Jokes and Trials
(Dot Dash; 2006)
By Clayton Purdom | 20 October 2006
It took awhile, but eventually I figured it out: Ned Collette is a goddamn faker. Here I was, all snuggled up, fetal position, ready for a stark record, an acoustic one, a release of autumnal hymns like those promised by the first three tracks, each more twilit than the last. And then “Boulder” starts with a Five Leaves Left string swell and I think, “this Collette fellow’s got his bases covered. I bet Greenwald’s loving this shit,” before—wham!—a boinging mouth-harp, quivering organ, and a fucking synthesizer solo, and I think, “wait! This isn’t boring at all! It’s good! Greenwald probably hates it!”
Okay, I’m joking. But Jokes and Trials is the type of obscenely strong record that, like We Are The Pipettes before it, manages to appeal to the at-odds sensibilities of both David “Ryan Adams Gets a 90%” Greenwald and Clayton “Ryan Adams Doesn’t Exist” Purdom. Actually, one other example springs to mind, and like Collette it’s the same stuff I used to listen to in mid-October a few years ago, when it was too warm to wear a coat but freezing rain fell anyway, and puddles turned to lakes and the sopping leaves drooped, and I kept cigarettes around to keep my fingers warm, but that other example chose to die before releasing his last record in 2005, which gives me one more reason to cling to Jokes and Trials desperately.
He’s good in a way that lots of artists think they are but aren’t, in that his album is hushed but not quiet, emotionally effective but not emotionally affected, sun-drenched and beautiful but not Kelley Stoltz. Chris Martin is 100% sure that he makes songs this immediately resonant, but that’s only because he’s buried them in labyrinthine ProTools sleight of hand. Collette, erstwhile singer of Melbourne’s City City City, also builds his songs in the studio, but his come out the speaker with earnest urgency, blooming quietly. There’s an impromptu playfulness in the music that belies the painstaking lyrics, but check it: that “Boulder” synthesizer, which is earth-shattering in the context of the song, was a one-take goof from Collette. Likewise, Ian Curtis-aping “Heaven’s the Key” is a perfectly somnambulant one-take droner. The entire record exudes this guileless appeal, the easy air of genuine chemistry. Nool recommends that the record be listened to while curled up on a couch or a bed or while playing scrabble; I suggest a long run on a Sunday afternoon, ignoring football and homework and watching the leaves change colors.
Either method will work. Songs like “A Plea For You Through Me” and “Blame” require nothing, really, to be gorgeous, whisping unchecked past the seven-minute mark into twanging, chiming denouements. The album is full of peaks like “Boulder” and valleys like these, all part of the same verdant landscape, all set beneath the same gold sky. Through this setting Collette’s voice sails like a paper airplane—a throaty, folksy tour guide, pointing out trainstops and heartbreaks and navigating an immense emotional grey area. He populates his songs with strange and sometimes sad characters (from “Janet”: “The winter touch / Her hair as much it’s cold / The daily ins and outs are getting old”), and then watches them bump into one another in a consistent, quaint geography. Imagine a wry Robert Altman romance set in a New Zealand fishing village. Go ahead; I’ll wait. Okay? Now imagine that Leonard Cohen wrote a soundtrack for it, then imagine that Nigel Godrich produced it; you’re nowhere close to Jokes and Trials, but that’s kinda what it sounds like to me.
All of which makes this record sound like an appealing enough debut, but there’s another fakeout waiting: “The Laughter Across the Street,” buried in the middle of the tracklist, is an outright stunner. Few of the understated adjectives applicable to the record can be said about “Laughter”—it seems a bit too large-minded—although in its mild propulsive way it’s a necessary, logical centerpiece. Collette’s message here is the same open-eyed optimism that informed the Dismemberment Plan’s “You Are Invited,” but Collette sets his musings against lightly rising Disney coos and typically understated plucks and swells. This continues until the resolution comes: it seems obvious in hindsight that the song would come to this place, simple group doo-doo-doos over walking bass, thump-clap percussion, the same authentic joie de vivre as “Dry The Rain,” but all the more effective in this less bombastic setting. It’s music toeing the line of something bigger, something I can like along with everyone else, an august praise chorus. I’d be crazy not to like it.