Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Of Skins and Heart - 30 Years On

I’ve talked a lot about Aussie outfit The Church and some of the related off shoots in these pages. Today, April 13, marks the 30th anniversary of their debut album Of Skins and Heart. (I guess technically that was yesterday in Australia.)

I remember picking this album up for $5.99 on cassette my freshman year in college, with a couple of newly acquired friends, at the Cool Spring Galleria. About five minutes later I met Alan Jackson. And I had green hair.

To tell you that I listened to this tape until the writing wore off and the reels got all loose and fidgety would pretty much indicate my die-hard devotion to this album, and for years it was my top pick of The Church’s catalog. In some ways it still is, and yet it’s really hard to compare the releases of those first few years to anything they’ve put out since the early 90s.

As far as debuts go, however, this one has everything:

· Obvious influences: A bit of a 60s psychedelic revival going on

· Indications of things to come: While this is undeniably pop, the cryptic lyrical imagery and unabashed guitar interplay (and the ability to solo) is an embryonic state of the extended, freeform “jams” of more recent efforts

· Youthful fervor: These guys truly believed in what they were doing and it shows

· Top notch songwriting: More on Kilbey in a bit

· Taut, well-executed yet relaxed playing: It’s called confidence

· An overall air of mystery that three decades later has not only stayed intact, but has only enhanced with age, despite their 80s mainstream success and recent accolades from the more knowledgeable portions of the music press

Musically speaking, this brand of Byrds jangle through a post-punk filter didn’t break down any genre barriers, or set a blueprint for thousands (though probably hundreds) of other like-minded young musicians to take note and follow, or start a revolution, or make much of a huge splash (initially) far outside its home country. It’s good enough to have, it just didn’t.

Cover of 1982 European/American Release

What it did do, however, was set the wheels in motion for The Church to begin their own distinctive musical journey, one unlike most any other act in rock history. And while there have been plenty of the typical high marks and pitfalls that pinpoint many a band’s career, everything was always played off in a way that was very uniquely The Church. This is proven by the fact that no matter what was going on, from label woes to personnel fall outs, the music always came first, reflecting the time, the place and the mindset of the band as they were at the moment (especially after 1990), and not that of the music scene either flourishing or collapsing around them (and often proving the latter with each successive musical triumph).

Steve Kilbey’s songwriting came to print full formed, and while it has grown immeasurably since the opening notes of For a Moment We’re Strangers, many a songwriter (including this one) would give his eye teeth to be half as mature, creative, insightful and ridiculously melodic as Kilbey was in 1980. And while he tackles more “rock recognizable” territory on this album than any other, even obvious relationship songs are littered with obscure, often puzzling imagery, and yet delivered so casually in that butter melting croon it all seems quite believable.

L-R: Marty Willson-Piper, Richard Ploog (he didn't play on the album, but was in all associated videos), Peter Koppes, Steve Kilbey

Equally as important as Kilbey’s songwriting (and of course bass playing) is the dual guitar force of Peter Koppes and Marty Willson-Piper. Their shimmering interpretation of each song takes everything to the next level; both raw and elegant, boisterous and subdued, they state everything necessary by often remaining quite understated and overly unobtrusive, allowing each part to blend in with the rest to better enhance the overall quality of the song. While still far away from the dancing serpents that would create albums like Forget Yourself (Peter is still taking most, if not all, of the leads here), their ability to play off and compliment one another is especially evident on “the one that started it all,” The Unguarded Moment, and, personal favorite, Bel-Air.

And I would be remiss without giving Nick Ward, their original and practically unknown drummer, a nod for providing some of the best fills and emotional accents not only in The Church song list, but of rock music in general.

At the end of the day, Of Skins and Heart might not be the album I would steer a newly interested listener in (I think Starfish still holds that privilege), but it wouldn’t be a misstep either, as even Untitled #23 points to some of these more primitive moments, which in turn point right back into the present/future.

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