Musings on music, old, new, popular and obscure. Post punk, metal, hip-hop, funk, and rock in general. A music fan with a desire to lose boundaries on what should and should not be listened to writes about experience in music from a listener's perspective, hopefully unhindered by prior expectation.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

And It's Something Quite Peculiar... -- The Church

"They're Australian?" -- My father, with some measure of incredulity, reflecting not a low opinion of the Australians, so much as the fact that their country of origin had not shown through to him.

"Yep," said I, knowing that the country I'd identified as my "favourite" in my youth (due to my affection for its peculiar wildlife, including my favourite animal, the platypus¹) was responsible for a number of artists I had, by then--a few months before today--identified as quite enjoyable. My love of INXS is no secret, but I'd recently discovered not-Aussie-but-Kiwi Split Enz via Gillian Armstrong's Starstruck (that is my own review of the film, though I make no mention of the band responsible for writing the songs, and it's not exactly my finest movie review--to be clear and avoid angering residents of either island, they are from New Zealand, but were on major Aussie label Mushroom), an accidental discovery years ago of X, not to be confused with the far more famous Los Angeles band, some years ago, AC/DC (though a bit garbled, as the Youngs were born and mostly raised in Glasgow, Scotland), the Bee Gees (similarly to AC/DC, they emigrated to Australia, albeit from England), and milder interests in Men at Work. Recently, I've decided I might give Midnight Oil a shot as well, and have been pleased so far.

But those bands aren't, any of them, the band I'd just informed my father had come from the furthest hemisphere from our home in the United States. No, that band is one that is generally known for a single song or not known at all: The Church.

Now, if your immediate reaction is "Who?" then I can give you the only answer likely to make sense to you--if this doesn't do it, you're not going to get it (or possibly from, say, Australia, and know their first hit, "The Unguarded Moment" better).

You're all forgiven, even if you don't know that song, because, well, the point here is to praise bands I think deserve it and open eyes, ears, and minds to them as best I know how.

The funny thing is, while 1988's Starfish was indeed their breakout, fame-building album and seemed to render them to one-hit-wonder-status, it was not their first album, not their last album, not their best album, nor, so long as one is willing to acknowledge the rest of the world, their only hit.

Like many, I knew them only for the one song for many years, though my college freedom with a legal MP3 source led me to random attempts to find bands I did know before settling for bands I'd never heard of. Oddly, I found albums by a band called "The Church" on that site, but they were brand new at the time (ten years ago), so I was a bit confused, but learned quickly that, yes, The Church are still around, still recording, still touring. I snagged digital copies of 2002's After Everything Now This, Parallel Universe and some other odd albums (I can no longer recall which) and never listened to them much, as I was inundated in a much more difficult to track way at that time than I am even now, where I can at least keep track of separate threads, even if I can't follow them consistently. If I am just barely keeping all my plates spinning now, I was on a stage littered with shattered porcelain in those days.

One fine, June day last year, on a trip to, of all places, FYE, I was attempting to find proper usage for some store credit (long story), and as usual, attempted to put it into expanded or deluxe issues, or cheap albums I have mild interest in and want to hear more of. Unless I got really lucky and found out of print CDs (which has only happened a few times, though one was Leon Russell's Stop All That Jazz, which I touched on in passing before). Anyway, after shruggingly picking up the "30th Anniversary Edition" of Judas Priest's British Steel (for reasons mostly stupid: I already had the 2001 reissue, which was the first disc of the anniversary edition, backed with a modern video recording of the album played live, but also with some retrospective interviews), I saw Heyday.

Most interestingly, this was an expanded version of Heyday, packaged with the b-sides to "Already Yesterday," "Tantalized," and "Columbus." Hey, and liner notes by guitarist Marty Willson-Piper. The cover was a curiosity, with 80's hair on the lot of them, but a background of some sort of rug, and paisley shirts to match:
It seemed a given that this was an earlier album, as they all look so young (on a side note: sadly, despite the fact that Starfish has four isolated portraits of them, they are not all in the same places--Steve Kilbey and Peter Koppes are, but Richard Ploog and Marty are transposed vertically). Indeed, it is: it was released on January 27th, 1986, fully two years (and about half a month) before Starfish. It's a bit of a departure--in reverse, of course, for chronological reasons--from the sounds of Starfish, wearing its inspirations and loves more clearly on its sleeve. The shirts suddenly make plenty of sense, as the wash of music comes out of this album. It doesn't sound like it was lost in the 1960's (though, I think Edwyn Collins' "A Girl Like You" sounds like it was, so take that with whatever measure of salt you deem appropriate), but Marty has a distinct affection for 12-string guitars that gives everything a spray of ringing strings that's often called "jangling" in a completely reasonable way, but that is a little more full than, say, early R.E.M. Not a Spector-Wall-of-Sound or anything, but the additional guitars of Koppes fill out an already evenly spread sound enough that there isn't much breathing space between guitars, nevermind Ploog's energetic drumming and Kilbey's speeding basslines.

