American listeners can be forgiven for wondering how this Australian band with just a single Top 40 hit to their credit rates a double disc singles retrospective 22 years after that lone chart entry. But, aficionados of guitar-based power pop will have any lingering doubts erased with a single listen to this attractive package.
The aforementioned chart success of “Under the Milky Way” (which peaked at #24 in 1988) takes the central position in this chronological collection. Curiously, it’s NOT an unrepresentative song from the band, begging the question of why further commercial success did not follow. It’s not an easy question to answer. In a sense, the song had a bit of a “gimmick.” Is that a guitar playing a bagpipe solo, or bagpipes playing the guitar solo? But, fundamentally, it’s a catchy and understated pop song, building from an acoustic strum to a spacey climax fading to black.
Yet, even in their home country, where a dozen songs broke the Top 100, just one broke into the Top 20. Record ompany and producer conflicts surely had an effect, to say nothing of simmering differences within the band and changing fashions in the world of pop and rock. In any event, this 34-song collection demonstrates the strength and worth of the singles that followed and preceded that high water mark. (To be fair, the Starfish album containing “Under the Milky Way” did eventually sell a million copies–mostly cassettes and vinyl, I imagine–in the US.)
Fronting the band is bass playing main songwriter and singer Steve Kilbey. Those unfamiliar with his smoky tenor should imagine a more melodic Peter Perrett, a less histrionic Robert Smith, a calmer Nick Cave, or perhaps an antipodean John Cale. Merely stating that his singing and impressionistic lyrics rate comparison with these iconic vocalists might say all that needs saying.
Guitarists Peter Koppes and Marty Willson-Piper, freed of the “front man” responsibility (though each write and sing material in and outside the band), build guitarscapes of considerable majesty. But, instead of grabbing at the spotlight in a Skynyrdian frenzy, they arrange interlocking and complementary parts from twanging, ringing, arpeggiated electric and acoustic sounds, distorted and sustained as necessary, building a vibrant tapestry that supports the needs of the Song.
Through solo projects, outside collaborations, periodic estrangements and a few different drummers, the core of The Church has endured, and maintained artistic legitimacy from 1981 to the present. A decade into the new millennium, it’s less surprising that recent tracks haven’t achieved massive success in what’s left of the “music industry,” but the newest songs here (from 2006-2009) still sound as vital as those of many contemporary alt/indie bands.
Other outstanding tracks here include “The Unguarded Moment” (1981), “Almost With You” (1982), “Disenchanted” (1985), and “Metropolis” (1990). This 2 1/2 hour journey is the definitive retrospective/introduction to the “clear-light jangle and art-pop ideals” of the Church. It is highly recommended!
Finally, for those who like to read lyrics in music reviews, here’s some from “Disenchanted” and “Under The Milky Way,” respectively:
Well, look at you,
Hands full of money you always wanted to have,
Saying sweet life is a downright drag,
Down to the very last seed in the bag,
And the scene is through,
Summer slipped under in this neighborhood,
I’d like to hold onto you if I could,
But now I’m gonna have to let you go for good,
My disenchanted friend.
And it’s something quite peculiar,
Something that’s shimmering and white,
Leads you here despite your destination,
Under the Milky Way tonight.
Wish I knew what you were looking for,
Might have known what you would find …
Under the milky way tonight.