[25 February 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
When Steve Kilbey and Martin Kennedy’s first album, Unseen Music Unheard Words appeared in 2010, it was hardly a surprise. The surprise was that it took the two Australians so long to get together. The two Australians’ approaches to music and art seem to have been made for one another. Both are serious artistes in the old school, classical sense. They work in multiple mediums, including poetry, painting, animation, and, of course, music. On a more tangible level, Kennedy’s lush, film-like, downtempo soundscapes were an ideal backdrop for Kilbey’s ageless, arch, silky croon and stream-of-consciousness lyrics. A match made if not in Heaven, then certainly in Nirvana.
Maybe the reason it took them so long to meet was both Kilbey and Kennedy keep pretty busy with their day jobs. Kilbey is best known as the frontman for the long-running, highly-esteemed psych/rock band the Church, while Kennedy heads the down-tempo outfit All India Radio, who have done film and television scoring in addition to releasing their own albums. These men have a combined 40-plus years in the business, and neither is close to being a has-been. If Kilbey and Kennedy appear on the art for White Magic as tuxedo-clad, pool-sharking elder statesmen, they’ve earned the right.
While Unseen Music Unheard Words was a collaboration-by-email type setup, White Magic was made in a more traditional, “proper” manner. The first album featured just Kilbey and Kennedy, with only a couple backing vocalists and Kilbey’s brother helping out. White Magic, on the other hand, is essentially an All India Radio album with Kilbey providing lyrics and vocals. All four members of that band play on the album, and the live rhythm section and guitars do provide a more crisp, organic feel.
But ultimately, that’s a bit of a disappointment. White Magic sounds good, but most of it lacks the insular, ephemeral quality that made its predecessor more than just another coffeehouse soundtrack. The title itself, referencing the “good” or healing counterpoint to black magic, suggests a more easygoing, upbeat affair. It does offer some reflective bits, though, and those tracks are among its best.
“Inner Country” is the standout. With its strummed acoustic and blues progression, it’s something of a country & western ballad, set in Kilbey’s one-of-a-kind psyche. And, while “Life is like a river, baby” isn’t exactly a heart-wrenching lyric, Kilbey’s delicate delivery on the verses makes up for it. Plus, how often can you put the words “Theremin solo” and “touching” in the same sentence? “Messiah Around” provides another heartfelt moment, double-tracking Kilbey’s voice for a floaty, Pink Floyd-like effect as synth strings swirl round.
White Magic also features some tracks you could pretty much call pop, and they’re pretty good, too. “Intense” moves along nicely at a mid-tempo clip, and with its slightly sinister touch, would almost fit on one of Kilbey’s early solo albums. “Hope” does a good job providing a sonic representation of its title. It actually has a nice little guitar riff and unassuming feel that are reminiscent of fellow Aussies the Go-Betweens. It’s all very easy to listen to…but does that make it “easy listening”? At times, White Magic comes closer than you might like.
Kilbey has the kind of voice that would make a musical rendition of your tax bill seem like a mysterious pleasure. There are places here, though, where he sounds too detached and other places where he misjudges tone and mood. For example, he does one of his pseudo-rap, wordplay things on “Unfocused”, while the calm, glacial music begs for something more reflective. On the chorus, his anger sounds blustery and spiteful, as if by raising his voice, he’s compensating for feeling that’s simply not there.
Maybe this is reading too much into an album that was clearly done for pleasure, as some of Kennedy’s playful promotional artwork has shown. White Magic definitely has the power to heal a jumbled, overcrowded mind. But it’s far from mind-blowing.