This Kind of Punishment In the Same Room/5x4 2xLP/CD (Ajax)
Life imitates art, sometimes, sort of. For example: when Peter Jefferies and Graeme Jefferies, two brooding, musical brother who had been in the same band for four years (and whose relationship was therefore at the proverbial Breaking Point) recorded In the Same Room in 1984, the album amounted to their best work to date, and maybe, in 1994, remains their best. Peter's edgy, drone-oriented piano playing, his worried, half-secretive delivery of sometimes profound lyrics, dominated about half the songs; the others swooned under the heroic weight of Graeme's archer, slower (and even lower) voice, and against his haunting acoustic guitar patterns. Yet their records label, Flying Nun, pressed only 300 copies, most of which never left New Zealand; a record that could have inspired a worldwide movement of introverted, intelligent, grimy basement rock instead had its influence limited to NZ, where it inspired most of the bands associated with a label called Xpressway, When Xpressway stopped putting out records, overseas friends and admirers picked up the slack; one of said admirers was the Chicago label called Ajax records, which, in turn, has been rescuing the heretofore-lost seminal recordings of the Jefferies brothers, and reissuing them in American in pressings big enough that you can actually find them in stores.
One point being that you should buy the new This Kinds of Punishment reissue before it becomes unavailable again. The other point however, being that life imitates art sometimes sort of: when I tried to write a review of this reissue for last week's magazine, the one copy of my review was mysteriously lost--just like the album I was trying to review. So what you're reading now is a "reissue," in a sense, of my original review. (Maybe the original is in New Zealand.) And now that that's off my chest, I can get back to describing the album(s): reference points for Peter's style are very stripped-down John Cale records and Wire circa 1980--there are no better-known reference points-- and, for Graeme's some combination of Richard Thompson, Lou Read and Joy Division's Ian Curtis. But none of these name droppings will give you the offbeat, beaten-down flavor of tension that's condensed across this record like a thick spring for: in the solo acoustic guitar lines of Graeme's "The Men by the Pool," or in his lyrics--"Dressed in rags made of dust, punishment brown; they hide the keys to the doors that lead underground."
Peter's desperate, stuttery, wiry "Immigrant Song" (not the Led Zeppelin song of the same name!) describes the experience of waking up in your own house and feeling you've never lived there: "Standing still turned inside out; taking all the spoons out of everybody else's mouths. And this could be anywhere, this could be anyone else..." It's not Keats, but in the context of TKP's songs it works as well as any rock and roll lyrics ever have, setting up a mood and a mode while complimenting your intelligence in the process. Sometimes the slow triplets--TKP loved to play triples, for some reason--even conceal a useful, if cynical, epigram: "In all events considerations reach a point where resignation seems a way of getting everything you need..." introduces, mildly enough, a song whose chorus is a swell of despair. "I find/Words/Fail me..."
Guitarist Graeme is now in London, leading his intent-on-stardom band the Cakekitchen; Peter remains in New Zealand (though he toured the US last year), producing records and playing piano and drums and singing on his own releases, which continue the TKP sound more effectively (Any record Peter plays on is good.) Besides being superb minimalist musicians, and haunting lyricists, and (both) capable of acoustic solo outings so emotionally honest that your ears may burn, the Jefferies brothers were also able to fly off no noisy "experimental" larks. It's a measure of how intense the rest of the record seems that the noisy weird avant-classical sections come across as comic relief: Home," a procession of squeals and grinds that begins "I saw New Zealand" and ends, "HIT ME!" ("Flipper Go Home," by the way, was written by TKP's sometime third member, Chris Matthews, whose contribution shouldn't be slighted; he died only a few years after these records first came out.) Those pieces are really the "Sister Ray" and "The Gift" of the TKP catalog, the songs themselves being New Zealand's lonely, anguished closest answer to the Velvet Underground; in all honesty, anyone who thinks she or he likes VU would do well to check out these records. The double LP costs the same as the CD and has a very cool foldout lyric sheet; if you can't find either one, send $9.75 to Ajax, P.O. Box 805293, Chicago IL 60680-4114. They also run an illuminating and well-stocked underground rock mailorder business.
