THE CHURCH STRIP DOWN FOR A WELL-OILED COMEBACK
BY BRETT MILANO
Can you believe that I'm really sitting here comparing Heather Locklear with the Mona Lisa?" asks an amused Marty Willson-Piper, lead guitarist (and lately one-half) of the Church, by phone from his Stockholm home. Actually, he's just hit on a good explanation of what makes the band and their new SOMETIME ANYWHERE (Arista, in stores May 24) work. "If the Mona Lisa were painted today, the record industry would say, 'Does it have to be so ambiguous? What's she really saying with that smile; can we be a little more specific here?' If that's what you want, you can talk to Heather Locklear. She'll always tell you what's on her mind - she'll even give you beauty tips."
Subtlety and ambiguity have long been the Church's stock-in-trade, but it took a good decade before they got it right. The string of early albums had their hypnotic moments but too often turned into agreeable background music. Signing to Arista in 1987, the band put more obvious hooks and more direct lyrics into their two hit albums, STARFISH and GOLD AFTERNOON FIX - both good recordings as compromises go, tightening up the two-guitar/moody vocal sound without watering it down too much.
But they didn't hit their peak until they swung back in the other direction. The 1992 PRIEST=AURA dared to stay in a midtempo groove for all of its 70 minutes, and it had everything the Church had always aimed for - beauty, mystery, texture, sensuality. Everything but an obvious single. ("It was the classic introspective, ambiguous Church album," Willson-Piper says.) It flopped miserably, finishing off the band's four-piece line-up. Co-lead guitarist Peter Koppes left following its release and former Patti Smith Group drummer Jay Dee Daugherty was dismissed soon after, leaving only Willson-Piper and singer/bassist Steve Kilbey.
"We didn't have a manager either; the A&R man had quit the record label," Willson-Piper remembers. "Steve lived in Sydney and I lived in Stockholm. We walked into a room, looked at each other, and said, 'Right, then. We have no songs, no ideas, and no band. How about C for a chord to start with?"
"We started out with literally nothing, and the ideas came pouring out like no tomorrow. We jammed the music onto tape, then wrote the words to fit the jams; that's why there are so many long songs on it. (SOMETIME ANYWHERE runs an epic 77 minutes, and the first pressing includes another album-length disc of outtakes.) A band can be a nightmare of compromise. Sometimes the pushing and pulling creates something special, and sometimes it creates the inability to progress."
For all its uncharacteristic sounds, SA is still very much a Church album. Kilbey's droll vocal style remains a trademark, as does the tendency to let the songs unfold slowly and dreamily. Still, the diversity makes this a worthy, if spottier, follow-up to P=A. They trip up only when they try to re-create the old band's sound: "Fly Home" and "Two Places at Once" miss the chemistry of two guitarists bouncing energy off a live rhythm section (this album's drum tracks were either programmed or overdubbed).
More often, the disc shows Kilbey and Willson-Piper reveling in their sonic freedom. "Day of the Dead" rocks more aggressively than the old band ever did. "Lost My Touch" uses distorted vocals and hip-hop production to menacing effect. The instrumental "Eastern," with banjo imitating a koto, recalls the second half of Bowie's LOW. For the first time, guitars aren't the lead instrument on every track. "Angelica" starts out with an electronic pulse out of U2's ZOOROPA, only to throw in an oddly appropriate violin solo.
These experiments work for the same reason the previous album did. The song-writing now makes the most of their nuances - in the gentle but grabbing melodic turns, and in the stories that are suggested in the words. Both are used to fine effect on the disc's highlight, "My Little Problem." To these ears (and I admit I've been reading too much Anne Rice lately), it sounds like something a vampire would tell his mortal companion before administering the Dark Gift, and Kilbey sounds suitably moonstruck. "Remember this day, remember this room, remember the season and I'll remember you / A sudden flash, a sudden light, abandoning the afternoon as it sinks into the night." Whether or not that's what the band had in mind, they crafted a song that slinks along with a vampire's ominous grace.
Never exactly grunge monsters to begin with, the Church plan to pursue the quieter direction. Kilbey and Willson-Piper are planning some acoustic radio dates next month. The group they're rehearsing for a full- scale tour includes a violinist, a pianist, and "a guy who looks after the samples."
"I don't think you'll be seeing any more of the Church as a mega, foot-in-the-monitor rock group," Willson-Piper says. "From now on there won't be much guitar slinging involved."