The great Kiwi album trilogy

03:06, May 04 2010

I met Dave Dobbyn on Saturday night. It seemed a good way to kick off New Zealand Music Month - it's the 10th anniversary of NZMM, don't you know.

When I say I met him I mean, first of all, I attended the live interview at Mighty Mighty in Wellington on Saturday night - to celebrate the start of NZMM.

Nick Bollinger interviewed Dobbyn after Dobbyn played some of his favourite Kiwi tunes: songs from The Fourmyula and The Dedikation and then on to Th' Dudes' Right First Time.

The interview was punctuated by Dobbyn performing solo acoustic versions of some of his anthems. We got to hear Don't Hold Your Breath after hearing that it had been inspired by listening to Randy Newman. We heard Language after the explanation that its presence on the album - as a pop-rock song - was mostly down to Neil Finn. Dobbyn had planned is as "a folksy Ry Cooder sort of a thing". So the acoustic version sat somewhere between the songwriter's original idea and the producer's eventual placing of the tune.

And there was a version of Hallelujah Song - a piano-based ballad that took on a new sound by moving to the guitar. As an "encore" of sorts, following the end of the chat, Dobbyn performed Beside You.

So yes, I popped up and said hello after. I got him to sign my copy of The Songbook. I had interviewed Dave Dobbyn here at Blog on the Tracks last year. It had gone well - and Dave had said to make sure I pop up and say hello to him at some point. And so Saturday night was the point where I did. But actually I feel like I have known him for most of my life - through the songs mentioned above and going back to the DD Smash songs Guilty and Whaling. From the Footrot Flats soundtrack and from three brilliant albums in particular that arrived in the middle of his recorded output - that defined his sound for me.


So meeting him to say hello to was nice ("yeah we had a good chat last year, thanks" - Dobbyn confirmed) but really I get to meet him each time I listen to him. And certainly when I interviewed him. And when hearing/reading other interviews.

Bollinger had Dobbyn talking about the craft of writing, about knowing when you had written something special. He had him talking about his past and on to where he was at now. And he got him to share stories about individual songs - which prefaced the already mentioned live versions of four of the songs.

But the bit of the interview I enjoyed the most was the link Bollinger made between my three favourite albums. He was promoting - in part - his own recent book, 100 Essential New Zealand Albums - and these albums feature in the book, naturally. But Bollinger first made the point that Lament for the Numb was "an album where something different happened". It was, he said, a step up - and proof that Dobbyn had changed gears, moved levels. A year later was Twist, both a continuation of Lament and a total departure. And then four years on, The Islander.

As I heard Dobbyn and Bollinger talking I decided then and there something I already knew without thinking about - simply from listening (still the best thing to do with music) - that Dave Dobbyn's albums between 1992 and 1998, Lament for the Numb, Twist and The Islander, form - for me - one of the great trilogies. The songs are different but somehow linked. What it really shows - and I have often played all three albums pretty much back to back - is a songwriter at the top of his game. And that's the link: consistency.

There are 11 songs on Lament, 11 on Twist and 13 on Islander. And while good portions from those three albums appear on Dobbyn's greatest hits album/s and in most live shows he plays, I would rather listen to any of those 35 songs than any of the tunes from the rest of Dobbyn's career. This is not to say I don't value Welcome Home or Loyal; that I don't still sometimes listen to Cool Bananas. But I would rather listen to What Have I Fallen For from The Islander, I Can't Change My Name from Twist or Belltower from Lament for the Numb than some of the bigger hits.

There's something about those albums - a songwriter working hard to prove himself to - mostly - himself. A man going through changes personally and reflecting some of those in the songs; the blend of the personal and musical worlds is never forced, never cloying - as can often be the case with heart-on-sleeve songwriting.

Well, those were my thoughts watching and hearing Dobbyn.

It was nice to get his signature in the book; to put a face (up close) to the voice that I had heard down the line for half an hour last year. But mostly it was just nice to meet him - again. As I do every time I play his albums.

And for me those three just might be, thematically, the great New Zealand album trilogy.

I'm aware there will be many of you that will disagree. And now's your chance. If not the same for you - Lament/Twist/Islander - then what is, in your opinion, the great NZ album trilogy?

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