band members' contributions and focus solely on McComb as some sort of doomed romantic-poet archetype and the Triffids' singular driving force. Wide Open Road proves this depiction is shortsighted. Along with McComb, the band's core lineup of Alsy MacDonald (drums/vocals), Jill Birt (keyboards/vocals), Robert McComb (guitars/violin/vocals), Martyn Casey (bass and later a Bad Seed) and "Evil" Graham Lee (pedal and lap steel/guitars/vocals) was adept enough to play in a variety of styles; the Triffids are one of the few bands who never made two albums that sounded the same. Some of the band's premier ensemble performances are included here: steel guitar, strings and keyboards mesh together perfectly on suicide song "The Seabirds" and enhance the grandeur of "Stolen Property;" the shimmering pop instrumentals of "A Trick of the Light" contrast with the song's underlying longing for the past; "Too Hot to Move" floats by with a breezy country-inflected rhythm; the keyboards on "Save What You Can" still sound majestic and urgent. The band's post-punk abilities are also well represented, as tracks like "Property Is Condemned," "Kathy Knows" and "Lonely Stretch" are built on moments of unrestrained tension, absolutely crackling with a waste-no-notes precision.

Lines like, "Alcohol, heroin/ It's all water under the bridge" and "I was frozen out in the lean winter years/ When the dollars were few and the faces were mean" and frequent references to Australian landmarks and locations are particularly telling and make it all too easy to interpret McComb's lyrics as veiled autobiography set to music. It's an overly simplistic way of viewing these songs however, as they never come remotely close to being inaccessibly personal. "Wide Open Road" fittingly opens this compilation; it's usually cited as McComb's finest song, though a case could be made for any number of others. Regardless, McComb's stamp as a brilliant writer can be found in nearly every track on this release. His flair for the dramatically poetic ("The rim of her mouth was golden/ Her eyes were just desert sands") was matched by a brutal directness ("The very next minute your bowels went slack/ Now it hurts so bad you can't even piss"), under which marched a sordid parade of cheaters, drunkards, bastards, wounded souls and occasionally someone damn close to redemption. In these narratives McComb knew how to express those tiny things to which our memories cling: a yellowed photograph, the sounds of the street and a radio on a hot day, headlights and hallucinations in the dead of night.

Wide Open Road isn't without its flaws. Though most of these songs have held up well over time, at least one track - "Goodbye Little Boy" - sounds dated. There are also some notable exclusions; only one song from In the Pines makes the cut, while favorites like "Keep Your Eyes on the Hole," "Kelly's Blues" and "Tender is the Night (The Long Fidelity)" aren't included. For the uninitiated, Wide Open Road is well worth the time and money, but it doesn't replace Born Sandy Devotional or Calenture. It may not include all the band's best songs - how could it? - but if this collection doesn't convince a listener of the Triffids' genius, nothing will.

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