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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Church’s Well-Aged Psychedelia

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For all the reverence it pays its elders, rock music remains a young person's genre, with its brightest talent often peaking early then floundering, struggling to live up to past heights. It's a harsh reality of which Steve Kilbey, the middle-aged frontman for the veteran band The Church, is all too aware.

"If I was an artist, at age 54 you'd expect me to be right at the top of my game, painting passionately and with mastered technique," Kilbey says. "But that's not the case with musicians. They get old and swollen and bloated and out of touch. There are very few older guys at the top of their game."

Kilbey's band, however, is a rare exception to the rule. While The Church have experienced their share of missteps and dry spells since 1988 yielded their lone international hit, "Under the Milky Way," this decade the group has proven themselves capable of living up to-and sometimes even outshining-the most celebrated records of their '80s heyday. A strikingly assured 2003 album, Forget Yourself, released shortly after Donnie Darko resurrected "Under the Milky Way" for one of the film's most memorable scenes, was well timed to catch the ear of newly introduced listeners, while a pair of rich, acoustic follow-ups showed how comfortable the Australian band had grown in their own skin.

The Church's latest album, however, is their first in years that not only lives up to the band's legacy but actually advances it. Released this spring, Untitled #23 retains all the band's hallmarks-the warm, effusive melodies; the dizzyingly complex guitar interplay; the surprising tangents-but it strikes a tone distinct from anything else in their discography. The band resists playing to their usual strengths for shimmering guitar-pop or grandiose, surround-sound rock, and instead attempts something less immediate. Untitled #23 is resigned and melancholic, its guitars restrained and its hooks hidden behind a shadowy, psychedelic haze. The disc is cohesive in tone but wide in scope, juxtaposing long, transcendental buildups and lofty, impressionistic prose with meaty payoffs. Fittingly, it's garnered The Church some of their most enthused reviews in a decade, to Kilbey's surprise.

"To tell you the truth, I thought it was a strange little album, and I wasn't sure that anybody would understand it or like it," Kilbey says.

Untitled #23's slapdash title is a testament to the band's modest expectations-they might as well have titled it Here's Another Church Album. Even the number 23 is arbitrary. Though it suggests this is the band's 23rd album, The Church's discography is too complicated for an official tally. And after two dozen records, give or take, Kilbey still can't pinpoint why some shine and others fizzle.

"We've been experimenting over the years, and I suppose it really culminated on this record, where we got the mixture right, balancing old-school, more accessible Church with our new style, which is less accessible," Kilbey speculates. "So we seem to have struck a chord this time, but it's such a finicky thing. It's like cooking: a pinch too much salt, or a pinch too little, and the dish doesn't work. We're constantly fiddling with all these ingredients with no idea how it will turn out."

The Church could strike gold again next time out, or they could just as easily not. Thirty years into their career, however, the sheer possibility that their best work could be still to come is remarkable.

The Church headline an 8 p.m. show at Shank Hall on Tuesday, June 23, with opener Adam Franklin and Bolts of Melody, the latest project from the Swervedriver frontman.