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The Church
Untitled #23, Pangaea EP, Coffee Hounds EP
Second Motion Records

Here at Hybrid we pride ourselves on giving you, our beloved readers, considered reviews of the music we write about. Unlike so many scribes out there, we try and listen to the records enough times to get a really good impression before we put finger to keyboard (although I gotta admit that having a tolerant editor really helps when you just have to listen to that album just one more time…)

So enough already, what's your point, I hear you asking? Well, apart from wanting to thank everyone out there for reading, I also realized that the Hybrid as-many-listens-as-it-takes policy really helped out with this latest album from one of my all-time favourites, The Church.

The downside of holding a band in high esteem is that you expect ever greater things from them, and Untitled #23 just didn't grab me on the first few listens. The Church (singer / bassist Steve Kilbey, twin lead guitarists Peter Koppes and Marty Willson-Piper, and drummer Tim Powles) have had an amazing creative resurgence in the '00s, especially with their last three albums (2002's After Everything Now This, 2004's Forget Yourself, and Uninvited, Like The Clouds from 2006), distilling the highlights of the band's 25-year-plus career into atmospheric, compelling and thought-provoking music that's matched by very few. Add to that the release by Kilbey and Willson-Piper earlier this year of their best solo albums to date (Painkiller and Nightjar, also out here on Second Motion), plus the early reviews out of Australia saying that the band had come up with their best work yet on Untitled #23, and my expectations were pretty much for a musical second coming.

I still don't think this is the best Church album by a long stretch - that honour would still go to 1992 's dark magnum opus, Priest=Aura - but it is an extremely good and consistent work by a group of musicians that have fully matured into their sound and still enjoy pushing their creative boundaries. It takes a few listens to fully appreciate Untitled...'s charms, but stick with it and you'll be amply rewarded. A sunny Sunday afternoon drive was what made it all fall into place for me, but this is also a fine record to appreciate pretty much anywhere that it won't just be background music.

The first four songs tripped me up on the first few listens; on first impression they seemed too slow and samey, like the handful of less compelling songs on After Everything … Keep listening, though, and they gradually reveal all kinds of hidden charms, melding together into an extended suite that transports you out of the present in the way the best Church (or church) music can.

I do have to admit that I can't understand why Pangaea was picked out as the single; it just doesn't have enough to distinguish it either lyrically or musically. The other EP songs are better, especially as there's one each by Koppes and Willson-Piper (most Church albums give the ace guitarists a song or two each, but for some reason Untitled doesn't). Both these songs have a more upbeat air than most of Untitled; "LLC" is an ode to falling in love with lovely, ringing 12-string guitar (but somewhat trite lyrics, as can happen with PK), while "Insanity" is a midtempo electric guitar-fest, well up to MWP's standards. The EP closes with "So Love Will Find Us", a typical stretched out late-period Church jam.

Back to the album, and things pick right up with the urgent, one note melody of "Space Saviour" - it has a great stream-of-consciousness lyric of the kind at which Kilbey excels. The song seems to deal with addiction, and the singer eschews his usual detached delivery for some raw emotion in the chorus "And I gotta get up and I gotta get on and I gotta get out". I was reminded of Neil Young's similarly soul-laid-bare "Tonight's The Night" as the song faded out with "and I can't get up and I can't get out ..."

The second half of the album continues the excellence. In particular, "Sunken Sun" is a great, reflective Church classic with a spine-tingling, crying guitar motif in the mould of "After Everything" or "Awful Ache", while "Anchorage" reminds of one of my favourite recent-ish Church songs, "Louisiana", what with its rueful air and just the right amount of guitar noise. Going back to those Neil Young references, the pace and mood of this one feel like "Cortez The Killer" - which Kilbey & co. just happened to cover on their fine all-covers album, A Box Of Birds.

Speaking of covers, try and hunt down the Coffee Hounds EP, too; the lead track "Coffee Song" is well up to the standard of the Untitled songs, but the killer is their unexpected cover of the Kate Bush song "Hounds Of Love", which the band make completely their own. All together now, tear your shoes off and throw them in the lake!

The Church are on a pretty extensive US tour currently; if you're not already a fan or these words don't pique your curiosity, they also had the extreme good taste to pick the fantastic Adam Franklin, of Swervedriver and Magnetic Morning fame, as their support act. Highly, highly recommended.

-Gareth Bowles

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