An unfolding progression of songs in the running
for the best work of Steve (The Church) Kilbey’s career – not to mention the
exquisite and innovative Jeffrey (Remy Zero) Cain’s arrangements. Life
Somewhere Else is out this week on the Communicating Vessels label.
“When someone asks me to what extent my
work is autobiographical, I say, ‘Every word is autobiographical, and every
word is fiction.'” – William S. Burroughs, in conversation with Tennessee
Kilbey – musician, painter, longtime bassist, singer, and lyricist for the Church,
and, in recent years, compulsive blogger, has been cranking out a lot of words
over the years that could be considered simultaneously autobiographical and
fictitious. His songs are typically populated with kings, pharaohs, ancient
armies, reincarnated lovers, and all other manner of creative anachronism, and
yet nearly every verse contains a bit of personal revelation buried amidst the
verbal ornamentation. It doesn’t always work; the label “pretentious”
has frequently, and with some justification, been levied. But when it does work (which is surprisingly often
considering all of the moving pieces at play), the combination of his words and
music stand in pretty effectively for just about any recreational drug you
would want to take.
Kilbey’s ongoing collaborative project with Jeffrey Cain of the band
Remy Zero, poses a potential problem here: with Kilbey relinquishing all
musical composition duties to Cain and focusing exclusively on the lyrics, can
that crucial, alchemic mix of words and music still be attained? In this case,
the answer is an unequivocal yes, as Cain proves himself a talented composer
deeply sympathetic to Kilbey’s muse. He is so good, in fact, that when Kilbey’s lyrics meander toward the ridiculous, as
they sometimes do in Isidore’s more aggressive numbers, Cain’s music always
keeps the songs driving forward.
Life Somewhere Else (Communicating Vessels),
the second full-length Isidore album, improves on its eponymous predecessor in
a number of ways: bigger, more ambitious arrangements; tighter songwriting;
more focused singing; and, crucially, the use of live drums on many key tracks.
Kilbey is still in need of an editor, or at least a “second opinion,”
on some of his material, but overall
the album maintains a base level of “very good” and soars in many
places to “superb.” Stylistically it runs the gamut from delicate
ballads to harsh Iggy and the Stooges-style rockers. The highlight is a
remarkable song cycle beginning with track #2, “Life Somewhere Else,”
and culminating in track 6: “Some Reverse Magic.” The lyrics to these
songs are the most nakedly personal Kilbey has ever penned, shorn of all but
the most necessary poetic language. These mini-narratives address some
difficult subjects: domestic discord, alcohol abuse, self-recrimination, anger
at God (“Someone up there trying to dislocate me / Someone up there must
really fucking hate me” he sings on “Recoil”), all culminating
in perhaps the most surprising song of all, “Some Reverse Magic,” in
which Kilbey addresses Jesus Christ and makes a startling admission: “I
never noticed it before / You’ve walked beside me all the way.” Taken as a
single statement, this unfolding progression of songs is in the running for the
best work of Kilbey’s career and, as previously noted, Kilbey is only half of
it. Cain’s arrangements feature exquisitely blended electric and acoustic
guitars, supple yet unobtrusive bass, a mixture of electronic and organic
percussion (my one criticism here: I feel that the music would be even stronger
if the entire album featured live drums), and keyboard textures that perfectly
cast the other instruments in relief. He values melody above all other
considerations, and as a result the album is crammed full of hooks – offsetting
the sometimes bleak nature of the lyrics.
something about this music, some hard-to-define quality – the way particular
chords go together, perhaps, or the soulful manner in which individual notes are
wrung from their instruments – that feels deeper, more poignant than anything
on the previous Isidore album. A clue comes from the liner notes, which reveal
that Cain’s former bandmate (and childhood friend) Gregory Slay passed away
shortly before the bulk of the album was recorded. Perhaps, then, Cain’s music
here is partly born of grief. Whatever the cause, Jeffrey Cain is the true star
of Isidore II – and considering how strong Kilbey’s contribution is, that’s
really saying something.
Zero or Church fan would be well-advised to pick this up. And, for those
listeners of the church who may have previously felt intimidated by the
avalanche of solo/side projects on offer from Kilbey and co., this is a good
place to start. Isidore doesn’t really feel like a “side” anything.
It’s a main event.
Robert Dean Lurie is author of the 2009 Steve Kilbey/Church biography No Certainty Attached.