I introduced Born Sandy Devotional to Rob and Graham via Courtney Barnett’s History Eraser – a song by an artist that is definitely, and suddenly, having her time in the spotlight. I love that song and Avant Gardener even though the rest of her debut ‘album’ (it’s actually a couple of EPs stitched together) I can take or leave. In History Eraser there is a point towards the end of the song where the music kind of melts away and Barnett coos the immortal line, as seductively as you like:
And in the taxi home I’ll sing you a Triffids song
It sounds like the most enticing and exciting gift ever uttered on record and I remember hearing this song on the radio for the first time and a shiver running down my spine upon clocking this line – it just seemed so cool that a band that never really got their dues in their time were being name-checked by a young singer-songwriter 30 years on. If I were a betting man, I reckon the song in question would have come from Born Sandy Devotional and would more than likely be a song that has become, in some circles anyway, the Australian national anthem that never was. That song is Wide Open Road – as majestic an Antipodean anthem as I have come across and synonymous with the wide open spaces and the spellbinding monotony of the Australian outback. It’s a brilliant highlight of a brilliant album but, despite its notoriety and status, the other nine tracks on Born Sandy Devotional more than hold their own against it and, together they coalesce to form a unified and cohesive whole.
I guess it’s fair to say that I have become Mr Antipedes in the eyes of my fellow record clubbers – sure they have all dabbled but, in their eyes, I am the addict (Rob even asked me the impossible question whilst listening to BSD: Australian or NZ albums – which would I ditch first?). It got me thinking as to why this should be. Why have I been particularly drawn to a music from 12,000 miles away to an extent that is, perhaps, ‘beyond normal’?
Well, it has struck me that in the music of The Triffids lies the answer…Born Sandy Devotional (and the other two Triffids albums I own) are almost impossible to pigeon hole. Sure, they are eclectic, but that’s not it -they are far from a sprawling mess of styles like, say, the White Album. Born Sandy Devotional feels like a singular statement, a yearning for the motherland, a set of ten perfect little short stories set to music, the sort of stuff Raymond Carver might have come up with if he had ever bothered to do all the other stuff as well as just writing the words down. They tell tales of the outback, the parched white beaches of the Australian west and the bit between the two, and were written by yet another Aussie band holed up in mean old London town missing the sky, sun and surf of home. But what I particularly love about the music of The Triffids is that what at first sounds so familiar when taken on face value is actually so unusual. If I worked in a record shop and the owner asked me to stick it in a rack defined by genre, I would struggle. Jangle-pop? Not really. Post-punk? Definitely not, but at times there are echoes. New wave? Possibly…it’s a tricky one! Pop? You must be joking. Yet The Triffids on Born Sandy Devotional are hardly innovating, just writing and playing well crafted, articulate and intelligent songs that really speak to me. I’m not sure there are all that many bands that do that. And I wonder whether the remoteness of the starting point (they were from Perth after all) helps.
Whilst listening to Born Sandy Devotional on the night, I became aware for the first time of the circumstances of David McComb’s untimely death. A combination of a tragic set of medical issues that appeared to have stemmed from his heroin addiction, the revealing of this fact seemed to envelope the music with yet another layer of poignancy and sadness as far as I was concerned. It’s great that these days Australian artists like Courtney Barnett don’t feel the need to relocate to the other side of the world in order to make it in the music industry, but I do wonder whether the music of The Triffids, and The Go-Betweens and The Bad Seeds would have sounded the same if the bands hadn’t been wrenched from the comforts of home and been made to endure the trials and tribulations of life on the other side of the globe! And, to my mind anyway, as a love-letter to the motherland, Born Sandy Devotional is hard to beat.
Rob listened: There’s an important clue missing from Tom’s write-up. We’re all, whether we realise it or not, irreversibly bound to the music that suffused our formative experiences. Tom’s trip to Australia was one of the forges on which his adult self was formed. And so, there are two key reasons why he is Mr Antipodes in our little musical United Nations. Firstly, functional: He must, consciously or otherwise, have heard lots of this stuff, or stuff derived from it, or stuff about to inspire it, that the rest of us just weren’t hearing. Secondly, he really dug the place, came back a different person, and the music that surrounded became bound up in his DNA, and now, presumably, acts as a trigger for his memories of an important time.
For me, the Triffids, the Chills, the Go-Betweens, were all names that flowed through the inner pages of the music press I was discovering in the late 80s, but I never had the opportunity to get my hooks into them, or vice versa. Now when I hear them I hear sounds I like, patterns I recognise, signifiers I respond to, but I just don’t have the history, the personal and musical connections, the dust of the road engrained in the folds of my skin, to really get them completely. I like them a lot though, and long may they rock up at Record Club, whoever chooses to bring them (Tom).
Tom responded: Nice ideas Rob, but you’re way off on both counts I’m afraid. Whilst I was in Australia I never even caught a whiff of anything remotely like The Triffids or Go-Betweens – I was spending time with (usually) visiting climbers and the Aussies I met were predominantly into Red Hot Chillis or NWA or Pixies or Violent Femmes…or Midnight Oil! Your second point is also, bizarrely, incorrect. I really disliked my year in Australia, counted the days to come home and only my incomparable stubbornness and need to avoid loss of face prevented me jettisoning the trip within the first month.
I have fond memories of the trip now that time has dulled the experience but I really don’t think either of these factors are the cause of my fondness for this music, it’s much more to do with the artists’ ability to operate as outsiders; artists who operate away from an identifiable scene have always appealed to me and I feel these bands provide that (in much the same way as American Music Club).
Rob re-responded: Okay Tom, fair enough, you know best. However I wonder whether my first para would still stand if I simply replaced the word ‘dug’ with ‘went to’? Whether you liked it or not, it does seem to have been a formative time. And whether you heard the music at the time or not, surely there has to be some connection or resonance between the two?
Graham listened: 2nd round running I was lazily expecting a bit of jangle pop (albeit Oceanic) based on reading something 30 years ago in Melody Maker. Despite my immaculate research there was certainly a lot more depth to this. The second part of my review is now redundant as I too thought that the heat, dust in your mouth, “sheila” in one hand and Fosters in other would contribute better to understanding of the sound and cultural references. Moving to a conclusion, it was rewarding listen and probably the best Australian album I ever heard (but can’t say my research has been too deep!).