Music

Steve Kilbey & Martin Kennedy: White Magic

The second collaboration between the Church frontman and All India Radio instrumentalist is a bit more lax than the first.


Steve Kilbey & Martin Kennedy

White Magic

Label: Second Motion
US Release Date: 2011-02-01
UK Release Date: 2011-02-07
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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.

6

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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