SUGARGLIDERS We're All Trying to Get There LP/CD(Sarah)
Quietly--very quietly--the Melbourne duo of Josh and Joel Meadows has been crafting some of the most understated and unforgettable pop songs to emerge from either hemisphere in quite some time. They started out by copying the early Go-Betweens: lightly plucked guitar riffs bubbling around and under half-spoken vocals, so that the emphasis always feel on the words, and only on the third or fourth listen did anyone realize the Sugargliders' (or the early Go-Betweens') melodic originality (Some of those early songs can still be found as 7"s on the Summershine and Marineville labels, or on the new Just a Taste [Slumberland], which mixes three terrific Sugargliders compositions with about twenty very mediocre offerings from other Aussie pop groups. For the Go-Betweens, try the 1978-1990, a well-selected "best of.")
By 1992, the Sugargliders had added dance music and white-soul moves to their repertoire, putting backbeats and sound effects into their otherwise still-sedate songs; this form of the band recorded five singles for the English label Sarah, each with a different drummer (or a drum-machine). You can now get all five, from 1992's "letter from a lifeboat" up to the just-released "Top 40 Sculpture," on the Sugargliders' new singles compilation We're All Trying to Get There. The "Lifeboat" single was forgettable, but the entire rest of the repertoire, given undivided attention, will slowly become profound and moving. One of the reasons lies in the Sugargliders' ability--the rarest thing in the world--to integrate melodic neatness with the aforementioned back-beats. "Reinventing Penicillin," for example, could be a good slowed-down New Order song, and "Trumpet Play" nonchalantly imports a soft "jazz" trumpet and jazz-club background noise into the end of what would otherwise be a rolling, groove-oriented late-night "ballad."
You may have to turn the volume knob way up to discover the way in which this, or any other Meadows song, is built, from the words onward, and what makes it interesting. Much more so than could ever be true of any louder type of pop, the Sugargliders' songs become vanilla-flavored background music whenever you can't pay enough attention to them, whether that's because you're listening while writing a paper, or because your speakers turn all tones to tin. Listen loud, however--especially to the long last two tracks, "90 Days of Moths and Rust" and "Top 40 Sculpture"--and the novelty in these interlocking acoustic guitar tones and undulating beats moves in, and stays for weeks. Whichever Meadows brother is singing-- or half-singing, half-speaking--sets our the lyrics with such understated sincerity that it's impossible to believe the everyday events he's describing--walking out of a jazz club ("Trumpet Play"), reading a newspaper advertisement ("Theme from Boxville")--don't move and amuse him as much as he says they do. Which may lead you to wonder why such everyday events don't move, or amuse, you as often as they do him.
In the very best Sugargliders songs, the Meadows' vocal timbres aren't what holds your attention: the lyrics do. The last person to comment so incisively, and with such a sense of having been hurt, on boy-girl stuff may have been the early Elvis Costello; but where he always blamed his ex-girlfriends, the Sugargliders always blame themselves, which I find much more attractive. In "Will We Ever Learn" for example: "Do you think it's human/To except to be loved from foot to head?/Well my head's been on holiday/Since the day we met..." Or in "Ahprahran," for example (Prahran being the Melbourne suburb where the Meadows brother live): "Last Sunday I heard myself say/A good day for you is a good day for me/Can't believe I've sunk this low/Is this something good? I don't know..." "Aloha Street" alternates the self-reproachful lines of the verses with a rebarbative four-note hook that seems to be making fun of the singer's romantic aspirations." "Our eyes first met across a crowded room"--and then the hook, and then "I knew we'd done to very different schools..." The compact "guitar also," when it comes, is a deliberately squeaky, pathos-filled echo of the triumphant 70s lust you'd be likely to find at the end of a Cheap Trick song, the Sugargliders' quiet aplomb here as everywhere on the album, sounds like the product of diminished expectations, sounds resigned and hopeful at the same time. Anyone to whom that attitude appeals will be likely to find, and love, it in the delicately ironized pop songs collected on this splendid long-player.