by Steve Kilbey


Of Guile And Grace

by Bernard Zuel


A record like this would usually be made available as a bootleg, or (God forbid) posthumously, a la Lennon, Marvin Gaye or Presley. It's a collection of 'basement tapes', or to be more accurate, bedroom tapes, the fruits of Steve Kilbey's time spent in a home studio discovering sounds and playing around with styles and approaches.

Spread over four years, the material is by no means linked by a theme; nor is there a unanimity of direction. There are three instrumentals that are basically sound collages, several jingly-jangly numbers, songs that allude to early Kraftwerk-inspired Ultravox, some that could almost be the Church and others that diverge as far as possible. I've played Unearthed at least a dozen times, and at each hearing I've been struck by something new or reacted differently to the 14 songs. Preferences vary depending on mood or atmosphere, from the sweeping Tyrant or Design Error to the engaging Guilty, which has as its protagonist a bigot defending himself in court as synths and guitars rain about him. On the other hand, Heliopolis is languorous and tantalisingly opaque, to be interpreted at your own risk but enjoyed at your leisure.

Two of the instrumentals, Rising Son and Famine, along with Transference — though not structurally similar — transcend the recording limitations to evoke an open landscape, a real sense of vastness that strongly reminds me of some of the work of Gondwanaland. In its cinematic scope, it's music that would be effective as a soundtrack to the local equivalent of a Paris, Texas.

Just as Kilbey can be emotive, he can as easily slip into the machine-like Design Error — which could be Japan before they took Polaroids with its mix of live, synth-bass driven funk — or he can take on a disembodied voice in My Birthday, The Moon Festival. It's clear that he is willing to try his hand at more than just trademark Kilbey songs — if there is such an animal — and for that reason alone, it's a fascinating album.

This isn't, and was never intended to be, a Church record, though its muted half-light ambience recalls Seance. Unearthed is for those interested in the greater body of Steve Kilbey's muse. If you are willing to be beguiled — and at times surprised — by this gentle record, seek it out.

This blog has gone far too long without a post about Steve Kilbey and/or his band, The Church. Although they're pretty popular in their homeland of Australia, The Church are known everywhere else in the world, if they're known at all, for their only major hit: the immortal "Under the Milkyway". I think that this is really unfortunate, as their synthesis of new wave, goth, U2-like arena rock, and psychedelia makes for some of my favorite music.

No matter how lush and inviting the rest of the band sounds, though, Kilbey's surreal lyrics and spectral voice are the band's lifesblood, so it's not surprising that Unearthed, his first solo album, stands up nicely to comparison with his primary project's work. Although the dreamlike words and crystalline guitar work are in full effect, Unearthed leans more heavily on synths and drum machines than anything that The Church had recorded up to this point. Like many solo excursions, there's a sense of experimentation and spontaneity to this record, and thankfully, in addition to the cool, weird keyboard pieces, there are a bunch of great songs.

Steve Kilbey (Enigma ST-73297)

Between Kilbey's tart, whispery vocals and the shadowy, vaguely subterranean sound of the instrumental tracks, this dreamy slice of psychedelia drifts past the listener with a casual ease that belies its pop sensibility. But the folky refrain to "Nothing Inside" is as memorable as anything the Sydney-based singer has done with his group, the Church, while the home-studio atmospherics of "Swampdrone" or "Rising Son" effortlessly enhance Kilbey's understated melodiousness. Worth digging up.

Steve Kilbey
(Red Eye Records)

As the title suggests, the Church erstwhile frontperson has been rummaging through his vaults and has exhumed a retrospective collection of home studio solo ventures. But there's not much here to excite anyone but the most fervent devotee.

'Unearthed' features everything you'd expect to find on a Kilbey solo effort: acid-tab jottings, lots of paisley-tinted crooning, and atmospheric burblings that sound like outtakes from Uncle Brian's latest, 'Ambient 59: Music for Dental Surgeries'. To be fair, Kilbey makes no extravagant claims for his record, calling it "homemade music", but his paradoxical insistence on being regarded as an "artiste" is a mite wearisome.

He wears his pretensions on his sleeve in songs like 'Transference', a paean to getting stoned in the back of a tour bus in the States. From an artiste who once dropped acid so he could admire his shirts, this is not to be unexpected. A sizeable proportion of the album — particularly the nondescript instrumentals 'Swampdrone' and 'Famine' — comes across as inferior filler: electro-noodling that wouldn't make it on to a Japan album.

