Graeme Downes


Though there was a loud critical buzz for New Zealand indie rock in the ’80s and early ’90s, most of the bands that emerged from the islands weren’t all that original: Like many of their American contemporaries, most NZ bands tended to sound like your average post-Velvet Underground rockers. This isn’t a bad thing, but few transcended VU-damaged familiarity. The Verlaines did. Led by book-smart Mahler specialist Graeme Downes, the band married poetic lyrics with jazz chords, rock ‘n’ roll rhythms, and orchestral arrangements. The Dunedin trio moved from the stripped-down, rudimentary jangle-pop of Juvenilia (a compilation of tracks recorded between 1982 and 1986) to the ornate, carefully constructed masterpiece Bird-Dog (1987) in a few short years because of Downes’ ability to adapt his classical-music education to a rock format. After several so-so albums and the Verlaines’ demise in 1997, Downes took a job as professor of pop at Tai Poutini Polytechnic’s music school in Auckland; last year, he moved back to Dunedin to head the contemporary-rock program at his alma mater, the University of Otago. But even as Downes was busy teaching rock, he was also composing it. Hammers and Anvils, his first disc as a solo artist, is the result. But old-school fans hoping for a return to Verlaines-style form will be disappointed—not so much by the new album’s songs as by its tin-can production. Downes still has a knack for melody (the music-hall-inspired “Cole Porter” does no disservice to the master in its title) and a way with words (“So I’ve been plundering all of Cole Porter this morning/To find me a rhyme half as beautiful as you”), but too many of the tracks—recorded on a computer over a period of three years—come off as awkward and cold. “Getting Out of It” has the sad jauntiness and surprising chord combos of a Verlaines song, but none of the verve. And the incredibly catchy “Rock ‘n’ Roll Hero” sounds as if it were miked in a cave and processed through a computerized cheese grater. Hammers and Anvils is a welcome return for Downes only because it demonstrates that he still has the urge and skill to create great songs. I hope next time out he creates great music to match. —Christopher Porter