The 3Ds, The Venus Trail, 1993

I remember getting this on CD back in 1993, playing it quite a lot, but never really getting too excited about it. There’s something about overkill in a genre. By 1993, grungy noise pop was everywhere. You couldn’t sit down for the damn stuff. Sonic Youth, The Pixies, British Shoegaze and then Nirvana and Pearl Jam and the whole alternative scene exploding into the mainstream meant that a pretty good homegrown album like The Venus Trail suddenly seemed run-of-the-mill in terms of its histrionic aesthetics. It’s not of course. Listening to it now, way out of context is to rediscover the magic of The 3Ds, and to note to oneself just how unique a sound the band had developed for themselves. But when you’re swamped earlobe-deep in the stuff it can start to feel like a trap.

1993 was a strange year for me—it almost qualifies as the best and worst year of my life. It was in the last few months, having moved back to Dunedin –home to the 3Ds – that I remember listening to The Venus Trail. They were strange days, adjusting to a new job, new flatmates, new girlfriend, and new 3Ds album. Aesthetically, The Venus Trail is pretty similar to what’s gone before – catchy tunes drowned in wild freewheelin’ riffs, distortion and feedback, but lyrically it’s impossible to discern what the songs are about. The voices are just too buried in the mix and ultimately this leaves me feeling the album’s just not as satisfying as it could’ve been.

As I listen, I shall attempt to delineate something of the mood of each song from the dynamics, rhythm and whatever snippets of lyrics I can grasp that might give further clues as to why the songs exist. Mostly, I can say however, that ‘sad’ or ‘bittersweet melancholy’ prevails across the course of these twelve songs. It’s almost like, no matter how hard they try to burst through the skin of a despairing emotion with dynamic guitar theatrics, the overwhelming weight of whatever it is they’re singing about just drags them back down. Hm…Bumstead, time to hop on the trail…

Hey Seuss… opens with one of those acerbic repetitive 3Ds riffs, a sound they own, followed by one of Saunders’s yerkiest voices twisted  and distorted out of all recognition. This was the first single as I recall, a noisy, very poppy number with a neat pun for a title, mixing the Spanish pronunciation of ‘Jesus’ with a clarion call for someone to take up the mantle of Theodore Geisel, that great rhymester responsible for the likes of Green Eggs and Ham and The Cat In The Hat. Naturally you want to know what it is David Saunders has to say about this. Alas, I can’t make out a single word of his hysterical, impassioned screeching other than the chorus which only appears at the end: “Hey Seuss, where you been?” repeated four times. In between the main riff we get various other wobbly riffs and some heavy power chords punctuating the intense, racy rhythm before it fizzles out like TV static.

Philadelphia Rising… grungy stoogey notes, thick and gluey, a fairly heavy vibe, and a Mitchell vocal where words rise up out of his throat and ride their longest syllables along his knife-edge voice: something about a “little lonely man” but quite what he’s doing, I don’t know. We do know that he has a “shiny, shiny, shiny head” which can see the “tiny tiny tiny streets” or something like that. Mitchell sounds as desolate and frenzied as always, echoing Saunders’s “Hey Seuss” voice. Various riffs squiggle and curdle around one another like alien vines entangling the guitarists’ hands. The song doesn’t seem to go anywhere much after this though, and without having any clue why the song is called “Philadelphia Rising” I can’t quite fathom whether all the wicked rhythmic chop and change means anything or is just embroidery.

Cash None… is much lighter with sweeter guitar sounds, and a plaintive melancholy Saunders vocal: “It all seems surreal /[something] / Is killing me today / It’s all over and done / .. [Something] just begun / Do you think it feels so sad? / Or do you think it’s just too bad?” He’s sounds really forlorn here, which is in keeping with the whimsical guitar parts, and his descending vocal lines: “And I don’t want to see anyone else cry tonight,” goes the chorus, after which we get some more doomy descending chords. The tune is more melancholy than bittersweet. “Do you think it feels so sad / Or do you think it’s just too bad?” I would say “sad,” David, not “too bad.” I have a friend who thinks this song is one of the album’s best.

The Golden Grove… with Roughan’s soft floaty voice meandering among the noodly electric riffs, she sings about her hands being tied: “But I cried” she sings. “At heaven’s gate there is a golden door…” and again her hands are tied and she cries. All this is in a gorgeously soft voice and very pretty tune, but again, beautifully downcast. Roughan’s songs always sound so whimsical. Mitchell’s riffs are usually written to intertwine with her voice in the most delicate ways.

The Venus Trail… one of my favourite songs here, mostly because I love the main riff, which seems just out of sync with the vocal. Again, I can’t catch anything more than a few words such as “Shaking shaking hands” and “I’m walking, walking down the venus trail,” but what is the venus trail? I don’t know. I don’t really care, I’ve found myself humming or singing nonsense words to this a lot lately. It has a minor fizzy quality, is quite repetitive and reminds me of some classic song that I can’t quite place. The rhythm and riffing is all pure Mitchell. Very catchy.

Beautiful Things… is oft-regarded as one of the better songs, partly because of its great tune, and Roughan’s sweet voice floating among the riffs and grunge. One of those whimsical inert backwards spiraling riffs that seems to yerk up and back around, which might just be one of the beautiful things that Roughan says are coming for her. “Don’t you see, you’re not even safe with me / And you know I’ll rise so high in July / I’ll take a chance and lead you away,” she sings, mermaid-like. There’s a weird kind of darkness behind this though. It sounds like a positive song {“Those beautiful things are waiting for me”) and we get some incredibly pretty mandolin playing behind the main guitar rhythm as the song goes through its last few bars, but yes, I see a darkness in here.