The songs come like washes of sound, like waves, really, with lovely and distinct melodies, underneath Steve's distinctive and articulate voice, that shows his affection for words, even as his lyrics are often incomprehensibly vague to many listeners. Here, just take a listen to the album's second track, "Tristesse":

The reason, I suppose, for posting this now is that I was in Schoolkids Records in Raleigh, at its first and now last location, 28 years after it first opened (though it has moved around Raleigh) in 1974. I'd picked up 1981's Of Skins and Heart and 1982's The Blurred Crusade from CD Alley over time, also reissued with B-sides, and even 1983's Seance from Manifest Discs and Tapes on a recent trip there. Starfish, oddly, was the elusive title. I was just looking around Schoolkids, not expecting to find anything, when I turned toward the front of the store, where two desks frame the entrance/exit. On the left, were a slew of copies of Church albums, Steve Kilbey solo albums (including the monster 8-disc set, Monsters n Mirages), Marty Willson-Piper solo albums, and some other stuff that I figured had to be related (it was). I looked up and could only ask, "Um, all this Church stuff--is there something I should know?"

The gentleman behind the left desk pointed to the gentleman on the phone behind the right, saying, "You should probably ask him, he owns the label releasing them."

Absolutely gob-smacked. I began to look around furtively, finding, indeed, Starfish, Back with Two Beasts, Priest=Aura, El Momento Siguiente, EPs I'd never heard of (mostly related to 2009's acclaimed Untitled #23, I would later find), and more solo albums than I could shake a stick at--and I already had Monsters n Mirages. I perused some of the newly shifted CD selection, too, finding a sought-after Echo and the Bunnymen release (the expanded Ocean Rain) and trying to keep my jaw from finding itself positioned lower than it naturally sits.

Eventually, I nervously--I'm poor about addressing people I see as relatively 'powerful' in areas I find important, leading to my still-embarrassing run-in with John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats at a Carcass show four years ago--asked the man I'd been told ran the label releasing the albums, "So, I guess you might be the person to ask: What happened with Gold Afternoon Fix [The Church's 1990 album that followed Starfish becuase, well, by now I was after all their albums and knew them in rough chronological order]?"

And so it began. The man who I'd first seen on the phone is the new owner of Schoolkids, Stephen Judge. He was once general manager/A&R director for indie distribution heavy-hitter Redeye, told me he'd worked at Schoolkids for ten years long ago, and was now founder and owner of Second Motion Records, who have been issuing these Church albums for American digestion, as well as Kilbey's solo albums, some of Marty's, as well as the latest Tommy Keene (a power-pop-styled singer/songwriter/guitarist who toured with Paul Westerberg as part of his band in the 90s and has recorded some great albums).

Judge was a super nice guy, and spoke with me at length about his time with the band, their plans for the future, what they'd done currently, and about why this and why not that. It was incredibly exciting--perhaps suggesting that one step removed is the best way for me to interact with famous people, or something else. He told me all about Marty and Steve as people, their disparate approaches to music, touring, and playing (which Marty touches on in the liner notes for Starfish, as he notes that he and Peter care most about guitar in an album, while Steve will reject one outright over bad lyrics), that Marty was the one who said that the label had done goofy things with reissues to this point, tossing unrelated B-sides onto albums and so on, insisting that Judge instead issue albums with relevant songs and save EPs for release as EPs to preserve their integrity. I think I may have fallen into a kind of love with Marty for this, as this was the most heavenly, wonderful, lovely thing I'd ever heard. I'd been nervously tracking prices on rarities collection A Quick Smoke at Spot's and early EP collection Sing Songs/Remote Luxury/Persia. A discussion had been made, apparently, of a box set of EPs, the idea of which very nearly made my obsessive self faint.

