Home Music Rediscover: Graeme Downes: Hammers and Anvils

Rediscover: Graeme Downes: Hammers and Anvils

In the ‘80s the Verlaines became one of the key drivers of the Dunedin Sound, starting right from the beginning with the Dunedin Double EP, to which they contributed a quarter of the tracks. The band, led by singer/songwriter/guitarist Graeme Downes, utilized the upbeat, jangly sound of the scene, but mixed in its odd, literary and often dark lyrics. Downes, who also served as a senior lecturer in the University of Otago’s music department, and his changing lineup of bandmates didn’t settle for simplistic arrangements, developing more ornate and complex sounds and structures even while fitting nicely into their New Zealand indie-pop world.

The band took a break at the end of the ’90s (they’d later successfully reform) and Downes turned to his academic work. In 2001 he reemerged briefly as a solo artist, releasing Hammers and Anvils on Matador. The album would not come as a shock to Verlaines fans, but Downes also doesn’t seek to recreate his band’s sound on his own. He still wrote like himself, but he replaced some of the band’s oddities with his own, including mixing Tin Pan Alley influences into a more straightforward rock sound. Saying that a classically knowledgeable rock professor moved from Flying Nun to Matador gives a broad sweep of the sonics.

Not that the lyrics would give it away. The disc opens with the title track, a strained excuse for a murder that has hallmarks of a lost romantic: the end of love, the excess of drinking and a peak at human darkness and brokenness. It’s a strange shift from there to the disc’s highlight, “Cole Porter.” The cut plays like an American standard as Downes writes a love song out of his inability to write a love song. His wit comes through here, and while the singer remains stressed and on edge, he doesn’t really give it away, winking that he knows exactly what he’s doing in telling his beloved that he’s not talented enough to write a song beautiful enough for her.

In its opening three songs, the album shifts from solo guitar rock to Tin Pan Alley to the ’90s pop-rock of “Alright By Me.” Downes moves from murder to artistic love to defiance, and that fluidity continues throughout the disc. While he’s a stickler for diction and structure, Downes doesn’t worry about the coherence of the album. It can be a little disjointed, but it can also lead to wonderful surprises. If he wants to get a little jazzy to sing about overpopulation and climate change, it somehow works. If there are touches of Britpop or a lonely ballad or hints of baroque-pop, that’s fine. Throw in a song about playing soccer to avoid thinking about loss and you’ve got a complete scene.

Regardless of style or content, though, Downes maintains his ability to write a memorable phrase, often to undercut the direction he seems to have been headed. “Song for a Hollywood Road Movie” begins like a folk-rock number, and the “house on a blue horizon” sounds like the right place to head to, until we learn that it’s where all his “love ended in despair.” In case that weren’t enough, we have to fill in the gaps about why there’s “broken glass and a blood-stained wall.” Downes’ singer heads off on a drive to escape his worries, leaving home, and somehow claiming to find peace on the open road while he leaves us with concern and confusion.

The album closes with another dip into an imaginary Great American Songbook for the solo piano “Mastercontrol.” In three minutes of mid-century pop, Downes takes to an armed submarine to find his escape, revisiting some of his earlier imagery. Diamonds glitter throughout the album, and here Downes dives for metaphorical jewels, showing his confused romanticism. The only cure for a life of bad love, terrible drinks and worse violence is to sink somewhere alone. The denial of emotion is, of course, its own suggestion of how deeply he feels. He doesn’t have to go “plundering all of Cole Porter” to explain it, especially when he can so aptly reveal it in his avoidance. Wrapping all that hurt in poetry and surprise leads to a solo album as multifaceted as a carefully cut diamond.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

Amy Helm: What the Flood Leaves Behind

Her third solo album continues to blend country, blues and gospel, focusing broad swaths o…