Can we all agree now the Church are back to form and have been for a few years? In the “best-album-since-X” stakes, every new entrant in the lengthy Church catalogue has its comparator: for After Everything Now This, Heyday; for Forget Yourself, Starfish. There are enough albums in this 15-album (not counting compilations, re-releases and live albums) roster to choose 1.6 x 1018 pairs, so rather than play that game again, let’s just say this: the Church is a band of talented, low-profile musicians still writing music worthy of serious consideration.
For any band in its 26th year you can expect certainties: the ‘sound’ will be firmly established; modes of songwriting, once in flux, now set; lyrics dealing with familiar motifs. Hopefully, by now, all comparisons to other bands or influences fall into insignificance. And it’s true—in 2006 more than ever, the Church sound like the Church, period. The course of the band’s history reads like a series of departures pulled-back, as the group periodically returns to its core sound from 1982’s The Blurred Crusade—1988 (Starfish), 1998 (Hologram of Baal), and so on. Psychedelia and opium, Kraut and art rock, organic instrumentation have come and gone as guiding ideals. 2003’s Forget Yourself played as an encyclopedia of the Church’s history rolled into one disc, and it turns out it was an indication of the way things were going, as the band’s new album, Uninvited, Like the Clouds, is a continuation of this aesthetic, though turned slightly more mellow.
So the jangly guitar pop of immediately familiar tunes like “Block” or “Unified Field” are joined (and in fact overshadowed) by electronic-enhanced atmosphere. Consider standout “Real Toggle Action”, with its echoed guitar slides, held out or brought forward and abruptly stopped short. Or “Song to Go…”, which closes the disc, with its quietly disconcerting broken organ progression.
However, songs like “Space Needle” remind you that this music has become dated and doesn’t hold the same significance for us that, perhaps, it once did. When Kilbey sings that he’s “getting kind of famished with all the talk of famine”, the vocal affectation is contrived, like Bowie channeled through Morrissey (but not in a great way). In Australia, bands like the Panics or the Panda Band are keenly carrying on and continually updating this tradition, so that our younger generation has a new brand of atmospheric guitar pop. The question is, do we still need the Church’s tune?
Kilbey’s characteristic rhymes can take some getting used to, when getting re-acquainted with a new Church album. To tell the truth, it still rubs wrong when he sings: “Fingernails are all hot vermillion / When the traffic grinds down to a stand-stillion” on “Block”, or “Suck up all the magma, put it in a bagma” on “Space Needle”. But at their best, Kilbey’s lyrics trill and stick fast. On “Pure Chance”, when he sings “I read your novel / The names were switched” he slurs “switched” as if slightly drunk, as if deeply disappointed, and it’s one of those perfectly formed moments in music.
The truth is, the band’s signature shimmering, atmospheric guitar music has retained enough of its initial character, even through all the twists and turns, that without hearing anything of the new album you probably know if you want to seek out Uninvited, Like the Clouds or not. Suffice to say that the Church have given their loyal fans precisely what they want, which is no revolution, just continuation.
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