I really couldn't tell you if the new album by the Church or the relatively recent album by one of its principles Steve Kilbey is their best in years, because to be honest, I haven't been listening. Two decades ago, the Church was in my pantheon. One of my most cherished band moments of that storied era was a Church show in the late 80's where I yelled "Electric Lash" at just the right moment and Marty Wilson-Piper apparently heard me, and shuffled out to the tour van to get a twelve-string to play it. There stands the peak of my Church worship.
Untitled #23, is unto itself, without whatever went on from Starfish until now, a tremendous record, shimmering heat radiating off the road from there to here. The great songs by the Church leave vapor trails when their elegant bulk passes. Steve Kilbey still croaks out his lines like he just pulled himself out of a deep sleep to impart them while the band holds the dense dreamscape intact into which he can fall back. "Cobalt Blue" is the first of many similar tracks on this record that demonstrate glacial guitar lines slowly crashing into each other, erupting in clouds of powder and ice. The Church always had a bit of Goth in them, still present in the exquisitely chimey "Deadman's Hand" and the languid resignation rolling off of "Anchorage" but mostly, Untitled #23 is all about beauty, beauty, beauty.
"Space Saviour" is a key example; a delicate building emotional swell on the simplest of riffs, gaining mass like Godzilla rising slowly from the waters and approaching land. If people really had any taste, it would have been the Church instead of U2 back in the day. The finest hour on Untitled #23, though is its most divergent. "On Angel Street" has Kilbey half-singing, half-reciting a narrative over a pulse that unfolds like a flower in stop motion footage. "You should change the message on your machine," he croons at the point where the band reaches hits most synergistic point. I'd recommend they rewind this and listen a few times should they take that advice themselves.
Steve Kilbey's solo album Painkiller from late 2008 covers some of the same ground with a more fervent pace. The beats and narrative are more frenetic, streetwise that the full band's music of the spheres. "Outbound" struts about in a swarm of Theremin tones and crunchy synth beats with Kilbey coming off as uncharacteristically agitated. "Wolfe" darts in the more upbeat direction, with the same rumbling, epic simplicity of Spiritualized fronted by Lou Reed. It's not what I expected, but the black leather and dark sunglasses are a good look for him, I think.
Unfortunately, that momentum dies off rather quickly, and this starts to become what I remembered his solo records being way back then, slightly more-adventurous, less-interesting versions of the full band records. "File Under Travel" rages with a 12-minute ominous flood of sound and dissonance, approaching Krautrock territory that would never do in the Church but lacks their serpentine sleekness. It's an unfair comparison, since one assumes this material was not designed for the Church to play, but the distinction in the material is too narrow to really separate the two streams in my mind. Painkiller is by no stretch a bad record, but it is not going to shine sitting in Untitled #23's shadow. This schism is happily bridged by the handclaps and simple melodies form "Forever Lasts for Nothing" that Kilbey opens by half-sneering
Standing at the junction of two great highways
in post-industrial breeze,
I must admit that things have gone a little awry
Aww, you can do what you please
And well, that's where this guy is, isn't he? Here's hoping that he splits his time and continues to find interesting things to do on both roads for the foreseeable future.
Listen to Untitled #23 on lala.com
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com