Wish I knew what you were looking for, might have known what you would find.
Starfish was released exactly 21 years and one day prior to Steve Kilbey’s seventh solo album, Painkiller. Whether driven by coincidence, fate or kismet seems more of an issue for the writers of Lost rather than a music critique, but the tether seems somehow significant. After all, Starfish was and still remains the Church’s most successful album. Through nearly 30 years of the band’s history, they have essentially produced only one worldwide-recognized song, the exquisite “Under the Milky Way.” This Aussie band watched some of their countrymen become huge (INXS, Men at Work) or even moderately popular (Midnight Oil) while their own international stardom faded. Let’s not kid ourselves, however. “Under the Milky Way” was no fly-by night pop single. It wasn’t Kylie Minogue’s cover of “Locomotion.” “Under the Milky Way” sounds as fresh today as it did in 1988. It was and is a song out of time, an acoustic ballad amidst a field of increasingly irrelevant hair bands and burgeoning hip-hop styles. In fact, though some other Aussie bands were much more successful, fans named it the best Australian song of the last 20 years in a magazine poll.
Yet, the Church never stopped making music, despite the gradual decrease in exposure. In fact, the band has barely let up, releasing album after album, along with several solo efforts. Three years ago, I reviewed the Church’s Uninvited Like the Clouds, an album with which I found myself surprised by their longevity. I enjoyed the album, and praised the fact that the Church still existed in this musical sphere despite low sales, lack of exposure, and now add to that, a terrible economy. Yet, rabid fans of the Church tore me a new one, I suppose because I wasn’t fawning enough over the album. It reminded me of the quotation above, from “Under the Milky Way.” After all, if they are already fans, have picked up the album, for what reason are they reading reviews? I suppose there is something to be said for validating one’s own opinions, but it’s not like I hated the album! So, I almost balked at reviewing the new solo albums from the two main Church songwriters. But, ultimately, any critic who bows to external pressure is no longer worth a damn, so I went ahead with it. Luckily, upon hearing the first of the two, I no longer faced an internal dilemma. Had I have known what the Church fans were looking for; I might have known what they would find.
Now, here we are, twenty-one years on from Starfish, and we just might be on the verge of a worldwide Church comeback. It starts with Church bassist and lead singer Steve Kilbey’s seventh solo effort, Painkiller. No matter what you may be looking for, whether a die-hard fan who will accept nothing less than outright mastery, or a former devotee, still wistful over the first time you heard Starfish, this album is the end result. Kilbey’s magnificent talk-sing vocals sound unchanged over two decades. Opener “Outbound” is a revelation, with Kilbey walking a vocal tightrope between Bono and Leonard Cohen, finding new lyrical ground in a psychedelic bass-heavy song whose few acoustic guitar strums recall those heady days of “Under the Milky Way.” “Celestial” also treads that same ground, with murky and ethereal instrumentation to back Kilbey’s steadying vocals. “Milky Way” had that dreamy kind of feeling that made it timeless, and so do most of the songs in the first half of Painkiller. The steady march and light guitars of “Song for the Masking” will surely soothe even the most impatient listeners. And then the album takes a turn.
Starting with some studio foley work, “File Under Travel” takes off in directions most late ’80s Church fans would have never expected. Heavy psychedelic space rock envelops the listener, setting them awash in ambient noise, walls of guitar and waves of fuzz. While the second half of the album is definitely more drenched in heavier textural guitar work and studio manipulation, it is no less enjoyable than the more organic first half. In fact, it might even be more so. Taken as two EPs put together, the more discerning listener might find it more palatable. “Spirit in Flame” drones along hypnotically, led with plenty of bass, until a chant-like chorus taken straight from the folk era of the ’60s envelops us. But nowhere are the two sides of Steve Kilbey put together more seamlessly than on the epic closer, “Not What You Say.” Atmospheric effects are put over jangling guitars while dramatic strings arch over the whole affair. Kilbey’s vocals are at their breathy best, almost taking a back seat to the music, which goes on for about 12 minutes before devolving into the occasional whale song or electronic hum that lasts for another 18 minutes.
Very rarely do I find someone close to my age that was into the same music as me. One day I did finally meet this elusive doppelganger, and he had a guitar with him. Realizing that we had the same tastes and sense memories attached to the music we grew up with, he said, “I’ll bet you know this one,” and started playing “Under the Milky Way.” I knew it in the first few strums. That’s how powerful a song it is, easily why it was the Church’s biggest hit, and most likely why it has remained as potent today as it was then. Since then, much to the chagrin of the diehard fans that harangued me with forum lashings, the Church has gone mostly unnoticed. The band plans a new Church album later in 2009, also released by SecondMotion. But, with Painkiller, Steve Kilbey’s preceding solo album, any Church album is going to be hard pressed to live up to this kind of introduction.
David Bowie- Outside
Syd Barrett- The Madcap Laughs
The Velvet Underground- The Velvet Underground