Mr. Judge also let me see the video he'd uploaded of the Church playing after their induction into the Australian Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where they were backed with a 70 piece orchestra--often a sign that some nonsensical, bloated, awfulness would follow, but used to great effect by these men who've been writing, recording, touring, and re-tooling (El Momento Siguiente and El Momento Descuidado were both re-recorded versions of their songs, re-framed in new tempos, arrangements and generally interesting forms) all this time, rather than re-appearing after a hiatus.

Here's that very video, of the song "Tantalized" from Heyday (so you know I was happy--that rapidly and easily became my favourite of their albums):

There are plans in the pipes for more reissues, for more ideas, for a DVD of that show, hopes for Marty to be able to perform a solo tour in the US (including a show in-store at Schoolkids, for which I'd definitely be present) and it was generally one of the best conversations I'd had in any such arena for a long time, if not the best in general, as our enthusiasm was thoroughly shared, and not one of us rambling about a band the other liked okay, but not that much.

Getting a greater insight into the personalities of Marty and Steve was probably the most intriguing bit of all--that Marty is the more extroverted, and his own writing about being more oriented toward music than words (which fits with the regular postings of poetry from Steve on his blog) gave a new insight into why the band is so interesting, as they've maintained the dichotomy between the two approaches, two personalities and two styles quite well, giving their music consistent chemistry over the three decades they've been releasing music.

On one final, extra-high note for me, Marty's liner notes for Starfish mention that they ended up with Greg Ladanyi and Waddy Wachtel producing because they all--the entire band--liked the single "Boys of Summer" by Don Henley. While I admit to a mischievous pleasure in hearing someone with taste and skill praise a song typically dismissed (but that I have great love for), it's mostly a great thing to hear because it emphasizes, in a positive way, that those opinions are not universal, and not contradicted only by those with un-discerning ears or lack of skill at music--it's only more gleefully wonderful when it comes from someone of great skill and taste, likely more than a lot who go along with the idea that the music in question is valueless.

There's a lesson there, I think--and it's not getting to point and laugh at silly, condescending critics (even if I can't resist the dig here and there), so much as the idea that there are different ways to look at things, and the reasons for dismissing, far more than accepting, need to be personal, rather than externally determined. And that's the very lesson I wish to impart. Even if I'm probably not going to be writing up Building the Perfect Beast--though one never knows...

Back to Post ¹I find it difficult to beat one of the only two monotremes--egg-laying mammals--on the planet, when said animal leads to accusations of insane deities, has a mind-blowing sensory system in its bill, and is even venomous alongside all of that. Really. Unbeatable animal, that.


  1. Awesome....I can tell you from years of experience, that it only gets BETTER, when you see them up close and live in an intimate space. Disappear and seep inside the waves and layers of lush, epic tones....

    1. That is absolutely good to know--I've seen comments around youtube about the live experience and how frustrating it is that they've not released a DVD to help the inexperienced understand--Mr. Judge informed me this has only been a matter of someone in the band not liking a performance each time it was attempted! And affirmed the rumours about that DVD, though I got a "horse's mouth" indication that it may be about a year off yet...

  2. I've been in that frenzied "must-have-everything-I-can-put-my-hands-on" state with the Church. With my introduction to them arriving through both "Starfish" and "Priest=Aura", I fell HARD for their music. Sadly, this was just before the band kind of broke apart. Not completely, but partially. Marty and Steve continued on with a couple of good, solid albums then...disappeared. When they reappeared with "Hologram of Baal" I was over the moon. I was literally in a state of bliss listening to that album the first time. After that, realizing how precarious their situation might be, I vowed to see them live every chance I got. I've probably seen them half-dozen times now and I cherish every performance. Each has been utterly magical and I strongly encourage people to see them live if they have ANY interest in the band.

    1. Having lost a favourite band shortly after discovering them, I can certainly understand that response, and it's a good kick in the rear to think of when they start heading out and about again.

      I'm currently (im)patiently waiting for more of the catalogue to see its US reissuance here (since Stephen told me that was the plan for certain) before delving too deep into most of the rest of it, but using the break as time to delve into side projects and the albums I DO have immediate access to! (and in the early days of my interest, before I had even a rough idea, I was snapping up the old issues happily anyway when I saw them!)


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