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
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,
"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
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
- Heather Space
2. Refused (on Temple St.)
4. The Memory Cloud
6. One for Iris Doe
9. CA. Redemption Value
10. Nothing New
11. No Passage (hidden track)
1. Andalusian Dogs
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