Sporadically, Kilbey's fragile voice mates with his soundscapes and the result is quite enchanting. 'Judgement Day' is a sublime pop gem, mood massage of the most effective kind. On 'Guilty' the speaker defends himself in court, against a charge of inciting racial violence amid a lulling keyboard chorus. A good idea, but one that peters out before Kilbey can leave an impression.

It is these half-grasped opportunities that ultimately makes 'Unearthed' a mildly diverting document and a not altogether satisfactory record. Of interest only to those terminally addicted to Steve Kilbey's every psychedelic gesture.

Steve Kilbey, lead singer of The Church, produces a naive, moody and thoroughly absorbing sort of noise. Laid back art-rock with an affectionate nod in the direction of Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and the Bunnymen makes for a heady mixture full of texture and ambiance.

Bassist, lead vocalist, and main songwriter for Australian band the Church, Kilbey has assembled an intimate "bedroom" album on which he plays almost all instruments. Beautifully melodic pop with a tinge of melancholy throughout, set is topnotch despite its informality.

Steve Kilbey, singer of the Church, is one of the rarer breed of frontmen who make solo records while their band is still a going concern. The records bare all the hallmarks of a labour of love and function as an outlet for material that may be a little too left field for the mainstream audience. Steve's solo records are so far left of field that they reside somewhere out the back of the grandstand, an artistic conceit that feels like a breath of fresh air in this era of commercial imperatives. Unearthed is an art rock record and the vibe is mellow. This record is so art rock it wears a beret and lives in a garret on the Left Bank. As with all of Kilbey's solo work, the consumption of drugs prior to listening acts as a positive aid to, if not understanding his muse, then at least getting too wasted to care. The term grower was invented for albums like this. The term trafficker was invented for the person who provided its initial impetus.

A Travelogue Through Kilbey's Mind

by Christie Eliezer

(Red Eye)

Free from the constraints of the three other members of The Church, Steve Kilbey's solo LP is an unorthodox album that takes you into an informal journey through his mind. It is an indulgent LP because Kilbey wants it to be: often depicted as introverted, cynical and probably schizophrenic, Unearthed doesn't necessarily make you understand what makes him tick.

This is because he employs the approach taken by the individual film director Federico Fellini, particularly in Fellini's Roma: both are a travelogue of the mind. Unlike ordinary travelogues, the things recorded are not as interesting in themselves as the eye-catching stylistics used to record them. Kilbey has an expansive vision and a large number of characters in his songs: the insinuation throughout is that life is just an illusion anyway.

This is very much a solo LP — he wrote, arranged, played and produced most of it, getting in help from his bassist brother Russell (from Crystal Set) and his keyboards-players girlfriend Karin Jansson to help out here and there. "Swampdrone" and "Famine" are nothing more than jams or sound collages. Kilbey's editing always undercutting the individual themes. "Famine" and particularly "Rising Son" are fascinating, fusing some exotic rhythms with eerie instrumentation.

Only two of the tracks could have fitted into a Church LP: "Out Of This World" mirrors the ethereal mood of the excellent and insanely neglected Heyday from last year. "Judgement Day", with its jangling guitars and laments like "I never intended to be a saint" is reminiscent of the band's earlier work.

The others are simply folky tunes, with "Moon Festival" and "Design Error" showing off his ear for catchy melodies. The playing is effortless, with the themes something you need to listen to a couple of times. Like Heyday, this LP too seems to imply some vague sort of spiritual journey, or at the least, some devastating experience which made him open his eyes and cleanse his soul of all idealism.

As ever, the characters that stalk Kilbey's songs are never revealed, only his attitude towards them. I don't think Kilbey likes the people in his songs. He might profess to like them but he can only relate to them from a distance. There are moments when he gets too close to them and expresses only a disdain for them. Presumably, like Fellini, Kilbey seems to find difficulty in expressing too much love through his music because he is too much in love with the vision of the way things should be.

Self indulgence also allows one to treat one's self to flashes of mediocrity. "Othertime" is one disposable cut. "Pretty Ugly Pretty Sad" is Kilbey trying to come across as being deep, but falling badly off the mark. In fact, the track has a musical and lyrical influence to "Mr. Bojangles", that corny maudlin AOR hit that every "sensitive" singer/songwriter trots out sooner or later.

I turned around to see the clown
He made a sound, his face was down
He was crying
Dying to laugh
Down the empty avenue, I spied his worn out shoes
I'm flying
Trying just to come down

Strangely enough, something as puerile as this doesn't detract from the rest of the LP: rather it encompasses an honest look at the workings of an interesting songwriter taking the luxury of being as self indulgent as he wants to be.