When not functioning as one of the more consistently interesting groups of the last 20 years, the members of the Australian group The Church work on solo projects. The bassist/lead singer Steve Kilbey and both lead guitarists, Willson-Piper and Peter Koppes have each issued multiple solo albums. If Koppes’ guitar work for The Church is more satisfying than that of Willson-Piper, it is Willson-Piper who tends to deliver more satisfying solo work. Released some eight years after the wonderful Spirit Level, Willson-Piper’s fifth and latest Hanging out in Heaven is similar to his previous solo work.
Most obvious is the usual Willson-Piper guitar sound. Although the great Roger McGuinn has, whether intentionally or not, all but claimed the Rickenbacker guitar sound ***, a few brave souls like Willson-Piper willfully use the very recognizable guitar. Though some critics refer to all guitar lines featuring the instrument as “chiming”, “jangly” or “Byrds-like,” Willson-Piper uses the sound for a particular purpose. For The Church, and on the track “Wreck (A Sea Shanty)” here, the guitarist’s echo is often mysterious, even (vaguely) menacing. More often in his solo work the echo functions as a melancholy memory, a reflection on what is passed. The sound compliments the typically reflective bent of his lyrics (which sometimes praise Stockholm or Venice in a manner more befitting an exile).
Like the romantic he so clearly is, many of his songs necessarily address “love.” Yet His subdued singing and playing (coupled with his guitar sound) mean that love lost and love in full bloom each have a tinge of melancholy. So the seemingly content “Watching Us” and “Wondering” and the heartbroken “I Don’t Think So” come across with a similar tone. There are some more upbeat numbers like the album opening “Forget the Radio” but for the most part this is expertly crafted, slightly sad music for quiet moments.
Recorded partially in California in 1995, and in Sweden in 1999, the album has every reason to sound scattered. The album shows no signs of its disruptive recording schedule due to Willson-Piper’s consitent intentions. Though Hanging Out in Heaven is not as radio-friendly as Rhyme and is more subdued emotionally than Spirit Level, it is a cohesive set of songs which nicely compliments his previous work.
*** Editor’s note: I beg to differ as a Rickenbacker player myself. The Rickenbacker is also just as frequently associated with Pete Townshend (as in the early Who smashed-up variety), John Lennon (who could forget that little 3/4 size black and white Rickenbacker that was so integral in the early Beatles sound), and, of course, Paul Weller (just think how radically different the Jam’s music would have been if Weller and Bruce Foxton were playing Fenders instead of Rickenbackers…yikes!).