Jack Frost
by Jack Frost


★★★½ (3.5 out of 5 stars)

Firing up from heat-raked Oz, this Jack has little to do with sub-zero sprites. This is a union Jack — 12 songs co-written by The Church's Steve Kilbey and former Go-Between Grant McLennan.

Both The Gobees and The Church have always worked within pretty well established parameters, but here Kilbey and McLennan break away from this, building an almost bewildering array of moods and textures from the well-trodden land of trad songwriting.

The opening 'Every Hour God Sends' is surprising enough, moving away from the pair's past with a moody, sombre guitar figure straight out of the Bunnymen's 'Porcupine'-period colouring book. 'Birdowner' has a verse with vocals upfront through a megaphone effect while the guitar lurks in the background as if it's sounding on a radio in the next room. This type of subtle touch pretty much defines the album — with a twist here and a tweak there, McLennan and Kilbey furnish their journeyman inclinations with enough oddity to just brush away from the accepted.

The first side builds into a collection of curios, each song denying the direction of its predecessor. 'Civil War Lament' is just that, a half cousin to ancient American standard 'The Streets Of Laredo'. 'Trapeze Boy' is a spoken musing on time and remembrance from Grant, revolving around a half-remembered old woman and a circus tragedy — oddly affecting. 'Providence' could almost be the U2 of 'With Or Without You'. "All I have, all I need, all you got is providence," it goes in what is almost a reprise of Bono's restless, horizon-gazing tendencies.

The second side doesn't match the jarring accumulation of those first seven songs, but it still houses a few fine angles on various norms. 'Number Eleven' situates itself around a "plane crash in the desert", floating on synth swirls like a more beatific Blue Nile or Peter Gabriel. 'Didn't Know Where I Was' repeats the earlier starstruck U2 feel, but adds a bit of Keef-tech riffing while it's at it. 'Ramble' is a soft, muted revision of AOR staples.

Despite the way the band name rules out mixers — it's quite probably Oz slang for a JD straight up on ice — Kilbey and McLennan combine easily here, in the process producing an album that's anything but homogenised.

Two distinctive styles of seasoned writers

Grant McLennan and Steve Kilbey would not spring to mind as a likely musical combination. But combine they have, adopting the name Jack Frost, and releasing a self-titled album of mellow pop and delicate rock.

Both McLennan and Kilbey are seasoned song-writers with distinctive styles. Kilbey has spent several years writing and performing in The Church and McLennan has done the same with the Go-Betweens.

All the tracks on Jack Frost are attributed to both men, but it is not too difficult to see which had the greatest impact on particular tracks.

Kilbey writes with a lush opulence. The ambience of the songs is as important as the lyrics. McLennan writes with a more subtle sound, where the lyrics are as demanding as the arrangements.

The combination is at the very least interesting and at times quite brilliant. The range and tone of Kilbey's voice has improved vastly since his early Church recordings and blends well with McLennan's plain, pleasant voice.

The album begins with the first single Every Hour God Sends, which is among the more upbeat tracks on the album and jogs along quite nicely. But there is much more valuable music to come. Birdowner (as seen on TV) broadens the musical perspective instantly, with its odd, disembodied vocals.

The third track Civil War Lament, shifts perspective again, introducing a gently mournful sound. The excellent Trapeze Boy layers a spoken narrative over a minimalistic arrangement, a style which worked so well for the Go-Betweens on River of Money.

Most of the time, however, McLennan and Kilbey strive for perfect pop, and they find it on tracks such as Thought That I Was Over You, Providence and Everything Takes Forever. The album is produced by Kilbey and bears his distinctive, perfectionist touch.

Jack Frost. The chilly little imp who coats our winter nights with a glistening sheen of white, who decorates our windowpanes with his crystal paintbrush. Well, the glistening sheen is here — and some of the songs are as pretty and intricate as those windowpanes, but don't be entirely taken with the name, because, overall, this debut is gentle and warm.

Jack Frost is Steve Kilbey of the Church teamed with the Go-Betweens' Grant McLellan [sic]. Together, the two have woven 13 really nice tunes, most of them storybook ballads of the everyday, but with a few peppy pieces as well.

Elements of both groups surface at times — the album is weighted a bit toward the Church's placid nature, but there's some of the Go-Betweens' popness. For the most part, however, Jack Frost is carving a path all its own.

Jack Frost is an album of currents. There's a strong current created by a magical blend of horns, strings and keyboards, crossed by soft, flowing guitar and overwashed with Kilbey and McLellan's [sic] smouldering, talk-sing vocals. The lyrics are stunning in their simplicity and their ability to evoke emotion.

This album is wonderful for laid-back times and those all-too-seldom moments of solitude. Peaceful, beautiful, precious, sublime.

Generation gap

After the demise of the Go Betweens, songwriters Robert Forster and Grant McLennan have formed new partnerships.

