Top positive review
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Less prog, more rock!
on February 21, 2001
Anyone who's seen The Church live knows that, no matter how dark, experimental or ambient their latest CDs might be, they remain a lively and energetic rock band in concert. Fans of rock guitar have not lived until they've seen the intricate interplay between guitarists Marty Willson-Piper and Peter Koppes. And Steve Kilbey's warm, inviting, speak-sing vocals are vastly underrated in the annals of rock history.
Surprisingly, The Church have never released an official live album that captures this energy - unless you count the bonus screwing-around-in-the-studio disc included in the import version of 1998's HOLOGRAM OF BAAL. Until they do, fans will have to settle for A BOX OF BIRDS, an album of covers that, unlike their highly-produced studio CDs, is basically a one-off recording where the band plows through a few of their favorite numbers. The result is one of their most energetic recordings in years.
You may ask - why would I want to buy another CD of cover songs? Well, for one, the songs featured here are generally obscure (at least for casual music collectors). And most end up sounding like Church songs in the end. Like on HOLOGRAM OF BAAL, the songs are enveloped in droning, trance-inducing soundscapes (nearly all guitars or guitar effects) that have become the Church's trademark. Most of the songs bleed into one another, giving the listener an almost cinematic experience.
Unfortunately, The Church couldn't have picked a worse leadoff track than "The Faith Healer," which stretches a dull, monotonous guitar riff to the limit. But all is well on Track 2, with the sunny, psychedelic guitar blast that is George Harrison's "It's All Too Much" (from YELLOW SUBMARINE). Steve Kilbey has claimed that Harrison was his favorite Beatle, and the band's love for this song is obvious.
The surprises keep on coming as The Church pulls Ultravox's "Hiroshima Mon Amour" out of mothballs. A song that could have sounded horribly dated by another band is pumped to life here by muscular guitar cords that erupt underneath the unapolegetically new-wave sounding synths.
But it is the next two songs that represent perhaps the best one-two punch in The Church's entire back catalog. "The Porpoise Song" by The Monkees (!) is simply stunning, with lofty, shimmering guitars that make you feel like you are slowly being pushed out to sea. But this calm is disrupted as the song bleeds into the disturbing "Decadence." Like "The Faith Healer," the song is built largely around a single guitar riff. But this time, the effect is much more disturbing as the gentle riff builds to a freak-out climax akin to "Chaos" from PRIEST=AURA, accompanied by Kilbey's increasingly desperate vocals. On any other album, this would be a fitting climax.
Where do we go from here? Essentially two faithful renderings of Iggy Pop's "The Endless Sea" and Television's "Friction," the latter showing how much of an influence Tom Verlaine and company had on The Church. As for "All the Young Dudes" - well, to me this song should have been left out. It's one of those songs that is so well known that it makes little sense to cover it unless you're adding something new. But The Church play it straight, with Marty Willson-Piper's vocals on the chorus sounding slightly awkward when compared to the source.
But again, all is well with Hawkwind's "Silver Machine," a glam/metal blast that showcases a loose, sleazy attitude I've never heard from The Church, or Kilbey's vocals in particular. Finally, the album wraps with Neil Young's "Cortez the Killer," which has been highlighted by many of Young's fans as one of the best covers ever done of this song.
Overall, this CD showcases another side of this vastly underrated band. But while it did nothing to reverse The Church's commercial misfortunes, it is quite simply a great rock record that shows that, even in their 40s, these guys may be starting a new and influential chapter in their long careers.