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Isidore (+ bonus CD)
Karmic Hit

When word got around three years ago that The Church's primary vocalist/wordsmith Steve Kilbey was collaborating on a project with guitarist Jeffrey Cain of (the now sadly defunct) Remy Zero, the anticipation level of fans who have loyally followed the careers of both bands was perhaps a step beyond "high." Some musical pairings make elemental sense, particularly when they are kindred spirits set a generation apart; both acolytes of organically textured guitar rock that transcends, as much as it lays itself bare to the human condition. Remy Zero may have been more anthmetic than the Church ever could -- or would -- be (see their last album, the fine, if overproduced, The Golden Hum), but there's no denying the influence the Australian band has had in Cain's guitar-playing. Break out a copy of 1998's masterful Villa Elaine and look past Cinjun Tate's stunning vocals, and you have a bed of incandescent, spacious guitar that even allows the stretch between notes to speak.

So what exactly do you get when an American instrumentalist ships a batch of songs to an Australian singer-songwriter? Well, if the Isidore Manifesto (available on the band's website) is indicative of the result, you don't get "music to communicate that which can be communicated" or "describe that which can be described." In short, these guys want you to sort this out for yourself, which puts the reviewer in the odd position of verbally describing that which cannot be verbally described.

But here it goes.

Beginning with the snap of a drum machine and a monochrome guitar line, opener "Musidora" at first seems cast in gray, like a lumbering, northern bound train. Kilbey's vocals slide in as a far-off point of interest on the landscape, and then it happens: a sunburst of chiming acoustic guitar and a tiny, intimate smile in the chorus. "My little special, total extravaganza, like a summer night..." Gray gives way to light, and you realize you may have just heard the first outright love song Steve Kilbey has written in his twenty-five year career. (Unless you count the lullaby-esque "Glow Worm" from the Church's Hologram of Baal -- an ode to his daughters.)

It's a captivating start to an album that often delves into more nebulous territory -- territory Kilbey fans are more than accustomed to, but may surprise Remy Zero fans expecting the softer edges of even the darker fare of Cain's former band. (Songs like "Hollow", "Bitter", and more than a few from the self-titled Remy Zero, still feature the innate luminosity of Tate's vocals.) Those acquainted with Cain's Sleepwell project with former RZ drummer Gregory Slay won't be as startled by the razor-sharp textures glimmering here and there, or the full-bodied roll of a drum machine underscoring songs like "One For Iris Doe." And whether one is familiar with either man's past work or not, there's no denying the shine of the eleven songs presented here in aural widescreen; each unfolding in defined flashes of vivid, keen-edged brilliance.

"Refused (On Temple St.)" is all misty, muted acoustics and inherent melancholia, Kilbey singing of dripping hedges, blurry edges, and a possible betrayal (or is it the spurning of a former lover? friend?), as the tiniest electronic effect evokes the sound of tires on wet pavement. It's one of Cain's many sonic touches that add skillful nuance to the mood of Isidore. The sweeping, cinematic "The Memory Cloud" is a plane of sparse soundscape dotted by echoing backing vocals and post-apocalyptic imagery, elevated by a searing, and all-too-short, guitar bridge that ups the emotional ante into lovely, aching heights.

For anyone worried that in the midst of playing everything, Cain would put less emphasis on the instrument he's most known for, fear not. His guitar-playing has rarely sounded as pure and crystalline, as emotive and torrid, and yet, as restrained in its use. This is not a guitar-driven record. Nor is it an electronic one. Rhythm is definitely a cornerstone of this music, but not necessarily the centerpiece. Guitars act like back-up singers, accentuating but never overwhelming, and when they do rise from the ether, it serves a purpose other than filling time. Cain's musical fusion is a perfect balance, allowing two songs to co-exist within the same space with seamless cohesion, but still leaving certain elements slightly askew, like a small warp in the glass. And that's what makes the music so all-encompassing.

