Steve Kilbey: Painkiller / Marty Willson-Piper: Nightjar

[9 April 2009]

By John Bergstrom

PopMatters Associate Music Editor

For some bands, the alchemy that occurs when several disparate personalities walk into a studio is nearly absolute. This impression solidifies over time, as a sound is forged, honed, and then shaped into albums. To try and figure out who brings exactly what to the table seems beside the point, as the music seems to emerge wholly formed, with a personality of its own.

That’s been the case with the Australian band the Church for over 20 years now. Since 1988’s breakthrough Starfish album at least, they’ve worked their expansive, psychedelic, yet often highly melodic guitar-pop into something of an institution. With each successive album, the sound is tweaked and the songs are new, but the sonic footprint is familiar and natural.

Under these circumstances, the simultaneous emergence, originally in 2008, of solo albums by both lyricist/singer/bassist Steve Kilbey and guitarist Marty Willson-Piper offers a rare opportunity. All four Church principals are continually involved in a web of side-projects and one-offs. These true solo albums, though, the first by either artist in seven-plus years, give a fairly revealing picture of Kilbey’s and Willson-Piper’s contributions to the mother band. That’s because Painkiller and Nightjar could both be considered quintessential. Also, they find their creators, both now on the far side of 50, confident and sonically ambitious as ever.

Basically, Kilbey is the brooding, experimental, slightly mad sonic shaman, while Willson-Piper is the traditionalist, the virtuoso guitarist steeped in the singer/songwriter tradition. That’s oversimplification, of course. Also, and crucially, both Kilbey and Willson-Piper have long ago shifted away from traditional rock’n'roll archetypes. If anyone’s taking an artistic leap here, it’s Willson-Piper, putting down his most thoughtful, folk-leaning set of tunes to date. Still, the two sonic identities are laid out in the music.

Painkiller is classic Kilbey from the very first track. His enchanting, sing/speak voice hasn’t changed much in ages. Furthermore, “Outbound” rides on one of those mantra-like, trance basslines he’s been fond of for decades. Lyrically and vocally, it’s another in a series of stream-of-consciousness, free-associating rants. While hardly an artistic stretch, a song like this does allow you to be treated to couplets like, “Sonic anathema / Wake up you dreamer / I’m fallin’ outta’ Heaven gonna crash on your Beemer”. This all leads up to what has long been Kilbey’s trump card, an airy, melodic sigh of a chorus. You could even say it’s “catchy”.

The remainder of Painkiller finds Kilbey, working with Church drummer/producer Tim Powles, in similarly familiar territory, only sounding a bit closer to the Deep End than he has before. The disoriented feeling is enhanced by the continuous stream of subterranean echoes, ghostly guitar effects, and disembodied radio transmissions that snakes through the album. At best, as on the shimmering, sublime “Celestial” or the too-brief “Look Homeward Angel”, the sound is a progression of the Church’s 1992 masterpiece, Priest=Aura. But some intensely personal moments do creep through the thick atmosphere. “Crystalline Rush” is an aching lament of lost time and dashed expectations, Kilbey admitting, “I thought it would be so much warmer / When I laid down with you”. Nearly three decades into his career, he tries on a naked falsetto to convey the vulnerability, and he gets away with it.

What Kilbey doesn’t get away with is some of the relatively aimless navel-gazing that has marred his other solo work. A pair of instrumental jams couch some nice moments, but chiefly distract from the spell. And “Spirit in Flame” is an overcooked dub excursion that goes nowhere. These moments make you wish he had thrown in a couple more of his jangle-pop red herrings, like the intoxicating “Wolfe”, instead. While Painkiller hardly rewrites the book on Kilbey, it does add a few worthwhile chapters, and suggests the bard still has plenty of spells in his pen.

If Kilbey is the Church’s resident bard, Willson-Piper is its trusty Rock Star. If the live show calls for someone to move around and make an awkward face while cranking out a guitar solo, he’s your man. Likewise, his songwriting has exhibited a certain bravado that sometimes lapses into pretension and thick-headedness of Spinal Tap proportions. His songwriting contributions to the Church’s albums have been stronger over the eight years since his last solo album, however, and Nightjar follows through on that promise. Sweeping 12-string guitars abound, but the rock ‘n ‘roll posturing is gone, allowing Willson-Piper to focus more on folk, singer/songwriter, and even country-western sounds. The result is unexpectedly warm and endearing.

The hypnotic opener “No One There” is about as psychedelic as Nightjar gets, but Willson-Piper keeps the noodling to a minimum, making up for any pretension with a blanketing arrangement and sharp horn blasts. “More Is Less”, the album’s strongest track, is strikingly good. A cascading acoustic arpeggio worthy of Lindsey Buckingham and austere strings again overcome clunker lyrics like “When is the end of the start?” And for the remainder of Nightjar, Willson-Piper settles into this serene, reflective, largely acoustic mood. “Feed Your Mind” is a singsong picture of rural domesticity, recalling Van Morrison and contemporaries such as the Lilac Time. The delicate ballad “I Must Have Fallen” is stark and affecting where it could have just as easily been dumb, just as “The Love You Never Had” credibly employs lap steel.

Like Kilbey, Willson-Piper is, at this point in his career, far from immune to his more wayward tendencies. His rich, friendly voice has never sounded warmer, but he often tries to cram too many words into his songs. Ironically, several of the songs go on longer than is necessary, or advisable before some boredom sets in. Also, depending on your vantage point, the soul-style female backing vocals and bamboo flute (!) solo on “Song for Victor Jara” are either nice touches or laughably self-indulgent.

Take the best halves of these two albums, and you’ve got one heck of a platter. But that’s really beside the point, as these US issues closely trail the new Church album. As usual, the band is better than the sum of its parts, but these time-tested parts command respect. More importantly, they hold up to repeated listening.

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