WIDE OPEN ROAD: WORDS FROM SLEEVE NOTES BY JOHN O DONNELL

The Triffids | 25/01/10

‘Wide Open Road’

(words from sleeve notes by John O Donnell)

"...Eleven years after his death (in February, 1999), the songs of David McComb and the music made by The Triffids still lives and breathes and resonates. As evidenced here...For me, The Triffids had the perfect arc...

They remind me of that great line by Jack Kerouac in On The Road where he says "the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centrelight pop and everybody goes "Awww!"... With The Triffids, the middle of the arc, the blue centrelight pop, where everybody goes "Awww!" is the song "Wide Open Road", which is why it's right that it's the lead-off and title track of this collection...

But all around and before and after "Wide Open Road" were great moments of wildly varying colour and kind. Forming in Perth, Western Australia in the late 70s, around drummer Alsy McDonald and David McComb on guitars/vocals, the Triffids mutated through a number of different lineups as they released a handful of crude cassette 'albums', compiling more than 80 - 90 songs. Graduating to vinyl, their 7" singles were naive gems, tracks like "Reverie" and "Spanish Blue" full of pop smarts and sharp lyrics but with a clumsy, awkward charm. "Beautiful Waste" was their first great song.  By the time of their debut album Treeless Plain, they had settled on their lineup of David McComb (vocals/guitar), Alsy McDonald (drums, vocals), Jill Birt (keyboards, vocals), Robert McComb (guitars, violin, vocals), Martyn P Casey (bass) - 'Evil' Graham Lee (pedal and lap steel, guitars, vocals) was to complete the definitive version of the band shortly after Treeless Plain...

All across Treeless Plain, you can feel and smell the heat rising off the pavement of Perth and Sydney and the endless desert road connecting these two cities that The Triffids came to know so well. There's a nascent, but very real claustrophobia and humidity in tracks like "Hell Of A Summer," "Hanging Shed" and "Red Pony" counterpointed by Robert's beautiful violin and Jill's keys. If Treeless Plain had finally centred the band, they immediately jumped sideways for the brilliant jewel of a mini-album, Raining Pleasure and then the country 'side-project' Lawson Square Infirmary. It became typical of the band. They would put down firm, powerful roots on a full length album and then jump all over the shop in between. It was probably maddening for those trying to draw a career plan ("And then these bands wonder why they're not successful" you can hear a grizzled industry vet, whining"), but for us fans, the schizophrenia of the ramshackle In The Pines, the bludgeoning Field Of Glass EP made The Triffids all the more colourful, exciting and certainly unpredictable... 

For me, the epicentre/the high point of their arc/their masterpiece is the album Born Sandy Devotional. Its epic "widescreenstudio ambition" was perfectly pitched. "The Seabirds," which opens the album, could well be McComb's best song. The subtle strings, the pedal steel, the masterful touch of Alsy's drums all brilliantly score a tragic, poetic lyric of broken heart/suicide. "Wide Open Road" stalks similar territory, the protagonist aches and despairs at a lover who has left him for another and McComb compares the emotional distance between the characters to the endless flatlands of his home state/country. Elsewhere, "Lonely Stretch" is a nightmare rollercoaster ride, like the best David Lynch film, all captured in five short minutes. "Stolen Property" touches on the very personal, suggesting self-doubt, McComb's own journey away from the expectations of him, all artfully cloaked it in a more oblique frame... 

The great argument between Triffids nutters would be whether Born Sandy Devotional or Calenture was their great work. For me, Calenture occasionally over-reaches and has moments that verge on the bombastic, but it remains a great, powerful work, featuring the band's best pop song in "Trick Of The Light" (the worldwide hit that should have been) and the perfect album closer, "Save What You Can", a hymn to survival, a resigned, wistful glance in the rear-view mirror. When the band played its final show in 1989, a low-key bow in soulless Canberra, Australia I hope they finished with this...

Their final studio album was the ambitious, sprawling The Black Swan. Popular opinion on The Black Swan has McComb falling under the spell of rap and certainly there is a lean towards rhythm/dub feels on many tracks, but it is more the ambition and restlessness that had always defined them coming to bear. Perhaps they should have experimented with a few EPs between Calenture and The Black Swan as they had done previously, but again, as a fan, I love it for its tangents, its brave messiness...

The studio albums and the songs end up being the lasting document and the Triffids stand proud and tall on this measure. Their live shows are simply burnt in my memory, as visceral, brilliant, intelligent, haunting, pretty, dark, petulant, sloppy, irresistible...kind of like "fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centrelight pop and everybody goes 'Awww!'"

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