The Church

Deep without a meaning

Strongest album: Starfish
Weakest album: Priest=Aura

You could make a reasonable argument that the '80s were better than the '90s because of the 20-year nostalgia cycle our culture rides on: the '80s revived the beloved tie-dye '60s, while the '90s revived the crass metal/disco '70s. The Church were one of the many minor '80s bands that shamelessly built their entire career upon their cherished Beatle/Byrds/Velvets good taste hipster record collection (which, by the by, was exactly what R.E.M. was, too, before they took up their status as the Voice of Their Generation). Of course, contrary to what those who claim that everything was done better in the '60s, minor '80s bands were way better than most any minor '60s bands you care to shake a tambourine at - the Church made more consistent albums for a lot longer than the Hollies, f'rinstance (we can argue about whether the Small Faces were minor - I haven't made up my mind, either). These psuedo-psychedelic popsters from down under composed lovely, intricrately crafted music that was as catchy as the wazoo and whose ocassionally dreamy textures belied the fact that it sprang from a continent known more for gritty garage snarlers a la AC/DC, Saints, Midnight Oil, etc. (Australia is one of the few places on the planet where most people actually like the Stooges). I said "psuedo" because for all their daily hallucinogen intake and devotion to Syd Barrett Alice-In-Oz nonsensical lyricism, the Church don't "jam" in a way that takes you to the journey to the center of your medulla like most psych bands; essentially, they're an extremely professional pop group, and their style falls closer to power-pop than anything else - crafty, highly melodic three-minute slices of bliss are their forte. Few bands are this immediately and gratifyingly pleasurable - they seem to have it all: melodies, hooks, an inviting and attractive sound that is somewhat slick but couched in the rough-enough genre of jangly guitar rock to not sound too Top 40 sell-out, two great (and highly underrated) co-lead guitarists, and a fine, mannered singer. However, there's one problem: after I've listened to a Church album, I often have trouble remembering what I just heard. The Church have a bit of a problem with depth: it's all surface - a very attractive surface, mind you - but they don't leave you much to grab hold of. However, as I said, they do sound great.

Shadow Cabinet is a huge site from a true Church fan. The interviews/reviews section can take hours to read - to my knowledge, he's gathered every single piece of print concerning the Church in existence!

Of Skins And Heart (1981) ***1/2

A little bit more straightforwardly garage-driving than they'd ever allow themselves to be again, and lacking the later polish that's their reason for being. This works to their advantage and disadvantage. Seeing as it's more rock-pop than pop-rock, it rocks more than usual, and is more immediately gratifying than quite a few other Church releases. However, the band's approach is still formative, which means that the Church's most sonically compelling feature - the twin lead guitar interplay between Marty Willson-Piper and Peter Koppes - hasn't been fleshed out yet, making the sound rather dry. Still, the hooks and melodies are (as usual) quite strong, especially on the Beatlesque single, "The Unguarded Moment." Bassist/chief songwriter Steve Kilbey croaks/croons his baritone a bit like a drier, less emotive Bowie. Originally this album was issued in America in slightly butchered form under the title The Church, but it has subsequently been rereleased in its original form with three bonus tracks.

The Blurred Crusade (1982)

Original drummer Nick Ward is replaced by Richard Ploog, who would remain with the band until 1990. Supposedly this is where the jangle comes in.

Seance (1983) ***

One of the Church's least focused and diffuse efforts, there are enough bright & clear pop moments to make this release moderately enjoyable, but too many of these tracks are atmospheric mood pieces in search of songs. Take the album's nadir, "Travel By Thought," a blatant attempt at their own "Tomorrow Never Knows," with its clattering drum rolls and backwards guitars attending to Kilbey's chant-speak; the track goes absolutely nowhere, and isn't even successfully trippy, sounding more like a cluttered mess than anything -- it's certainly the worst "song" in the band's canon. The guitars are still jangly, but they're increasingly diluted by synths and other keyboards (a problem that would become apparent on the band's next release), causing the Church to sound more early '80s anonymous than they should. Nevertheless, it's a Church release, which means that the band is always consummately professional enough to rarely be truly bad (merely bland and unmemorable at their worst), "Travel By Thought," excepted. As usual, the album's enjoyable when it's on, and when it's off, it's hard to remember specifics; the band's stab at a more psychedelic direction with this release is a mistake, given that traditional Church flaw. Ah well, at least the band does know how to stew up some atmosphere ("Now I Wonder Why") when it's in the mood, getting off to a good start with the fine "Fly"; "Dropping Names," near the end, is another stand-out track, though the album dips in quality near the middle.

Remote Luxury (1984)

An LP combination of two 1984 EPs. An improvement over Seance, but with some of same flaws; I'll be reviewing it soon.

