At first, the Church seemed like a promising blend of the Beatles (musically) and early Bowie (vocally and lyrically). Peter Koppes and Marty Willson-Piper explored the guitar territory first mapped out by Harrison and Lennon, but in greater detail and with perhaps a more practiced — if less inspired — hand. Bassist Steve Kilbey chanted/sang articulate lyrics with a world- weary melancholy similar to early Bowie, but colder and less melodramatic.
The band’s American debut, The Church, consists of most of Of Skins and Heart plus the best three songs from a subsequent double-45 release. (Arista’s belated CD of Of Skins and Heart includes those three tracks as well.) The gorgeous guitar soundscapes and occasionally evocative verbal imagery seemed to promise bright things to come. The blatant Beatleness of “The Unguarded Moment” is so offset by its other virtues that it’s easily the album’s high point. Still, Kilbey’s worst lyrical instincts flowered on The Blurred Crusade. You can add some Byrds and perhaps a touch of post-Floyd Barrett into the mix, but you can also toss in some pointless obscurity, non sequiturs and confessional windiness.
Lyrically, Seance is both more superficial and more straightforward, which is partly why it succeeds. At its best, the band achieves something akin to mid-’60s British pop psychedelia: nothing timeless, but a neat trip. The Church isn’t as poppy here, and Seance‘s most obviously retroid psychedelic number (“Travel by Thought”) is more atmosphere than song, but stuff like “Fly” and “Dropping Names” is still a groove (man). (But the pistol-shot snare-drum sound on much of the LP is a real bummer.)
Remote Luxury, which combines the two preceding Australian EPs, has less range than Seance; its shimmering folk-rock textures are hampered once again by Kilbey’s overly oblique lyrics. A step sideways at best.
Well-produced by Peter Walsh, Heyday (which was actually recorded as an album) is another step forward: straight-ahead guitar pop housed in an ironically paisleyfied cover. Although titles like “Tristesse” and “Myrrh” suggest otherwise, Kilbey’s lyrics are engagingly vague and easier to comprehend. Likewise, the melodies are stronger and catchier than any since the first album.
The production of Starfish — by LA session guitarist Waddy Wachtel, Greg Ladanyi and the group — may have some responsibility for its shortcomings. Superficially, the LP seems pleasant but thin; look past the ziplessness, however, and you’ll discover the band’s most consistently engrossing and memorable tunes yet. Even Kilbey’s off-the-wall lyrics seem to be better integrated and more to the point (or some point, anyway). Willson- Piper’s unexpected but delightful ’60s Anglo-pop-rock concoction, “Spark,” is a bonus.
The double best-of Hindsight offers a fairly balanced selection from the various albums, but more than half of the album consists of non-LP tracks. Many of those are pretty good, though, although some lyrics still arouse the usual reservations (“ornamental or warm and gentle/on the way to paradise,” indeed). Following Starfish‘s enormous Stateside success, Arista issued the group’s Australian albums and made them available on CD. (Conception is a ten-song compilation.)
Co-produced by the group and Wachtel, Gold Afternoon Fix is the most sonically pleasing Church album yet, varied but cohesive. For once, melodrama is effective, as on the opening “Pharoah.” Also, Kilbey’s lyrics are coherent and focused for almost the entire album, notably on the back-to-back “You’re Still Beautiful” (a “walking picture of Dorian Gray” set to a strident beat) and “Disappointment” (a dreamy evocation of feeling out of phase with the rest of the world). The CD and cassette add two bonus tracks.
Russian Autumn Heart contains Willson-Piper’s sprightly contribution to Gold Afternoon Fix and three non-album tracks, the best being “The Feast,” a tom- tom-and-mandolin-enhanced pleasantry. A Quick Smoke at Spot’s is a 16-track Australian compilation of B-sides and unreleased songs recorded between ’86 and ’90.