Cain's arrangements also push Kilbey into intense lyrical juxtapositions: "One For Iris Doe" (get it? Iris Doe? Isidore?) features a haunting refrain ("Sun in the west sky, moon in the east, morning comes and changes everything..." -- a reference to the great distance over which this project came to fruition?) amongst some pretty hostile lingua franca, a good portion of which sounds improvised to these ears, and delivered in the same sing-speak that Kilbey's shown a fondness for in the past. It's a pattern we see again in "CA. Redemption Value", which opens with a spoken "hellfire and damnation" spiel straight out of Pat Robertson's speech book -- all pompous verbosity ("great goodnesshood"? HA!) and social/political reference ("shock and awe"). Even after multiple listens, it seems an odd fit for the ensuing song, which is another example of the sheer space this album encompasses in one's head and ears -- another serene melody carrying you to the song's shore, and just when you're being lulled into a dreamy (if slightly unsettling) repose, the surf surges you into a strangling hurricane of boiling commentary and some of Kilbey's most viciously clever wordplay. "Where is the boy who looks after the flock? Down on his knees sucking a clock" will surely go down as one of his greatest lines.

And Christ, does he sing on this record. The past few years have seen Steve Kilbey truly "coming into" his voice; willingly pushing his vocals to places his early works rarely went. Always a master at turning a phrase, he's now fearlessly pushing his boundaries, and the result is often emotionally shattering: the slight hiccup on "Austin Lancer" in "Musidora", the quiet urgency of "Ghosting", the entire goddamn chorus of the astounding "Sanskrit"... "Transmigration" is heart-wrenching, each word loaded with the weariness its narrator speaks of: "Oh my God, baby, I'm so fucking tired..." You hear a song like this and can't help but wonder how this deep into his career he can still write words this breathtakingly immediate, let alone sing them ten times better than he would have ten years ago.

"Saltwater" is saturated with Bondi Beach's coastal influence (Kilbey's current home), but punctuated by Cain's skittery drum loop that is all but claustrophobic, lending an air of uncertainty to what seems like an almost droll narrative. The backwards guitar and keyboard drone of "Ghosting" create a hyper urban feel, while the vocals whisper along the sidewalks. The afore-mentioned "Sanskrit" is euphoria-in-motion, even with its lyrical bruises and tears, bringing to mind reincarnation (a theme also hinted at in "The Memory Cloud"): "Yesterday's gone and it's better that way...written in Sanskrit again" hints at the beginning of a new cycle, being rewritten into being. There is a recurring theme of time on this record, of days and months and years, seasons and clocks; references to children, and seeds, and (maybe) dying. Listed closer "Nothing New" has the feel of a tale from long ago, a lullaby of regret, both gauzy and oddly matter-of-fact in tone, yet not without humor: "The hotel man from Turkistan, soaking up the rays, I wish I'd been a woman then, I might've been amazed." It plays as one of the album's most touching, and honest, moments. Hidden track "No Passage" has the depth of Gregory Slay's martial drumming, Cedric LeMoyne's (also late of Remy Zero) expert touch on bass, Cain's plaintive guitar, and ethereal backing vocals by John Kilbey (who also produced the vocal tracks) underscoring a story-song that weaves all of the silver threads before it into a shimmering, accomplished coda.

Those who pre-ordered Isidore from Karmic Hit were treated to a bonus CD featuring two tracks that didn't make the album proper -- "Andalusian Dogs" and "Mitternight." It's a shame they weren't included, as both deserve the same attention as any track that was; but on the other hand, giving them their own disc lets you absorb them in all their, well..."goodnesshood." "Mitternight" has a twilight intro that morphs into a frantic, half-mad adrenaline rush of witchy symbolism and overriding temptation. "Dogs" surges forward with embattled zeal, nearly epic in its proportions, playing out like its own mini-legend. And listen to that helicopter sound! Yet another example of Cain-Kilbey symbiosis.

Evoking older projects in a review is obviously meant to provide a context, but referencing former Kilbey projects like Refo:mation or Jack Frost, or even his solo record Remindlessness, seems lazy and trite, because this is the first album of his that those comparisons didn't immediately come to mind. Plus, it's short-changing the obvious blood, sweat, and balls of Jeffrey Cain, who took a chance on sending that first song across an ocean, and who has created a challenging sonic pallet of sensual and carnal beauty. There's something fresh, revitalized, and altogether different about Isidore...but seeing as it is music that cannot be pinpointed, be grateful it is music that can be listened to and adored.

- Heather Space

Track Listing:

1. Musidora
2. Refused (on Temple St.)
3. Sanskrit
4. The Memory Cloud
5. Saltwater
6. One for Iris Doe
7. Ghosting
8. Transmigration
9. CA. Redemption Value
10. Nothing New
11. No Passage (hidden track)

Bonus CD:
1. Andalusian Dogs
2. Mitternight


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