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The Hinge of Malice Still Squeaks – The Re-Issue of Peter Jefferies’ “Electricity”

Peter Jefferies
Superior Viaduct

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Sounding at times like a hot-wired cross between Kevin Ayers and Tiny Tim, this is electrified bespoke post-punk folk with the wheels steadily coming off at a gleefully somber pace. It’s also a revelation.

One would think, considering how many times I’ve had to say it on these pages, that I’d be getting tired of this, of being forced to admit ‘Oh here’s another one I missed.’ But in truth the staining shame such an admission might spill on my reputation (such as that is), with friends and others muttering ‘I thought you knew everything about Kiwi post-postpunk’ (or whatever the specific case may be), is so thoroughly overshadowed by the joy of discovery that whatever blot might have obtained is frankly not even noticeable. In this case anyway, I’m too distracted by the sheer bloody-minded brilliance at hand, sprawling, prototypical eccentric-genius DIY that revels in that genre’s requisite characteristic: giving the at least occasional impression that someone’s opened the bedroom closet door and all the component pieces have come tumbling out in a rush to which are added canonical, flatiron vocals and voila! underground classic. Unfairly flip though that description may be – critically Electricity demands far more and we’re going to go a fair way to give it that – it is nonetheless a suitable shorthand for the fatally short-attention-span afflicted. For the rest of us, pull up a chair and a pair of headphones, let’s dig in and dig.

Released originally in 1994 on Ajax Records and now given new life by those resurrection saints over at Superior Viaduct, Electricity is a singular totem in the vast and historic New Zealand discography. Willfully eschewing the then-cresting Kiwi pop wave – the Chills, Verlaines, Bats, even the Dead C, were all arguably at their creative and commercial peaks at the time – the record opts instead for a palette of splashed greys, shadowed just-about-umbrous reds and acid-washed blues that etch at the eardrums until you beg for more. Perfect fodder, then, for the synesthetic in a deliciously gloomy mood.


In truth, of course, Jefferies had never up to this point exactly hewed to the perky punky mellifluence of his fellow countrymen, the stellar melodies, the linear progressions. His was always a more jarring, more eccentric blend, dating back to the archetypal post-punk of Nocturnal Projections, through the sparser atmospherics of This Kind of Punishment and continuing up into the two solo records preceding Electricity. Regardless, little in his past catalog could have believably pointed to the relative intensity and flagrance of solo album #3. Sure, in retrospect, one might have cited “The Other Side of Reason” from The Last Great Challenge in a Dull World and claim ferocity, or play you “Thief With the Silver” off of At Swim 2 Birds (nice Flann O’Brien reference, btw) to underline a pre-existing tendency toward a kind of folksy unhingedness, but overall they don’t quite climb – nor reach the heights on – the same wobbly trellis as Electricity. Here the shackles come off the shambolic, the veils fall from the lugubriously grandiose, the scales continue to fall from the eyes. And, when least expected, sweetness blooms in the most ungodly of places.

As if to underscore the playful perversity at work here, Electricity crawls into action with “Wined Up,” a reworked B-side of a single Jefferies had released with Stephen Kilroy just a couple years prior (the A-side, “Crossover,” gets its own makeover further down the tracklist). Hammering of rhythm – a not uncommon rhythmic trope here, reflecting the pound of the piano, Jefferies’ primary instrument of attack – serrated about its edges and crowded with a muted grove of psych-y guitar worthy of Chrome, it serves double duty as a compelling first lure and a statement of intent: this is not going to be an easy-going joyride.

Even where we’re afforded apparent respite, whatever sense of assurance is soon tinged by at least a suspicion of disturbances if not the real damn thing. The at-first pensive “Clear By Morning” disorients with tape manipulations and patchy sound effects like unexpected frights jumping out haunted house-like, the lovely “By Small Degrees” amounts to an unlikely but potent meeting of Leonard Cohen and Wire at their most ponderous, which is a bit unsettling, while the revisited “Crossover,” though managing to retain its melodically woeful charm, also manages to linger in a hanging malaise as if Chris Knox were tarred and stuck with burrs on his ever-optimistic heart. Then there’s the ledge-clinging beauty of “Don’t Look Down,” possibly Electricity‘s most moving track even as it’s shrouded in an echo of despair and punctuated by the lonely gothic clank of solo piano, Jefferies’ wounded baritone locked in a heartbreaking stasis. All of which is wonderful, obviously, but the hinge of malice still squeaks.


Elsewhere we face more bracing fare as we consider Einsturzende in a post-industrial trance while Rudy Vallee reawakens for a post-modern moment, his iconic megaphone now tattered and hooked up to a blown-out amp (“Snare”), or lurch about to the dark discouragement pop of “Couldn’t Write A Book,” as delightfully defeatist as its title, think Jonathan Richman after a suicidal amount of red wine, those same kind of imperishable teenage hooks turned into an electric slurry just this side of feedback. The title track, meanwhile, comes on all circa ’79 with a towering, arcing stomp and never lets up, eating up its own momentum with every passing smashed chord. But the ultimate tip of the shredded hat has to go to “Just Nothing.”

Following an explosion at the Swell Maps factory the track makes an effort at leveling off, settling into a dense, juddering and not-a-little-fucked up piece off cathartic noise rock noise, reaching along its way into levels of droning nihilism even the Velvets would have shied away from. As the rudiments of a romantic relationship – the endearments, the loving mundanity of everyday life, the prospect of procreation – get blown to hitherto unfathomed smithereens, “Just Nothing,” without flinching, conflates a “have a baby baby baby” refrain with the idea of boredom as the very kernel of existence, with the drape of dread that saturates our future, with the plain absurdities of life written in inky Rorschach blotches now being transmuted into sound by the alchemy of distortion and savage electronic vandalism. It’s as absolutely unrelenting as anything you’ll hear in the so-called pop sphere and then comes the coda, a full 2 ½+ minutes that I’ll leave for you to discover except to say it underpins its ferocity and menace with some heart-reeling beauty.

Sold yet?

Well, if not, this reissue, after the album proper shuffles off its coil with the moody, solo-piano read of Barbara Manning’s gallows-humored piece of irony pop “Scissors” (which, with dramatic subtlty, ends abruptly mid-chord), tosses in the rare-ish 1992 Swerve EP (originally a double 7″) made with Robbie Muir from Jefferies’ side project Plagal Grind. Far gentler, damn near pastoral by comparison while still retaining the artist’s trademark world-weary worldview – cynicism, while always tinged with the romantic, seems especially gilded in this guy’s hands – all four tracks are built around a hard-bitten humility injected into a more conventionally structural singer-songwriter approach, yet despite that it’s still idiosyncratic enough to test the limits of that word ‘conventionally.’ “Swerve” is the pick of the four, the blend of string, strum, and a cascading-in-place piano standing in perfect counterpoise to the sadsack epiphany of the lyric (“sees himself as someone who he knows but hasn’t met“), sung of course in Jefferie’s most astringently lachrymose baritone. Along with “Image of a Single Thought,” another contender, one is brought into the twilit atmospheres of Aussie post-punk troubadours The Apartments, some rarefied air indeed.

One thanks – again – Superior Viaduct for their superior wisdom and wherewithal in thrusting still another unearthed gem into our hands but more than that we thank Peter Jefferies for summoning the raw energies to make Electricity in the first place. It’s a brave record, the non-commerciality of which should now, in the fullness of time, with the rest of us having caught up to its spirit of droll-but-excited unease, be its most compelling selling point.

[photo of Peter Jeffries from]