With Jay Dee Daugherty (Patti Smith, Tom Verlaine) temporarily replacing Richard Ploog behind the drum kit, Priest=Aura has a sharper rhythmic edge than previous outings but the majority of the album is still deep and dreamy. The popadelic “Feel” and “Kings” are fine examples of the band’s catchy sing-along side; “Chaos” — living up to its name with a stomping drum/bass leadoff and mid-song cacophony — points to a more experimental, quasi-goth style à la Bauhaus. The chilly “The Disillusionist” flashes some memorable Kilbeyisms like “His skin looks he slept in it / Or had something rotten kept in it” and “In winter he cracks, in summer he warps.” The production by Gavin MacKillop (Straitjacket Fits, Toad the Wet Sprocket) overly favors melodramatic strings, but it’s a strong showing. Still, there’s a sense (a correct one, at that) that the first leg of the Church’s career had reached an end.
With Koppes (temporarily) moving on, Sometime Anywhere finds the Church pared down to just Kilbey and Willson-Piper (who co-produced, with Dare Mason) and various drummers (including soon-to-be permanent timekeeper Tim Powles, whom the liner notes miscredit as Tim Powell). The duo clings to that time-honored Church chime on a few tracks — especially the rousing single “Two Places at Once” — and spreads some space-folk charm with the pretty “My Little Problem” and “Lullaby,” but there’s freaky business between the expectancies. The distorted drum loops and treated vocals in “Lost My Touch,” the tense techno and squiggly violin in “Angelica” and the dancified raga in the instrumental “Eastern” typify how uncomfortably they wear the cloak of proto-shoegazer godhead. Alas, unbecoming extended grooves and the odd turn towards electronica make the album indulgent and transitional at best. (Somewhere Else, a bonus EP amended to initial pressings of Sometime Anywhere, kicks the full- length’s ass thanks to shorter songs with psychedelic ’60s vibes and a better integration of synthesizers.)
No longer signed to an American label, the Church released Magician Among the Spirits in Australia on the band’s own Deep Karma imprint. Free of record company influence and expectations, they embraced their principles and made…the worst album of their career. Koppes drops in as “special guest on guitar” and Powles settles into his role; Kilbey and Willson-Piper simply squander their musical freedom. Not just one but three fruitless instrumentals pad the already slow proceedings, as does the 14-minute title track that provides all atmosphere and no punch. Only “Comedown” and “Ladyboy” avoid the melodrama that drives the rest of the album into art-rock overkill. (Welcome contains four album tracks, one of which is the wonderful title track of Comedown. That EP also has four non-album frivolities.)
Almost Yesterday 1981 – 1990, an Australian best-of, joins the predictable singles (“The Unguarded Moment,” “Under the Milky Way”) to overlooked gems (“For a Moment We’re Strangers,” “Into My Hands”) and a few B-sides (one a fine cover of Simon and Garfunkle’s “I Am a Rock”).
Abstruse title aside, Hologram of Baal is a more straight-thinking collection of lush folk-rock. In “Louisiana” and “Buffalo,” Kilbey’s lyrics take on a storyteller’s stride that complements his poetic whimsy. Koppes, back on board full-time, helps the sound cohere with dreamy (“The Great Machine”) and driving (“No Certainty Attached”) guitar shimmer. The Church had gained a been-there-done-that aura, but when they do it right, as on most of this album, it’s a pleasurable noise. (The group thankfully confined its jam-happy racket to Hologram of Baal‘s bonus disc, Bastard Universe, nearly 80 minutes of free-form guitar interplay that plops itself between Pink Floyd’s “Astronomy Domine” and Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. This noise is not pleasurable.)
In the four years that elapsed before the Church released any new original material, product continued to flow. Magician Among the Spirits Plus Some is the belated American release of their ’96 downer (minus “Ritz” but adding four songs from Comedown). The American Under the Milky Way best-of is slightly better than the Australian-only The Best of the Church, if only because it includes “Electric Lash” and “Tantalized.” X3 boxes up Gold Afternoon Fix, Priest=Aura and Sometime Anywhere; Sing-Songs / Remote Luxury / Persia compiles those EPs on one disc.
