After 20 Years, the Return of Phil Wilson
Phil Wilson’s career in crafting jangly guitar pop was, until recently, a brief but storied one. He was the main songwriter and singer of the mid-‘80s English band the June Brides, which has been described as a bridge between the moody and introspective guitar clatter of the likes of Josef K and the pre-Britpop Creation Records scene of the late ‘80s. The June Brides only hung around for three years, and only produced one proper album (1985’s There Are Eight Million Stories), but they caused a minor ripple in the British music scene in that their record and all four of their singles topped the UK indie charts. It seemed for a time that the June Brides might be going places, having recorded BBC Sessions (including one for John Peel) and touring with the likes of the Smiths, the Go-Betweens, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and others. But then, in 1987, Wilson left the songwriting trade for a career in government tax policy, citing that he didn’t want to be a “desperate 30-year-old still trying to make it in music.”
However, in Wilson’s absence, his stature only grew with bands such as the Manic Street Preachers, Belle and Sebastian, Teenage Fanclub, and Franz Ferdinand coming to cite the June Brides as a vital influence. Heck, even American writer Dave Eggers is a fan. Eventually deciding that some 20 years was a long enough lay off, Wilson decided to make a go of it again in 2008 by releasing an EP of covers called Industrial Strength, which included reinterpretations of the likes of (believe it or not) Kraftwerk, Throbbing Gristle, Faust, and S/T. That compilation must have given Wilson a shot in the arm in much needed confidence, because he has now assembled a full band, which includes ex-June Brides Jon Hunter and Frank Sweeney, and recorded an entire album of original songs titled God Bless Jim Kennedy, which is so-named after his grandfather on his mother’s side, marking his first collection of new material in, well, eons.
There are some interesting twists and turns on God Bless Jim Kennedy. The opening cut, “Three Days”, starts off with a gorgeous plucked guitar against a backdrop of strings, followed by some tasty strumming before the full band kicks in with horns, then quickly turns to the chorus—all before any proper verses crop up. The title track, additionally, has a lilting quality about it, as though it was written by the British seaside. “Pop Song #32” is upbeat and giddy, and shows Wilson having a good time returning to his muse. “Give Me Consolation” broods darkly before opening up to reveal a gorgeous string-dripped chorus. “Small Town” feels autobiographical in its detail of a quant and quiet life, a sketch that makes you draw mental lines to John (Cougar) Mellencamp, of all people.
The problem with God Bless Jim Kennedy, though, is that while Wilson may have retained his songwriting chops after all of these years, his voice hasn’t weathered the intervening time off. It sounds weak and reedy, struggling to reach the higher registers, particularly on “Small Town”, and the production of this album only augments this weakness. Wilson’s voice is buried deep in the mix, as though he is trying to hide it—making him seem shy and withdrawn. When he sings the first single and final track “I Own It”, it’s hard to believe that he actually does “own it”. This is a real deficiency, and it deflates the power in Wilson’s brand of mostly up-tempo power pop.
What’s more, another glaring issue with this LP is that Wilson doesn’t really sound truly innovative anymore, despite some of the interesting writing choices mentioned above. “Found a Friend”, while a strong and captivating track and perhaps the best thing on this album, is like a carbon-copy of a latter-day Belle and Sebastian song, complete with bright and bouncy horns and swooping strings. There are places, particularly on the string-laden “Up to London”, where you could close your eyes and imagine Teenage Fanclub playing. For one who was considered something of an innovator in the British music scene who expanded upon his influences during the C-86 era, it now seems that Wilson is content to merely ape the followers of his own unique style, rather than push the boundaries and expand his musical palate. Maybe that’s something he’s saving for the next record—if indeed there is a next record and Wilson doesn’t retreat back into the world of indentured servitude for the British government.
Still, God Bless Jim Kennedy will be a godsend to long-time devotees who have been patiently waiting to hear something new out of Wilson for a period spanning roughly two decades. It’s not a perfect album, but it is pleasant enough, and there’s some engaging material to be found here. Essentially, Wilson seems as though he’s picking up from where he left off, and perhaps more daring and experimental work lies ahead of him. (After all, this is a guy who marked his initial return by covering krautrock and industrial bands.) All in all, it would be a shame if the by-now middle-aged Wilson abandoned his craft again in perhaps less rewarding pursuits. God Bless Jim Kennedy might not be the revelation that people might have been expecting, but it’s good to hear a musician following his calling and actually making music again after an all too lengthy hiatus. God bless Phil Wilson for that much, at least.
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