Man On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown… one wonders whether Mitchell read a description of his own performance style in some local music rag and used it for the title of this song. Perhaps naturally, the man breaking down here is too inarticulate to make any sense beyond his crazed vocal and dramatic style. All clichés of course. Who’s to say Mitchell’s performances are ‘mad’ or ‘crazed’? What cultural assumptions do we make when we use those terms to describe something ‘frenzied’? I’ve decided that Mitchell’s taking the mickey here, despite the only lyric I can catch being “Broken back slowly slowly / Nails and cuticles.” The music is all downward plunging, churning anger-chords, moodiness, offset by high, wiry, skewered pop riffs that add a jovial light to the otherwise slow, pained expression of the main rhythm. It’s okay, but not really anything too special, until the denouement which consists of a sped-up young voice speaking something like Spanish, while the guitars go all haywire and gravelly.

Jane Air… is really fast, but recorded at a slightly quieter volume, and while it sounds quite neat, with another of Mitchell’s pleading vocals, it’s the first song to get a bit lost or sound a bit too samey—the usual, high speed riffing, fast drumming, interrupted by Mitchell’s sorcery spell-casting voice and those grungy wiry breaks. “I can’t see the sun / With shadows all around,” is about the only line I can really catch, so why this song puns on the name “Jane Eyre” is beyond me. Fiddly wiggle noise squirms down a hole and vanishes.

The Young And Restless… slower, melodic riff, opening with the words, “I’m sad to say…” only thereafter I’m not sure what Saunders is sad about. Certainly not the fireworksy kind of riffing that follows. “I guess it’s time to run / To run from everyone,” he sings, and there follows more 3Ds riffarama. Once again, Saunders’s songs tend to be more upbeat with faster won freedom and quicker lines, but why this song references a daytime TV soap drama I have no idea.

Summer Stone… really like this one – sounds very much like an outtake from Hellzapoppin – in fact, I would say this sounds more like a Goblin Mix song, Mitchell’s band before he joined the 3Ds. In this song, it’s “so cold down here” by the “summer stone.” He invites the listener to come on down, but “it’s a shame you’re not down here too.” Singing about being ‘down here in the cold’ implies living at the bottom part of the South Island I guess. Tres catchy song with the usual squiggly riffs supporting a grungy rhythm section.

Ice… “And I might say to you / That these hands are dead and blue / … / We’ll just say these hands are made of ice.” This is another slightly tuneless song, which uses the old bathtub full of squeaking electric eels aesthetic that we’ve heard on Hellzapoppin. The riffs rise and get sludged out by an electric squalling, frenetic caterwauling. “You’ve seen the cracks all down your hands / Coming true / Coming through.” A terrible thing, but for Mitchell “the world’s made of ice.” Once again, slowly ascending heavy powerchords keep this from becoming too poppy; instead we get an extended volley of nasty messy feedback, barely controlled. A white noise dirge that doesn’t sound unlike a light airplane hurtling towards the ground at high speed. No idea what the song’s about though, other than the idea of lost emotion. A bit of a random noise fest, not particularly memorable.

Spooky… is beautiful. An acoustic guitar fingerpickin’ slice of exquisitely forlorn melancholia. It’s half-strummed, half-picked out, Mitchell singing lead with Roughan close behind in support. The main riff is another descending thing, terribly sad sounding, as is the vocal: “I’m not so lonely / Some people care / So please don’t worry / No sorrow here / Didn’t even see you leave / You didn’t even take good care / Of all your friends down there / Yer rising high in the air.”  Later we get, “I couldn’t even feel you breathe / I think it’s time to leave / Leavin’ all your friends down there / Wavin’ goodbye up there.” So, “Spooky” then – how so? I was trying to figure if the speaker-singer in this song is a ghost of someone recently deceased. Spooky because Mitchell’s channeling the voice. He seems to be floating by the boat shed, stones, shaking trees. The chorus is gorgeous, but probably this wins the accolade for most downer song on the album. Acoustic guitar is punctuated by sudden electric power chords as the song fades out.

Lots going on here, for sure, but difficult to gauge much meaning from it. Having played The Venus Trail a lot over the past few weeks, I have to say, certain songs such as “Jane Air” and “Ice” always seem to pass by completely unnoticed. There are plenty of great tunes here of course, but overall it’s a mixed bag. All Music Guide have decided in a somewhat laughably overconfident, yet matter-of-fact fashion that this is indisputably The 3Ds best album. But they fail to convince me. I think once you sit down and listen closely, it just doesn’t excite in the way that Hellzapoppin does. Their next album, Strange News From The Angels, would arrive four years later to stake a relatively chilled out claim in the 3Ds burial plot.

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About Alan Bumstead Vinyl Reviews

Alan Bumstead is a music fanatic who humbly adds confusion to the world with a string of album reviews written during real-time-listening in a stream-of-consciousness style, then edited for spelling, punctuation, flow and grammar. Apart from an additional introductory paragraph, the writing is improvised in time with the music. There is no re-writing. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- In his book Moving To Higher Ground Wynton Marsalis says, "Because jazz musicians improvise under the pressure of time, what's inside comes out pure. It's like being pressed to answer a question before you have a chance to get your lie straight. The first thought is usually the truth." I like to think that's what Alan Bumstead's all about.
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