New Zealand artists on their favourite album

Real Groove Issue 177/Summer 2009

Simon Comber on the album The Last Great Challenge in a Dull World by Peter Jefferies:

(untruncated)

I first came across the name “Peter Jefferies” at the Auckland Public Library. Scouring through the NZ music section the cover of Jefferies’ Electricity caught my eye, mainly because it was so ugly. The most budget cover I ever did see – hideous yellow and blue colour combo, artist name and title crudely handwritten (quite possibly in twink pen), a photo of some dude behind his keyboard wearing a Daniel Johnston t-shirt (the same one Cobain wore). I opened up the cover to see two songs had guitar credited to Shayne  Carter. I was intrigued.

The first thing that struck me was the equally crude recording fidelity: really dull and murky, the high frequencies were hard on the ear through headphones. What soon emerged was just how tightly constructed these songs were. Angular, intense Cale-damaged  piano motifs; irregular bar measures; the vocal phrasing almost academically tight and sung in earnest with the most pronounced N.Z accent I’d heard since Martin Phillipps. It had an edge.

It was also one of the bleakest things I’d ever heard. Take the first lines of the first song “Wined Up”:

“This atmosphere’s so bloody crazy

I feel lazy and nothing makes sense to me

But you never said it would

I suppose I just understood it all differently.”

Alone on the page it’s one-dimensional angst, but thankfully the musical setting owed nothing to the 2nd generation grunge dominating the airwaves at the time. For starters, it had digital cello on it. More significantly, while the lyrics often gave the impression of an embittered ghost of a man entirely devoid of hope, the music had a gritty determination to it. The music was still fighting. Those piano riffs dug in deep, often barely straying from the one or two chords- incomplete minor chords to be sure, but boy was Jefferies being loyal to them, clinging to them as if his life depended on it.

There were also more fleshed out pieces with actual developments and key changes, but save for the one song played on acoustic guitar (the exceedingly beautiful “Crossover”) all the tracks felt tightly stitched together by Jefferies’ unmistakable piano playing. There was a ballad called “Quality” consisting of just an instrumental opening and one impressionistic verse. There was Jefferies at his most psychotic on “Just Nothing.” It was all rounded off with a jaw-dropping reworking of Barbara Manning’s “Scissors,” one of the most inspired covers I have ever heard. The library had one other Jefferies’ album called Elevator Madness. It had all the musical trademarks of Electricity but made less of an impression on me. It lacked the vibe of Electricity. At the time I equated it with the fact it had been recorded in a real studio, (yes, I was going through THAT phase) but now I think it was just a bit less consistent, and the odd song was bordering on overwrought, even for Jefferies. It holds up pretty well for me today though. Elevator Madness has its own thing going on. A more ambient bent on the Snapper drone for starters. It’s more than worth hearing.

I never would’ve thought to look for more of his albums but I was doing a sociology paper at Auckland University at the time and at the back of the course reader was an excerpt from a book (the title escapes me*) which talked about the Xpressway label. It mentioned the college radio success that Jefferies had in the U.S with his debut solo album The Last Great Challenge in a Dull World. Next week I found it at Crawlspace Records (R.I.P.)

I have something to say to you and I’m going to say it with as little padding as possible: The Last Great Challenge in a Dull World is a fucking masterpiece. It blows the other two very worthy albums I mention out of the water. It uses them to wipe its raw uncompromising garage rock meets piano balladry meets improvisation badass. It features many wonderful cameos from such South Island stalwarts as Robby Yeats, Alastair Galbraith and David Mitchell (Mitchell’s rhythm guitar on the opening number “Chain or Reaction” is so locked in to Jefferies’ piano groove that one could be forgiven for thinking they’d been playing together since birth). Its lyrics are the kind of elusive evocations of disenchantment and isolation that compel you to grasp at their meaning, to find some overarching secret running through the whole thing. And there IS something running through this album to be sure, something deathly.

Jefferies’ voice has never been more tender or lonely than on The Last Great Challenge. The second song, “Domesticia” features some of his greatest, saddest, most eloquently sung lines, lines that embody this deathly shadow:

“Who can say

Will the world turn cold holding our ice age?

Will the withering hand be the one foretold?

Will anyone be getting old before they throw it all away?”

If these lines don’t terrify you then you may not be appreciating the fact that this song has no musical backdrop. Unless you count the sound of a kitchen sink in the background, he sings these lines ACAPELLA! You may also want to consider the various implications of the album title, one of the ballsiest album titles ever, right up there with Dongs of Sevotion (the twisted genius of which I will defend to the death by the way).

I lived and died with The Last Great Challenge in a Dull World for the 12 months after I found it. Nothing against our old friend Mr Tape, but it still amazes me to think that this was originally a CASSETTE ONLY release. Aside from the fact you can no longer buy it in the country it was made, it has lost nothing overtime.

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*Have since discovered that the article I read was:
‘Xpressway to the World – Kiwi Music as Rare Groove.’ pp 45 – 47
from the book ‘North Meets South – Popular Music in Aotearoa/New Zealand’
ed. Hayward, Mitchell, Shuker
Perfect Beat Publications 1994