The band also bided time with A Box of Birds, a triumphant album of covers that flaunts inspirations both obvious and obscure and has fun all the way. An “Electric Avenue” reference drops into a lip-smackin’ take on the Beatles’ “It’s All Too Much”; bar-band enthusiasm drives accurate renditions of Television’s “Friction” and Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes.” Maybe covering Neil Young wasn’t a good idea, but the rest works as well as any Church album could hope to.
The band returned in 2002 with the self-produced After Everything Now This, a competent album long on dreamy, mid-tempo rock but short on anything truly striking. The persistent melancholia of “Radiance,” “Invisible” and “Awful Ache” — complete with flashes of the Velvet Underground’s soft side — are at least memorable, and Willson-Piper’s “Chronium” is a bright spot, but the rest swirls together like paisley in a food processor. (Parallel Universe, a two-disc set of “alternate outcomes” (i.e., remixes) from the After Everthing Now This sessions, shows just what a few dance beats and vocal treatments can do to pep things up.)
“You can’t spend the whole song in space,” Kilbey intones in “Song in Space,” one of many great tunes on Forget Yourself that, against its own advice, spends most of the time roving the ether. The arrangements are trippier, the vocals are looser and Powles’ martial drumming — especially in “Telepath” and “Lay Low” — is dead on. Overall, a surprisingly fresh release from a band pushing a quarter-century of existence.
The Church’s outside projects, at least the earlier ones, are more genuinely solo than most, with only small contributions from wives, girlfriends, brothers, etc.
Kilbey’s Unearthed (originally an ’86 Australian issue) is a mixed bag of songs (some solid, if short on polish) interlarded with brief, generally forgettable instrumentals. Earthed goes one better than all the other Churchmen’s solo LPs: the band’s prime lyricist concentrates on purely instrumental ideas, many of which would fall beyond the Church’s purview, even with lyrics. While the worst of it sounds like intros in search of actual songs, the good stuff ranges from a sonic montage to a queer but fetching little waltz. (A 76-page booklet of poetry meant to complement the music accompanies some copies.)
The US version of The Slow Crack includes three tracks not included on the original Australian release, and it’s a good thing too: “Transaction,” the lead-off cut, is one of the most tightly focused rockers that Kilbey had done in or out of the band prior to Gold Afternoon Fix. “Fireman” is enjoyable folk-rock-cum-wall-of-sound (guitars, synth, strings, sax). The rest of Side One is at least pleasant, but Side Two ranges from dull to dreary, even when he turns to Shakespeare for inspiration (“Ariel Sings”) or the Bible for lyrics (“Song of Solomon”).
The double-album Remindlessness (the single CD deducts two cuts) is Kilbey’s best solo work to date. There’s too much of it, and some tracks go on too long, but even his relative failures are more interesting than before. Lyrically, his “stories” are more to the point, but even better are his portrayals of people and situations, often enlivened by incisive lists of items (“Life’s Little Luxuries,” “The Amphibian”). What also makes it work are widely varied instrumental textures, which efficiently create atmospheres and moods (echoing the advances made by the group). In fact, sometimes the sound is so seductive that it doesn’t matter what he’s saying! And sometimes he doesn’t say anything at all: several tracks are instrumentals, like the title track (a wordless progression on the big sound of “Fireman”). Well done.
Transaction contains the US Slow Crack‘s “Transaction,” a track from Remindlessness and two unexceptional but otherwise unreleased items; No Such Thing also features “Transaction” plus three songs from the vinyl version of Remindlessness. The five-song Narcosis finds Kilbey delving into the electronic textures he would later explore with Willson-Piper on the Church’s Sometime Anywhere and with his brother Russell on Gilt Trip, an ambient family excursion. Released six years later, Narcosis + adds four outtakes.