Heyday (1985) ***1/2

The Church cranked out several LPs (see preceding) before this that I don't have, so I might have a bit of a hard time putting this in the context of the band's entire career. However, I'm not going to let that worry me considering that the Church are incredibly consistent both in terms of sound and quality. In the years since their debut they've found their own distinctive sound, and Willson-Piper & Koppes delightfully weave in and out of their snakily Byrdsy chord changes. This only shores up Kilbey's rich voice and highly melodic songwriting, but unfortunately he came up a slight bit short this time out, making this LP a tad spotty. Sure, about half of the album is excellent - particularly track #7, "Disenchanted," the only pop song I've ever loved that mentions Fred Astaire. However, smack in the middle is a meandering New Age-y instrumental "Happy Hunting Ground," which really disrupts the flow of the album. "Tantalized," kicks off with flashy early U2 guitars but never gets off the ground, and a few other tracks like "Youth Worshipper," don't do much for me, either. Still, the rest is pretty solid, and it's much pop-rock-ily catchier than any album with such a paisleyfied cover and titles like "Myrrh," and "Tristesse," has any right to be.

Starfish (1988) ****

Every band worth bothering with has that one album that's unquestionably their peak, that even non-fans can be expected to enjoy, and this album is the Church's. Recorded in L.A. with Waddy Wachtel producing, some hardcore fans might have cried sell out, but the fact is that the Church were never that raw to begin with. Wachtel slicks up their hooks in all the right ways, making this their breakthrough to America. The A-minor ballad, "Under the Milky Way," stood out on a 1988 Top 40 cluttered with dreadful overproduced electro-pop/psuedo-soul and lite metal power ballads like a beacon through a fog with the shimmering, crystalline sound of a real acoustic guitar and understated, smoky vocals. The fact that a band as commercial-sounding as the Church were an inexplicable anomaly on the charts in '88 just goes to show you how mindlessly conservative radio was back in the dreary '80s. Anyway, all the songs found herein are exceptionally strong, bolstered by the Church's best-ever melodies and hooks. In addition to the typically excellent Kilbey songs (especially the followup single, the snaky "Reptile"), you get a pleasant ditty from Koppes that survives his shaky attempt at singing lead, and - the real bonus - Willson-Piper's Anglo-pop "Spark," that you'd mistake for a mid-'60s Brit Invasion classic with your eyes closed.

Gold Afternoon Fix (1990) ***

Apparently the band members aren't too fond of this one, either; they wanted to record the followup to their commercial breakthrough their way, but the fat cats at Arista stuck them with Wachtel again to pump out a sound-a-like sequel. The Church repeat the same formula, and it all sounds good, but the songwriting and performances are considerably less inspired. Nevertheless, this is a reasonably enjoyable album, and it does contain at least two Church classics: the single "Metropolis," and Willson-Piper's yelping, Dave Davies-fronts-the-Byrds "Russian Autumn Heart." "Grind," on the other hand, is just that, and too many of these songs are throwaways. Nevertheless, commercially it payed off for the band's second American success.

A Quick Smoke At Spots' (1991)

A collection of B-sides and other rarities. Good luck spotting it - I doubt if it's still in print. __________________________________________________________________________________
Priest=Aura (1992)**1/2

Geez, did I have a tough time sitting through this. I concede the Church points for making such a dark, experimental album that basically blew their chances at more American crossover stardom - commercially this sank like a stone, with the single "Ripple," going nowhere near the charts. However, if this was the album the Church wanted to make in order to break out of their previous formula, which was growing tired, then let's just say that they were stuck between Scylla and Charybidis. The Church aim for melancholy, vaguely New Age-y mood music, and as usual with music that pays most of its attention to texture, there's a notable shortage of hookage. The melodies are still as strong as ever, but the Church have a hard time hanging them on to actual songs. And with 14 songs covering an unvarying mood, this LP seems to go on forever. It all collapses with the aptly-titled, nearly ten-minute "Chaos." If you're new to the Church, start anywhere else but here - it's easily their least accessible work, and probably their weakest overall.

Sometime Anywhere (1994) **1/2

Koppes has left the band at this point, which reduces the Church to basically the duo of Kilbey and Willson-Piper. Both of the remaining members reconstitute the Church as an equal partnership duo - the songs are co-written by the two, and Willson-Piper shares almost equal weight as far as the vocal duties are concerned. As such, the music here doesn't bear the sonic resemblance to the Church of old. While they can still write nice melodies, none of these are what you'd call catchy pop songs - it's more art-rock than anything they've done before, as the duo navigates through lengthy and bloated 5-to-8 minute atmospheric excursions. The production and overall sound are much brighter than the previous CD (not to mention the gaudy cover), overall it's a tad bit weaker. At least Priest=Aura worked as mood music of a sort. Biggest problem, at least to my way of thinking: no guitar interplay. Aside from Kilbey's melodies, that's the band's biggest strength - by ditching Koppes, they've jettisoned their most distinctive sonic feature, and suffer a distinct loss of personality. Worse, the modern '90s touches just show how out of touch these guys are - particularly Kilbey's embarrassing attempt at rap (not you kid). All said, this album has its moments, but for the most part is unendurably dull. The best song is the Kilbey/Willson-Piper duet "Two Places At Once", which would've made a good single if they hadn't bloated it to seven seconds shy of eight minutes.

Magician Among The Spirits (1996)
Hologram of Baal (1998)

Their latest album. Awful title, I know, but it's gotten good reviews. They're on an indie label now, so I'm not sure about American release.

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