What's interesting about the new albums from each is the way Forster, once the more gawkily self-conscious of the pair, has not only matured but emerged as the more individual and arresting voice.

[Review of Robert Forster's Danger in the Past deleted.]

By contrast, McLennan's decision to team up with the Church's Steve Kilbey under the collective name of Jack Frost seems an eccentric move, born, perhaps, of a loss of direction. Quality on their album is mixed.

It's easy to understand why Kilbey would want to work with McLennan. The question is, does the latter need the former? Their sensibilities are worlds apart (McLennan, old worlde, Kilbey, spaced-out), and the result is identity crisis rather than creative tension.

After opening with the UK goth rock-styled Every Hour God Sends, they follow with an equally agreeable Tom Verlaine impersonation, Birdowner, before slipping into lower gear: the genuinely inspired (Thought That I Was Over You, Didn't Know Where I Was, Ramble) let down by the deeply soporific.

The credits imply an equal writing partnership, Lennon-McCartney style, and are doubtless to be taken with equally large pinches of salt. The individual styles of each sing out from track to track.

Jack Frost is the brainchild of Aussies Grant McLennan and Steve Kilbey. Resumes of these artists include The Go-Betweens and The Church, respectively, but the Jack Frost project has a style and sound all of its own. Awash with a gentle, misty moodiness, the aural soundscape of Jack Frost both soothes and disturbs the soul—just like rainy days do. Sit back with a cup of hot chocolate and take in the epic-sounding "Every Hour God Sends," "Providence," "Ramble," "Thought I Was Over You" and the short, spoken-word piece titled "Trapeze Boy." Here's a case where 1 + 1 equals much more than two. An intriguing collaboration—here's to many more!

Now here's a Down Under delight—Church mastermind Kilbey joins forces with Grant McLennan, one of the powers behind the late, lamented critic's delight the Go-Betweens. Duo forges a highly atmospheric sound very reminiscent of Velvet Underground's moody third album. Modern rockers should embrace such gauzy delights as "Birdowner (As Seen On T.V.)," "Geneva 4 A.M.," "Providence," and "Thought I Was Over You."

JACK FROST is a collaboration between two notable Australian pop classicists, former Go-Between Grant McLennan and Steve Kilbey, singer/bassist with The Church.

Neither is known as much of a rooftop shouter, and sure enough 'Jack Frost' is an album with its volume control kept on low.

We don't get the inaugural Grant (GW) McLennan solo album until May, so this gives a welcome glance into the man's current state of mind. Kilbey, meanwhile, a man for whom side-projects (notably the on-off Hex) and solo albums are a way of life, sounds like he's thriving on the company.

Their two voices are softness in sync, and the lyrics twinkle with the perversity of two clever wordsmiths trying to out-metaphor each other. And despite the opening 'Every Hour God Sends', where the guitars boom in a distinctly Church-like manner, the LP is mainly acoustic and Go-Between hesitant, but with widescreen production effects like echo and synth added. This clash of styles is an unexpected success.

The odd stroke (like on 'Geneva 4AM', where you can hear them talking behind the vocal) suggests two guys meeting up after a long time apart and creating for the hell of it. That the two guys are McLennan and Kilbey, of course, takes it somewhere higher.

3 out of 5

★★★ (3 Stars)

The ninth track on "Jack Frost" is titled "Number Eleven" and that seems a fitting way to begin discussing an album which breaks all the rules. Given the backgrounds of Jack Frost's creators - Steve Kilbey of the Church and Grant McLennan, previously of the Go-Betweens - their trenchant individualism should come as no surprise, but this album's appeal transcends bloodlines. It is a collection of fractured and fascinating vignettes.

The collaboration spreads itself across a broad musical territory. On tunes like "Every Hour God Sends" they dabble in high-tech metallic funk, while "Geneva 4am" sounds like a soundtrack to a Peter Greenaway movie. Generally though, the mood is more melancholic, with the haunting "Civil War Lament" and "trapeze Boy"'s striking whimsy improving with each successive listen.

The unifying thread in this tapestry is an angular approach to both subject matter and musical performance. Why write about man-meets-woman when you can sing about man-turns-into-bird ("Birdowner")? Why use a guitar line when you can insert incidental studio chatter to add texture ("Geneva 4am")? The problem with such volleys into the unknown is that they don't always hit their targets. "Number Eleven" and "Ramble" seem too willfully obscure, and sometimes the intricate machine-generated rhythms of programmer Pryce Surplice drain the material of its subtlety. But such is the downside of the risk taking which elsewhere reaps rewards.

Both Kilbey and McLennan have previously had clearly defined styles and occasionally here one of their inputs predominates. "Thought That I Was Over You" sounds like an outtake from '16 Lovers Lane' wile "Everything Takes Forever" would not seem out of place on one of Kilbey's solo records. Generally though, the hybrid has its own unique character and that, above all, is Jack Frost's greatest achievement. For once the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts and in this case that is no mean feat.