A Box of Birds
In 1989, almost in spite of itself, The Church sat conspicuously in the U.S. Top 20 with its lone chart hit "Under the Milky Way," a tune -- even by the group's standards -- that fell short of its water line. At its best (and worst, even), The Church -- like its antecedents -- lost itself in hook-filled ambiguity, and this record of salutations almost intentionally directs you to the bags of pre-owned tricks the group so liberally lifted throughout its formative years. Never once on this set of covers does The Church singer Steven Kilby provide smooth access to any of the songs' cores; but unlike the bulk of the group's music, the tracks here provide easy melodies that let you out of the band's -- and Kilby's -- usual psychological hold.
Kilby's reedy baritone and off-the-meter croon blanket everything like a funeral shroud. Even on George Harrison's Beatle best "It's All Too Much," Kilby gives it his patented every-day-is-a-sad-and-sunless-Sunday treatment. But throughout its 20-year, 13-album history, that's always been the grace of The Church; both its charm and its excuse.
With "Hiroshima Mon Amour," Ultravox singer John Foxx provided Kilby an inspiration that combined both artsy pretension and pathos. From Foxx, Kilby nicked his whole existential rock-star persona -- Foxx's glammy looking-at-you-from-a-pillow gaze, art-school stance and hair style -- as well as his vocal phrasing and inflection.
Lyrically, too, Foxx employed images that would later saturate many early Church songs. The spin here on "Hiroshima Mon Amour" -- from Ultravox's lost 1977 jewel Ha! Ha! Ha! -- is both affectionate and devoted, complete with its cheese-whiz drum box, quick vocal echo and eighth-note guitar.
The Monkees' surreal, self-mocking Goffin/King gem "Porpoise Song" -- the theme from the group's brilliant but career-neutralizing 1968 film Head -- is proportionately melancholic in The Church's hands. Keyboards ape the track's original cellos while dense acoustic and 12-string guitars fill all the whirling holes, above which Kilby's voice (topped with a Marty Wilson-Piper harmony throughout) mimics Micky Dolenz's decidedly sweet Lennonesque vocal. Covering Kevin Ayer's perceptive nod to the fetishistic politicking of Marlene Dietrich, "Decadence" further demythologizes The Church, showing melody-wise the song's incentive to later Church jangles like "Into My Hands," and its fragile, film-score-like note rote which became a sonic signature in the band's rich aural backdrop.
On Television's jilted getting-old-is-like-diaper-rash ditty "Friction," Marty Wilson-Piper paws the frets as if embodied by sir Tom Verlaine himself, as Kilby croons a good octave under the original, lovingly showing just where he nicked classic lines like "Telescopes for eyes."
Iggy's New Values epoch "Endless Sea" is mouthed well, a song that aligns itself with Kilby's misanthropic tendencies. Hawkwind's 1971 nostalgic acid wind-up "Silver Machine" gets an amphetaminey Velvet's spin marked by Wilson-Piper's filthiest, anti-mood guit ever.
More than 11 bong-haze minutes pass before Neil Young's 1975 pro-Aztec protest "Cortez the Killer" is over, the only song on the record that is an absolute chore to sit through.
But the record's clutch-all comes on Mott the Hoople's Bowie gift "All the Young Dudes." When Kilby laments self-defining lines like "Oh, man, I need TV when I got TRex" with all the presence of a man truly mourning the loss of a time when rock 'n' roll still meant enough that it could change lives -- like we assume it did his -- we are careless as to who actually wrote or sang the original. Kilby makes it all his own -- a feat unprecedented in the land of spurious all-cover records and spotty tributes. Otherwise, there's always the Indigo Girls covering The Clash. -- Brian Smith
Jim Lauderdale, Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys
I Feel Like Singing Today
Bluegrass music received a much-needed shot in the arm earlier this year with Steve Earle's high-profile project The Mountain. While Earle took a collection of his own songs and did them bluegrass style (with the brilliant assistance of the Del McCoury Band), it was basically an affirmation of his uncommon ability to adapt his own material to any given style with predictably fine results. In truth, Earle's was more a folk record that simply employed the idiom to great effect. Combined with the fact that his roughhewn voice and breathy singing style are miles removed from the high-lonesome spirit of bluegrass, the record, although brilliant, failed to achieve its stated goal of endearing traditional bluegrass to a new generation of listeners.
For an affirmation of bluegrass as a unique art form, we're left with this year's second most anticipated such collaboration. The man responsible this time around is singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale. Although a peg or two below Earle on the musical food chain, Lauderdale is a well-respected solo artist and successful Nashville songsmith known for authoring hits for mainstream country artists like George Strait and Vince Gill. On I Feel Like Singing Today, Lauderdale has a weapon that even Earle was not equipped with: Ralph Stanley's tenor.
Throughout the 15 tracks, Stanley's vocals are the bedrock upon which Lauderdale (singing in a much more traditional bluegrass mode) relies. As a member -- along with his brother Carter -- of the seminal Stanley Brothers, Ralph Stanley has been at the forefront of the simple yet evocative form of Appalachian music for more than 50 years. Here, his vocals combine with Lauderdale's to produce blissful mountain soul on cuts like the joyous title track and Harold Hensley's mournful "You'll Find Her Name Written There." Other standouts include the Lauderdale-penned spiritual "Like Him" (featuring Stanley's spine-chilling a cappella opening) and a pair of Stanley Brothers chestnuts, "Harbor of Love" and "Who Will Sing for Me." As a genre exercise, I Feel Like Singing Today works perfectly, but perhaps more important, hearing Stanley's contribution will open contemporary ears to the endless possibilities that bluegrass has to offer. -- Bob Mehr