on 17 February 2013
The Triffids were criminally overlooked in their day, so the Domino re-issues, with their additional material, bring them to the attention of a whole new audience. It's also a chance for die-hard fans to update from vinyl. 'The Black Swan' was intended, in the late, great David McComb's eyes, to be a 'sprawling, messy masterpiece', and it is most certainly an eclectic mix, a rich variety, the next stage in McComb's musical development after the epic 'Calenture'. Writing this review on the anniversary of David McComb's birthday is a further reminder of the talent (dare I say genius) that was lost with his untimely death.
When "The Black Swan" came out in 1989, those who had been singing the Triffids' praises for over 5 years began frothing at the mouth in excitement. The ambition of this Australian band seemed to have increased by a huge amount, whilst not losing the unique Australian-ness of their strange sound. That it was to be their final album took everyone by surprise - but at least they went with a bang, rather than an embarassing decline into blandness... or worse.
With the cool gaze of hindsight, The Black Swan looks a crazy mix, but one that works superbly. Opener "Too Hot To Move..." finds them firmly in sun-parched Aussie territory again, and could be an out-take from their much-loved "Born Sandy Devotional" LP. After that, though, things veer off into truly uncharted territory with the Pet Shop Boys influence of "Falling Over You". "Goodbye Little Boy" is pure, chunky, melodic pop, and was (unbelievably) a flop single.
It's toward the middle of this album that the magic truly begins to work, though. "Butterflies into Worms" is sparse and sad, "The Clown Prince" successfully pulls in a wobble-o-phonic opera singer and a lush string section as it tells the story of an entertainer who rises above the dive bar in which he works. "Good fortune Rose" sees them back in pure pop territory, pre-dating the Lightning Seeds by a year or so. "New Year's Kiss" is McComb's towering epic that dominates the second half of the CD: Set in an empty, flat and threatening Australian outback, McComb tells loneliness how it is, before drifting off into a reverie that is almost hallucinogenic, as if he's running short of water and has started seeing mirages.
The album closes with the gentle, bell-like "Fairytale Love", on one level a song that is absolutely charming, and yet now seems almost like a premonition of the band's dark future - no records for nearly ten years, and then the shocking news of singer/writer Dave McComb's untimely death in 1999. "Black swan spread its wings and hissed/ lo, the night came on" says the last line on the last Triffids album ever.
So. Great music. A fitting farewell to a band that became very special to a few people. A heady brew of eclecticism that expands the Triffids portfolio beyond the skewed, sun-scorched Australian desert songs that established them as NME cover stars in the 1980s, but one that - taken on its own merits - is hugely enjoyable.
Coming after the twin monuments of genius that were "Born Sandy Devotional " and "Calenture" The Black Swan , originally released in April 1989( A tremendous year for albums) , seemed a touch lightweight in comparison. It lacked the depth of emotion , the sheer brio and gravitas of those two albums. It seemed a little synthetic too, the band having embraced new technology with synths and programming yet listening to it today after years of dismissing it as a pretty but slightly empty confection I have to say that while it's still not as good as BSD or Calenture it's actually a very fine ambitious and exotic pop album.
The album was originally conceived as a double album and on this re-release with various demo's and alternate versions it attains the sort of status it was originally meant to ,with six extra tracks so it becomes their version of the "White Album". In the recording sessions the Triffids were joined by producer Stephen Street (the Smiths' - Strangeways, Here We Come and Morrissey's Viva Hate). The Black Swan used a greater variety of musical instruments than their previous albums with bouzouki, güiro and accordion thrown into the mix .The title of the album was originally going to be Disappointment Resort Complex but was renamed to The Black Swan, which according to a 1989 interview by Stephen Phillips of the NME with David McComb is based on the 1952 novel (of the same name) by Thomas Mann.
Musically The Black Swan is extraordinarily diverse. "Too Hot To Move Too Hot To Think" is a suitably languorous ballad with a gorgeous chorus melody and is the one song on the album that ,like former albums did so readily, evinces visions of the band native Australia. "Fairytale Love" is a pretty tippling nursery rhyme in direct contrast to the harsher rockabilly chimes of "One Mechanic Town" which could have come off "In The Pines".
