The second acoustic set from the veteran Aussie psych-rockers is almost as good as the first.
To most people, the Church are known for their 1988 hit "Under the Milky Way", and for that song in Donnie Darko. Actually, that was "Under the Milky Way", too. Though they never approached the mainstream again, the Church have hung around and spent the ensuing 20 years turning out interesting, challenging albums that have been well-received by their solid worldwide cult fan base. In fact, there's a strong argument to be made that the last decade has been the strongest ever for the Australian psych-rockers.
A primary exhibit in that argument would be 2005's El Memento Descuidado. Recorded as part of the prestigious Australian Liberation Blue Acoustic Series, the album found the group finally coming to terms with '80s hits like "Milky Way" and the "Unguarded Moment" by stripping them down and, in some cases, rearranging them. Taking away the dueling electric guitars, effects pedals, and keyboards revealed the strong songcraft the band had never received proper credit for. In a pleasantly surprising turn of events, El Memento Descuidado found the band being lauded in their native country as a national treasure and playing a series of highly successful shows.
Following that high; and with such a deep, rich back catalog; a sequel seemed almost preordained, hence El Momento Siguiente (literally, "A Moment Following"), once again released in conjunction with Liberation Blue. The big question is: Does it meet the lofty standard set by Descuidado or come off as a cash-in that tarnishes its predecessor? Well, Siguiente falls just short of the standard, if only because the benchmark is so high. But it's hardly a cheap knockoff, either.
The tracklisting on Descuidado was so strong that of Siguiente can't help but seem just a bit second-tier. But re-workings of '80s fan favorites like "It's No Reason", "Tantalized", "NSEW", and "Grind" are better than most bands' first-tier songs. Most of the new arrangements provide creative, intriguing new takes on the material: "Tantalized" becomes a Harrisonesque trance, complete with droning tambura, while "Reptile" is recast as a slinky lounge number, its piercing guitar riff replaced by piano. Most improved is "Electric Lash"; freed from the horrible synth-drum sound of the 1983 original, it becomes the jangly folk-rock masterpiece it was meant to be.
These evergreens are augmented by some gems from the band's relatively recent history. Guitarist Peter Koppes takes the lead for "Appalatia"; which, with soft piano and mandolin flourishes, is more palatial and Pink Floyd-sounding than ever. The delicate "Pure Chance" from the recent Uninvited, Like the Clouds album shows that Church are far from washed up. As on Descuidado, there are a few new songs, too -- more proof that the Church are not just resting on their artistic laurels. None are as sublime as Descuidado's "0408", though "Bordello" is one of singer Steve Kilbey's trademark stream-of-consciousness rants that sounds written on the spot and is better for it, while "Comeuppance" is a majestic instrumental. The real treat on Siguiente, though, is a slowed-down cover of the late Aussie cult rockers the Triffids' "Wide Open Road". With melancholy strummed guitars and lyrics invoking the vast Antipodean countryside, the song is tailor-made for the Church, especially Kilbey's increasingly grand, lived-in voice.
As with most albums of its ilk, the term "acoustic" is a bit of a misnomer. Koppes and fellow guitarist Marty Willson-Piper do stick to acoustics, but Kilbey's bass is electric and drummer Tim Powles plays with a full kit on most tracks. In another nod to the '80s Australian underground, ex-Go-Between Amanda Brown guests on several tracks. There are a couple quibbles: "NSEW" is flat and meandering, and guest Inge Liljeström's operatic vocals are more of a nuisance than an enhancement.
Still, El Memento Siguiente is another welcome opportunity to experience some excellent musicians playing generally excellent songs in a new light. Stripped of the sometimes gauzy production of their regular albums, the Church sound as vital as you might have forgotten they've always been.