Bird Dog is not only a high-watermark within the vaunted Flying Nun catalog, but within the annals of pop music both mainstream and underground.
Anyone even fleetingly familiar with the legendary stable of Flying Nun bands in the ‘80s will be able to immediately conjure a sound and feel for the music produced by acts like the Bats, the Chills, and the Clean. It’s a decidedly ‘80s-college-rock-indebted sound that is filtered through a Southern Hemispheric aesthetic to create a style of music rooted as much in the time it was produced as the geographical locales from which its practitioners hailed. The Verlaines, fronted by Graeme Downes, were very much a part of the Flying Nun family, having first appeared on the landmark Dunedin Double EP released by the label in 1982.
Yet while they subscribe to the requisite jangly sound of Flying Nun bands, the Verlaines imbue their compositions with a fair amount of dissonance, using odd intervalic combinations to create a sound wholly their own. Much of this unique approach can be attributed to Downes’ idiosyncratic compositional approach. It’s one rooted in classical music—a subject in which he would eventually earn his PhD before going on to be the head of the Department of Music at the University of Otago—and odd, angular song structures. Where this particular combination could result in an overly-self-serious or highbrow brand of pop music, Downes and the Verlaines managed to meld the best elements of classical and popular music to create something very much of its time, but with an equally timeless quality.
Nowhere was the band more successful in committing their creative vision to tape than on 1987’s Bird Dog. It’s an album of alternately subtle and outlandish sophistication, taking pop music in directions few others would dare. Take, for instance, the bassoon choir that underscores much of “Icarus Missed”—a track that also features a fair bit of Gregorian chant-esque vocals—or the glorious cacophony that closes out “Slow Sad Love Song.” The latter rivals the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” in terms of the swirling aural chaos that resolves into one long, sustained chord.
But before any of this, Bird Dog starts off with the otherwise-indicative-of-the-time ballad “Makes No Difference.” It’s opening few moments sound like any number of songs from the same time period until a chorus of classically-informed horns enters, underscoring Downes’ diary-esque lyrics. The song then takes a further left turn with a handful of subtle dissonant chords thrown in on guitar for good measure. This gradual easing into the world of the Verlaines allows the listener to readjust their aural receptors in time to better appreciate the grandiosity of Bird Dog as a whole.
Downes himself is clearly indebted to Morrissey and the Smiths in terms of his style of writing and vocal melodies, many of which sound like they could’ve easily been cribbed from them directly (see: “C.D. Jimmy Jazz and Me,” among others). Yet nothing on Bird Dog ever sounds derivative of anything happening at the time or prior to its release. Instead, it’s a wholly individualistic work of high pop art that just happens to also be a wildly entertaining, sophisticated listen.
“You Forgot Love” is all jittery post-punk angst with an oddly chromatic melody and atypical chord changes that, by the song’s half-way point, are surrounded by a small female choir singing angelically around Downes’ frenetic delivery. This accessibly avant garde approach is furthered on “Take Good Care of It,” one of several songs with an almost anthemic quality to the chorus, made all the more so by Downes’ approach to baroque pop. As his voice reaches its peak, you can hear echoes of what Conor Oberst would use to make a name for himself more than three decades later.
The bass-driven “Just Mum” features the Dunedin Sound in all its jangly glory at the onset, but eventually builds into an outro section that would make Belle & Sebastian green with envy. But it’s the aforementioned “Slow Sad Love Song” that stands as the album’s centerpiece. At just under four minutes, it manages to encapsulate everything that is both brilliant and unique about the Verlaines and Bird Dog in particular. First, there’s Downes’ dissonant melody that comes off as borderline uncomfortable in spots only to resolve into a more traditional melodic structure that continues to build to its euphoric conclusion. As the tempo increases, the song’s orchestration becomes bigger, fuller, louder and more chaotic, eventually exploding across the finish line only to land on a briefly-held sustained atonal note.
Bird Dog is not only a high-watermark within the vaunted Flying Nun catalog, but within the annals of pop music both mainstream and underground. The band would continue to write and record well into the 21st century, but, heading into a more MOR-driven direction, they failed to resonate as they had at their creative peak. Little matter, however, given how much Bird Dog has to offers listeners each time they revisit its unique brilliance.