Acoustic & Intimate is Kilbey as a stool-sitting Donovanesque folk troubadour. It delivers what the title suggests and then some, as he chuckles (yes, chuckles) while revisiting the first song he ever wrote. Old Church tunes (“Hotel Womb,” “Almost With You”) benefit from the ultra-spare arrangements, as do various selections from his collaborations and solo work. The cozy setting is a perfect match for his wistful vocals, and all 16 tracks benefit from the absence of the histrionic hoopla that accompanies most Church workouts.
Dabble, Kilbey’s first solo studio effort in over a decade, is another evocative, slow-burning foray into late-night soundscapes that mixes homey instruments (mandolin, banjo, jew’s harp) and persistent overdubbing to peculiar effect. The remastered home recordings that fill Freaky Conclusions date from the embryonic stage of the Church and, if nothing else, shed some light on the band’s early creative process.
The first three Willson-Piper albums are mostly softish folk-pop — virtually no real rock — with sparse instrumentation, sometimes (on the first two) without bass or drums. In Reflection seems like (justifiably) unused demos, while the other two are more clearly finished. Despite a cottony airheadedness that runs through all of his albums, Art Attack, which is extremely self-indulgent but frequently intriguing, is easily the most varied and stimulating of the three. “You Whisper” is like Peter Frampton imitating Elvis Costello gone psychedelic (“Your marzipan skin in a crystal stare/Your chocolate box of fears”); “Word” is eight-and-a-half minutes of one-syllable words spoken over a melody vaguely reminiscent of Pachelbel’s “Canon.” Cleverly created mood, willful obscurity or just plain twaddle? “Evil Queen of England” offers nifty lyrical bile accompanied only by an acoustic bass. (The US cassette and CD include six tracks from In Reflection.)
Rhyme dispenses with experimentation to return to folk-pop as a steady ration. It’s much more polished than In Reflection and, after a while, a bit tedious, especially since Willson-Piper’s lyrics are sometimes as obscure as Kilbey’s, and sometimes just inane. But four tracks do mix it up a bit musically, including bouncy, exceptionally infectious pop-rockers for fans of Starfish‘s “Spark.” Ignore the verses of “Melancholy Girl” and “Cascade,” just revel in the sound.
Willson–Piper’s fourth studio album, Spirit Level, effectively combines all his past styles, from the acoustic artiness of “Can’t Ever Risk an Openness With You” and “The Saddest House in Stockholm” to the twinkling folk-pop of “I Can’t Cry” and “Even Though You Are My Friend.” He lays down a little Neil Diamond-like lure in “Kiss You to Death” and allows for churning/squealing guitar licks and big rock drums in the single “Luscious Ghost” and the instrumental “Adelle Yvonne.” With catchy melodies and surprisingly little filler, the album is one of the guitarist’s best.
Recorded eight years later, Hanging out in Heaven strikes a similar melancholic chord, with shimmering, wide- eyed material (“Sanctuary,” “Watching Us,” “What Is Her Name”) and airy ditties (“I Don’t Think So,” “After Eight”). The disc gets off to a strong start with the wonderfully poppy “Forget the Radio” and ends with the nice piano ballad “All That Remains,” but too many plodding tempos and noisy arrangements in between — especially the unbearable Neil Youngish guitar crank in “Swan” and “All Those Wires” — weigh it down.
Both Live at the Fine Line Café — a solo acoustic set from 1990 — and Live at the Knitting Factory 1988 — on which he’s accompanied by frequent collaborator Dare Mason — capture the guitarist’s mellow mood beautifully.
Guitarist Peter Koppes’ solo work has a strike against it straightaway: he can barely carry a tune (although he’s trying). On Manchild & Myth, he’s surrounded by other voices and buried in the mix (his monotone mumble can’t cut through anyway), but that does nothing for the vocal melodies and lyrics. Worse, the LP’s arrangements and production lack dynamism. The only good tracks on the album are two stylistically routine ones that are simply a cut above the rest and one atypically moody Eurosynth instrumental. (The US CD and cassette include his so-so 1987 three-track When Reason Forbids EP.)
