WHEN LIBERTY SMILES - Vanilla Chainsaws (Tronador Music)
This 32 track compilation is presented in a slimline CD jewel case, containing 2 CDs worth of crisply remastered (or in the case of the previously unreleased tracks, mastered for the first time) audio enchantment, plus recording details of each track, all the lyrics and a brief summary of the different personnel line ups (of which there were quite a few) throughout the band's 10-and-a-bit-year history. Boy this package is nicely put together.
It comes from Tronador Music in Brazil (or Brasil as the locals are prone to refer to it apparently), the same mob who released that Spy v Spy double CD comp a couple of years ago, and it's a prime example of what a record looks and sounds like when it's put out by someone who actually cares about the music it contains. I don't know much about this company, except that it's run by an Aussie ex-pat who's been carving out a niche for himself by releasing comprehensive compilations of criminally overlooked Australian alternative rock. Aside from the aforementioned Spies smorgasbord, there have also been Celibate Rifles, Riptides and Chevelles collections and newer releases like the Simon Chainsaw & The Forgotten Boys collaboration reviewed by the Barman not so long ago, with a Spy v Spy triple CD of demos and live tracks to come and a Screaming Tribesmen comp reported to be in the throes of negotiation.
Of course Tronador is not working in a complete vacuum - all of these groups are far more honoured in Brazil than in their own country. In the case of the Vanilla Chainsaws, that overseas recognition not only extends to Germany and France as well, but I understand that front man Simon Drew (or Simon Chainsaw as he often likes to bill himself lately) also has a sufficient profile to be able to get himself more gigs in some of the larger US cities than he can manage around Sydney. This would be sad if it was an isolated case, but of course it's just business as usual - "originality" is only valued here provided it doesn't scare small children and record company executives by sounding too different to what is being imported by the truckload from overseas. If it doesn't fit conveniently into one of the ready-made marketing molds currently in favour, then it doesn't get pushed out into the record bars of suburban shopping centres or played on commercial radio; nor does it find it's way onto free promo copies provided to pontificating journalists in the mainstream press. Bruce Elder feel free to take your head out of your arse and have a look around some time...
I suspect that even some regular bar patrons glancing at this romp through some of the dustier canyons of my mind may be scratching their heads and asking themselves, "What's the big deal, the Vanilla Chainsaws were just another guitar band from Sydney weren't they?"... Well no, I don't think so and this compilation tends to back me up pretty convincingly. However I can understand where such attitudes might be coming from. My first exposure to the Vanilla Chainsaws was "The Worst Place In The World", the imprudent and overextended "cock rock" excess with which their recorded legacy concluded (prior to this release anyway), and initially I couldn't see what the fuss was about either. Only one song from that last ill-conceived effort makes it onto this retrospective. Surprisingly it's neither "Safe" nor "Long Time", the two redeeming tracks in my opinion, but although this remastering of "What's Goin' On?" gives it more clarity than the version I'm more accustomed to, I still find its selection for this collection puzzling.
If I tried really hard, I could probably pick a few more nits, like where is "Everything", the flip side of the first single, or either side of the bonus single that came with the Glitterhouse compilation back in the late eighties? No, I've never managed to score a copy of it either, which is why I'm asking now. Regardless of these minor quibbles, with this compilation I've got my hands (and ears) full enough enjoying all that is there on offer, to worry for too long about what may have been left off. The "Wine Dark Sea", "Red Lights", "Thousand" and "Watching Me" EPs are all well represented (the first two in their entirety), along with a staggering thirteen previously unreleased tracks, including the bizarre amphetamine rave of "Klingon Aliens and the Galaxy" and four songs from the last session by the final line up (with the Murray Shepherd/Rudy Morabito rhythm section); the guitar shredding "Price You Pay" in particular is a serviceable addition to the Chainsaw canon.
The tracklist doesn't run in strict chronological order, starting instead with two songs from the zenith of their "Red Lights" EP (the title track of that and "Liberty", a.k.a. "When Liberty Smiles", the title track of this), before going back to the first, deceptively simple single "T.S. (Was It Really Me)" and the even earlier but never released "When Worlds Collide" - as if your average indie band doesn't have enough problems getting out a record under normal circumstances, the Chainsaws increased the degree of difficulty dramatically by losing the master tape shortly after it was recorded. From there on, the end results of the various recording sessions by the differing line ups jostle for position across well over two solid hours of music, though the four tracks from the final, prophetically named "Doom" session are right where they belong, at the end of the second disk.
With a rhythm section that periodically included former/future members of the New Christs, Celibate Rifles, Screaming Tribesmen and Cosmic Psychos, it shouldn't be surprising that the band left a body of work that packs plenty of punch, but there is also some subtlety to their music as well. While their ringing, wall of guitar sound has been compared with everyone from the Trilobites to early U2, even invoking shades of Husker Du, it's the gruff, gravely vocals (sounding increasingly like a 40 a day Tim Rogers as time progresses) which really characterize the Chainsaw sound (the evocative and previously unreleased instrumental "Mar Do Vinho Tinto" from the "Wine Dark Sea" sessions notwithstanding), expounding lyrics that are impressionistic rather than literal or purely descriptive: explorations of confusion, insecurity, infidelity, trust abused and trust refused, eyes that lied (to borrow Mr Mojo Risin's phrase) and the emotional and spiritual emptiness that results, both individually and collectively (though I can't grasp why he felt the need to take exception to unix programming in the closing "Doom").
In summary: depending on your circumstances, either a comprehensive introduction to or fitting reminder of a band that probably was defeated as much by its constant membership shuffles as by record industry indifference, but could never be accused of being ordinary or uninspired as long as it had a heartbeat. - John McPharlin
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