Thursday, August 5, 2010

Steve Kilbey's Unearthed

I’ve always been fascinated with noble failures then masterpieces. Perhaps it’s the dreaming of the possibilities that’s more alluring than the admiration of something that’s powerfully perfect. For instance, I’m mesmerized by the writings of Philip K. Dick despite his obvious failings as a writer, and I prefer The Who’s Quadrophenia over the more acclaimed Who’s Next.

Along these lines, I find artists’ home recordings fascinating. They’re interesting because they’re the pure vision of the artist, the dream before the band or orchestra brings the song to its full potential with the energy and skills of the whole group. To go back to Townshend for a moment, his Scoop series is a prime example of these (with the benefit that he includes Who songs, so you can compare Townshend’s version with what the Who did to them). Another good example is today’s subject: Steve Kilbey’s Unearthed. (Note that here I’m writing about the 2010 reissue included with the Monsters n Mirages box set.)

Released in 1986, the album consisted of a group of recordings SK made by himself. As SK relates at various points in the liner notes to Monsters n Mirages: “this was a bunch of recordings lying around at the time... I never intended these recordings to be released... I recorded a song a day. ” The raw creative energy of recordings that were never meant to be heard is alluring, and the absence of an overarching goal of making an album or a grand statement must have been freeing. As Robert Dean Lurie, the author SK’s biography, “No Certainty Attached”, sez, even a song called “My Birthday, The Moon Festival” does’t pretentious here; it’s a two minute song with a fantastic melody and dreamy atmospherics that has you humming it for days to come.

Unearthed was released in 1986, and it marks one of the first times that Kilbey really emphasized the atmospherics of his songs over all else. Most of these songs are lush, and cast a soft velvety spell over the listener, lulling them into contemplation. This dreamy quality has since become a SK trademark, and here we see its humble beginnings as he worked away at them from "a downstairs bedroom of a terraced house sandwiched between 2 other houses". (Of course, he also has an abrasive and pushing side, but it’s mainly missing from Unearthed; we’ll see that side of him come to the forefront in 1990’s Remindlessness).

Another differentiator for Unearthed – and a notable difference between his work with The Church – is the lack of guitar solos. The songs here are mainly just melodies and interesting sounds, augmented with consistently stellar bass playing. Indeed, the bass, as you might expect from a bass player, caries many of the tunes with the melody. For instance, the swooping bass line in “Arm Chair” that really lends the song its swing. It's always moving, each note covering several bars, except for the few moments before the drum fill when it pounds with the beat.

This isn’t to say that the album isn’t without its drawbacks. To me, the album’s big weakness: a drum machine that contributes a stiff feeling to many tracks. In one respect, it contributes an amateurish, do-it-all- yourself charm, but mainly it’s just frustrating in that you know how much better it could have sounded with live drumming (or a modern drum machine). Another issue is that there’s a fair amount of the blatant monotone that he used to mar SK’s early music (see “Someone calls you on for a blatant example”), which can be off-putting, but overall there's more than enough melody to make up for it.

My personal highlights include:
- “Out of this World”: A minor pop gem with a wonderfully catchy descending bassline augmented by a mirroring guitar lick.
- “Swampdrone”: Along with “Rising Son”, some interesting keyboard mood music reminiscent of the second Enoish part of Bowie’s Low. SK will do more of this, and more skillfully, in his next album Earthed.
- “Judgement Day”: Typical early-era Church-style song, with its chiming Byrds-y chiming guitars, lilting melody, and catchy chorus. Even the bridge sounds like something off of Heyday -- and that’s a good thing.
- “Tyrant”: A catchy earworm of a song. That “Oooooohhh, Tyrant” chorus sticks with you for a while. His melodic skill on display for what is basically a minor song (not sure what, if anything, the lyrics mean).
- “Design Error”. One of SK’s fun white-man-groove toons, replete with a sweet popping bass.
- “Nothing Inside”: A beautiful ballad. Excellent chiming guitars and a gently driving beat.
- “Heliopolis”: Wonderful droning background vocals here cast a nice spell of a lazy afternoon. Only qualm is that the toon is just a bit too long for what it is.
- “Famine”: Another fun instrumental with wonderfully soulful sounds coming from antiquated electronic instruments. The walking organic bassline contrasts wonderfully with the muted staccato drums. The fascinating background sound - like a razor running underwater - seems to me like a precursor to the bubbling keyboards in the background of so many songs in his career (like in Painkiller'sOutbound”)

Overall, Unearthed is an easy album to love. It’s fun and melodic and is comprised of a good mix of rock and pop and experimental qualities. It’s probably his most accessible solo album, and well worth checking out if you’re looking for an introduction to SK’s solo world.

Note: I’m planning on writing up my reaction to all of SK’s solo albums included in the Monsters n Mirages box set. Coming up next: 1987’s Earthed.

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