From the Well, Koppes’ next album, actually follows that Eurosynth direction more thoroughly, and profitably so. In fact, the whole LP is a step forward. No more burying his voice — although he’s not averse to singing duets with his sweeter-voiced lady, Melodie (!) — and he no longer makes Leonard Cohen sound like Pavarotti (only just). The synth (drums and keyboard textures) plus bass and guitars often assume a dark tone, but the tunes aren’t bad, and overall it’s quite listenable, if a bit on the dark, moody side.
Koppes added to his solo catalogue eight years later with the self-produced Love Era / Irony. His voice hasn’t improved — songs that most resemble the Church dreadfully miss Kilbey’s precision — but the mix of rock and dance grooves works fairly well. Some of the songs essay ’80s-style gloom ‘n’ doom a bit too enthusiastically, but others (“Two in a Million,” “Make a Move”) are superior to what the Church was playing during the same time frame. Simple Intent also merges throbbing electro numbers (“Naked Soul”) with more rock-based sing-alongs (“Blame”). The album works best when Koppes has fun with the boppy rhythms and fancy guitar handiwork; it fails on more traditional compositions that fail to distract from his limp singing.
Evidently unable to sate his creative impulses with the Church and his solo career, Kilbey formed a side group with Donnette Thayer, late of Game Theory. On Hex, he uses modest portions of guitar, keyboards and percussion to sketch out light, ambient backing for her airy vocal excursions. Poised dangerously close to the brink of arty/poetic vagueness, the duo manages to stay on terra firma for most of the record, holding track lengths to sustainable limits and structuring material so that it flows rather than drifts.
Recorded with a drummer, Vast Halos takes an entirely different approach: full-bodied arrangements of clear-cut songs with layers of Thayer’s multi-tracked harmonies. More accessible but less distinctive than the first album, Vast Halos resembles a toned-down Church record with a different singer as well as a suave (post-paisley?) successor to California flower-pop.
One side group underway, Kilbey launched another, with Grant McLennan, late of the Go-Betweens. Joined by a drummer and string and horn players, the two share vocals, guitar and bass (Kilbey also plays keyboards and drums) on Jack Frost, a fine collection of collaborative originals that don’t so much add their individual styles as cross them in various ways, from acoustic duo folk (“Civil War Lament,” “Thought That I Was Over You”) to suave and moody electro-pop (“Threshold”) to noise-flecked rock (“Every Hour God Sends”) to eerie atmospherics (“Number Eleven”). The CD adds a song.
Jack Frost continued with Snow Job, another diverse album that excels at many genres. The interwoven vocals work wonders in the chugging rock (“Shakedown,” “Dry Rock”), stately chamber pop (“Weightless and Wild,” “Cousin/Angel,” “Angela Carter”) and honest folk (“Aviatrix”). While positively adult in nature, the music never succumbs to middle-age rigidity, nor does it try to achieve more than the capabilities of Kilbey and McLennan.
Besides being an accomplished recording engineer and fronting the production company Spacejunk, drummer Powles played in the Australian new wave sextet Ward 13, and then in the Venetians, a new romantic combo that toured with the Church in the mid-’80s. Under the solo moniker of Tyg, he has released one limited-edition disc on which he handles all the instruments (except for the occasional guitar) and production.
Miscellaneous output and pseudonyms abound: the Well is a group featuring members of Icehouse and the Celibate Rifles (and former Church drummer Richard Ploog) Koppes formed to tour behind From the Well; the Refo:mation is essentially the Church minus Willson-Piper, who has done time in the Swedish quartet Seeing Stars and Noctorum, another partnership with Dare Mason. Finally, two tribute albums — the six-song Electric Lash and the sprawling 27-song Heresy — offer an army of indie heirs putting their stamps on the Church doors.