The programmed drums and synths of "Falling Over You" not to mention David Macomb's half spoken lazy rap verses make it the least likely Triffids song ever but the harmony is intoxicating .As is the single "Goodbye Little Boy" sung in her slightly peculiar crisp enunciation by Jill Birt .The other Jill Birt sung track "Good Fortune Rose" isn't as good as that but is still a shimmering appealing pop song. "American Sailors" is brief and melancholic while "The Spinning Top Song" has muted feedback over a gulping programmed backing track. The cheery four four time signatures of "Bottle Of Love" make it one of the weakest Triffid tracks ever while "Butterflies Into Worms" has a blues/jazz vibe. Strangest of all are the Romany gypsy tones of "The Clown Prince" which puts me in mind of the fabulous Devotchka."Blackeyed Susan " I'm not that fond off either but "New Years Greetings" is terrific with husky harmonies and a deft intricate acoustic arrangement.
The extra tracks make the album even more of a sprawling slightly unfocused encounter but it could be argued that a song like "Shell Of A Man "(The B-side of Goodbye Little Boy) should have been included on the original release rather than "Bottle Of Love" The rest are okay but nothing to get excited about and much as I love this band it's plain to see that they were running out of steam and the subsequent split was the right thing to do . Of the alternate versions on disc two I prefer the take of "Good Fortune Rose" and the version of "Too Hot To Move, Too Hot To Think" is notable as it sounds not so much torporous as comatose.
The Triffids are one of those bands who mean a lot to me for reasons I cannot really explain . They produced the two monumental albums I mentioned earlier and they were terrific live but they connected emotionally with me in the same way The Blue Nile did. It's just something you feel when you hear their music. The Black Swan has enough movements that grab like that to make it worth purchasing and even if it doesn't connect with you like it does with me you have to hear because well...it's The Triffids and everything they had a hand in deserves to be heard by as many people as possible.
Much as I love Born Sandy Devotional and Calenture, my favourite Triffids album was always, heretically, The Black Swan. And here is the re-issue at last, now incorporating additional tracks ditched by the record company to slim the project down to a single LP rather than the intended sprawling double album. Despite the organic, holistic, flowing ambience of Born Sandy Devotional which had been conceived as a proper album (rather than a collection of songs) there were a couple of tracks that just didn't do it for me - though the rest of the album is awesomely brilliant, just so you know I'm not a complete heathen.
But I remember vividly the first time I listened to the The Black Swan. I was, not to sound too much a sensitive wilting girly, in a swoon of rapture as it progressed. It started off with the hazy shimmer of Too Hot To Move Too Hot Too Think then segued smoothly into the lulling snapshot of American Sailors, which blended into the relaxed semi-rap of Falling Over You by which time I was really, I was really...Stop..I was stunned with its brilliance. By the end the album had encompassed the novelty jauntiness of Bottle of Love with it's comedy whistle effect, the jazzy, skittering Butterflies into Worms, the propulsive One Mechanic Town, sweet pop of Goodbye Little Boy, an Edenic lullaby (Fairytale Love), a waltz, an opera singer, sequenced drum patterns! What was not love?
I recall that the critical feeling at the time was that all this variety was just pastiche which lacked depth and sincerity. This seemed far too po-faced a response to me. It's no surprise to read in Phil Kakulas's sleeve notes that for this record Dave McComb's principal was "The song comes first". So if it required lap steel or monster bass or Casio keyboards or glockenspiel and bazouki then so be it. It's a celebration of the multiplicity of the pop song. I can understand that the variety of styles would mean that some people would not like certain songs, like a box of choccies with different centres. But for me that's part of the appeal. I have always relished this approach, right back to what I presume was the first exercise in such musical eclecticism, The Turtles Battle of the Bands album. This is not to say I don't have my favourites; New Years Greetings is a stone classic McComb song, I love the perfect pop simplicity of Goodbye Little Boy with Jill Birt's winsome vocal, and the romany/Eastern European accordion fest The Crown Prince and the sinister funereal love/death litany of Blackeyed Susan and...and...
But really this is one of those rare albums I can play all the way through without having to skip a single track. With the addition of the extra songs there is unfortunately now one exception, namely the cover Can't Help Falling In Love. It's done in Spector meets Dion style and it gets on my wick; I'd have preferred another McComb original. The other songs are much more welcome, Go Home Eddie and Shell of the Man in particular. There's also an additional disc of demos and here there is some less essential stuff, but for a fan it's still fascinating. I am particularly taken with the the even more desolate and mournful take of Good Fortune Rose and I can listen to as many different versions of New Years Greetings as Evil Graham Lee can unearth. Anyway what I'd like now please is one final album gathering together any other unreleased Triffids-era songs and a re-issue of McComb's solo album plus singles.
on 9 April 2008
I always believed that the Black Swan was a excellent album in it's original abridged version. Now re-mastered and expanded to the "sprawling, messy masterpiece it promised to be", with bonus CD of demos to boot, this is a stunning package and firmly places it in the legion of all time great albums.
A fitting tribute to the vision of the late David McComb.