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The New York Times reviews Gold Afternoon Fix Print E-mail
Friday, 17 December 2004
Music in Which Words Need Only Sound Poetic

The Church combines 12-string guitar, bass and drums with dreamy images to make
superficial but enticing pop.

by Karen Schoemer

Empty-headed pop music usually comes in the form of sleek, high-tech disco or
pounding three-chord rock. But the Church, an Australian quartet that just
released its seventh album, "Gold Afternoon Fix" (Arista AL 8579, all three
formats) makes lightweight pop of a different sort. Instead of disco's synthetic
tracks and drum machines, or commercial rock's tired riffs and cliched baby-I-
love-you lyrics, the Church combines 12-string guitar, bass and drums with
dreamy images to make an elegant surface of sound. It is, like stained-glass
windows, intricate, beautiful to behold and wholly without depth.

Each of the Church's compositions sets out to create a specific mood, which the
band achieves through the distinct and carefully balanced contributions of each
member. Marty Willson-Piper, the lead guitarist, might start things off playing
a measure-long guitar melody that repeats throughout the verses and forms the
backbone of the song. Steven Kilbey then joins in with a bass part that
contrasts harmonically with the guitar. Next, Richard Ploog adds a soft drum
part that echoes the tempo of the guitar or bass. The band's other guitarist
Peter Koppes, fills in the spaces with a second lead or a strummed chord.

The Church sometimes overdubs guitar parts or looming keyboard backdrops, and
the pieces fit together with the complexity of a finished puzzle. Few rock bands
construct their sound with such meticulous order, or with such scrupulous
sensitivity to what each member is playing.

Mr. Kilbey is also the Church's primary lyricist and singer, and both the sound
of his voice and the words he sings put the final flourishes on the Church's
veneer. His low register tones are rich, yet remote. He sings about concepts
more than concrete things -- time, distance, darkness, power, corruption -- and
his purposely vague descriptions suggest his subjects in only the barest
outline. Even his depictions of people and places are nebulous: "Is there
anybody there?" he asks in "Pharaoh," the first song on the album. "I could
swear I'm not alone; show your faces if you dare."

His lyrics, together with the ambiance created by the guitar (whether it's in a
major or minor key, at a graceful or agitated tempo) set the mood for each song.
In "Pharaoh," the sinister feeling of Mr. Willson-Piper's jarring, slightly
discordant melody complements Mr. Kilbey's sense of displacement.

Shimmering 12-string guitar chords lend a lightness and ease to "Metropolis"
 that recurs in the lyrics: as the singer stands with his lover, looking out on
  an imaginary city, the only details that he relates are that it has trees that
   bear oranges, a zoo with elephants and weather that is "ridiculous."

   The titles give immediate clues to the feelings of the songs "Disappointment"
   and "Fading Away"; it's as though the band came up with the guitar line, decided
   upon a word the sound evoked, then came up with images evoked by but sometimes
   only tangentially related to the word. [as if!] It would be a mistake to attach
   too much meaning to the songs -- they give away little about the lives or
   personalities of the band members, although they can skillfully conjure an
   emotional response (melancholia, hopefulness, fear) in the listener.

   Occasionally the lyrics veer from the abstract to the outright silly, usually
   when Mr. Kilbey is trying to be too heady or ironic. Lines like "the universe is
   female" (from "Essence"), "You sit upon your throne and make grown men weep --
   with boredom" (from "Pharaoh") and "Turn down the gravity/This is all too heavy"
   (from "Terra Nova Cain") are bubble-headed at best. The Church get into trouble
   when they try to be deeper than they are. But even their silliness can sometimes
   be charming. "Russian Autumn Heart," sung and written by Mr. Willson-Piper, is
   pretty nonsensical.  But his passionate yearning vocals and exuberant melody
   create a context in which words need only sound poetic.

   The Church wasn't always this enticingly superficial; the band has worked hard
   since forming in Sydney in 1980, honing its sound to bring out the fullest
   potential in each instrument. On early albums like "The Church" from 1982, their
   first American release, and 1984's "Remote Luxury" the band exhibited Byrds-ish
   folk-rock and late '60s psychedelic influences. The results were average to
   overwrought; without the flawless sheen in the music, Mr. Kilbey's lyrics tended
   to come across disjointed.

   There are notable exceptions, though -- the bristling teenage anthem "The
   Unguarded Moment" and the breathlessly gentle "No Explanation" showed that the
   Church was quickly exhausting the jangly-pop genre. By 1985's "Heyday," they
   were placing more emphasis on pretty sounds for pretty sounds' sake. (Even the
   cover art indicated the band was experimenting with textures: the four members
   are pictured standing against a red-hued Oriental rug, wearing elaborately
   patterned paisley shirts that exquisitely contrast with the backdrop.) That
   album's highlights -- "Myrrh," "Tristesse," "Happy Hunting Ground" -- have
   chiming guitars, airy melodies and lush orchestral arrangements polished to such
   a resplendence that they make listeners want to close their eyes and think about
   nothing at all.

   All this time, the Church was building a dedicated audience through air play on
   college radio stations and brash, energetic live shows, in which its raw garage
   roots came through to give the songs a new immediacy. In 1988, the band made its
   commercial breakthrough with the album "Starfish" and the single "Under the
   Milky Way." More consistent and focused than either "Heyday" or "Gold Afternoon
   Fix," "Starfish" is the closest the Church has gotten to the sonic perfection it
   seeks.

   Mr. Willson-Piper's guitar work is unerringly sharp, the melodies are crisp and
   memorable, and Mr. Kilbey's lyrics are linked by the underlying themes of
   restlessness and abandon that resonate in the opening track "Destination." But
   if "Gold Afternoon Fix" is a little hazier than its predecessor, it too proves
   that the most enchanting music can sometimes be the least demanding.
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