–a CD review by Tony Pucci, host of the Pollyanna Cowgirl Records Podcast
In 1987, I was 19 years old and going through a one-year course in Stringed Instrument Repair and Construction at the Red Wing Technical Institute in the beautiful Mississippi River town of Red Wing, Minnesota. You might have heard of their pots and other crockery. Or you might have heard that Bob Dylan spent some time in the Reformatory School there because he was a young rebel, and it’s no coincidence that Highway 61 runs north-south through town. There was also a Band Instrument Repair course at the school, and I became friends with a guy in that class named Dave. One spring afternoon I hanging out over at his apartment, listening to records (yes, vinyl records!). We listened to the brand-new The Joshua Tree from U2, and with never hearing the songs before, Dave was able to grab the lyric sheet and sing nearly perfectly along with Bono. Amazed, I asked him how he did that, and he simply stated that he’d listened to a heck of a lot of U2 in the past.
Once that record was finished, Dave asked me if I wanted to listen to Diesel and Dust by Midnight Oil or Heyday from The Church. I’d heard of both bands, knew they were both Australian groups, but I’d head a little bit of Midnight Oil and had really liked it, and I hadn’t heard The Church at all at that point, so I played it safe and selected Midnight Oil. If I’d chosen The Church’s Heyday, with those 4 pretty boys in those gorgeous paisley shirts on the front cover , my life would have been totally turned on its’ head one year earlier than it was. Because a year later in 1988, The Church put out Starfish, and that is when I finally heard a group in real life making the music I had been hearing in my head. I’d finally and truly found my “favorite band”!
So, a year later I’m living back in my parent’s basement, watching MTV, and this song called “Under the Milky Way” by The Church comes on. Hey, The Church! I’ve always wondered what they sounded like. A mellow song starting out with an A Minor chord progression, a charismatic lead singer with a velvet voice, and tripped-out twin electric guitars held me mesmerized that afternoon, and I anxiously went and bought the cassette of the album. I eventually wore out 3 cassette copies of Starfish! You youngsters, how do wear out a cassette? First you have handled it so much that the black ink is gone completely from the white plastic; you recognize Side A from Side B from weird little marks or discolorations. Then you play it so much, the tape begins to demagnetize, the sound starts to drop out, and next thing you know the whole thing sounds like it’s coming from a distant room trapped under 20 feet of water.
Good bands have a unique and impressive chemistry, and The Church has an all-star lineup of musicians who unite to create an amazingly beautiful force of nature. Steve Kilbey, bassist and lead singer, has that enigmatic confidence thing down, visionary and oblique in his art and lyrics. Marty Willson-Piper and Peter Koppes are two of the most talented and influential guitarists of the rock era, even if you’ve never heard their names. Who do you think was one of Radiohead’s biggest inspirations? And present drummer Tim Powles (who only joined the group in the early 90s) is one of the most awesome guys you could ever know, he’s a true artist on percussion, and he was totally cool and did a song with me for my ALS Charity CD, Songs for Jenny.
To say I was blown away by Starfish would me a massive understatement. Every song is excellent. Melodic rock with a shimmering and intertwining tapestry of guitars became so obviously the way music should be, to me, after I head this record. I went out and bought the tablature book and learned the different guitar parts, deconstructed how they played, how the parts worked individually to make a greater whole, and this record greatly influenced my guitar playing and song writing, as it must have for many other music and guitar nerds like me. I know, I ended up as a moderator on their bulletin board, HOTELWOMB (named for a song off of Starfish). My Church geekdom resulted in over 5000 posts there! And frankly, all of the discussions there can say much more about this or any of their records than I can in one post.
The Church have 23 records out now, starting in 1981, and they are still going strong, if not better than ever. They call what they do “space rock”. A discussion of the “best” record in their discography breeds a dozen answers, but Starfish is often mentioned. At the least, it could be considered their most important record, what with their biggest hit “Under the Milky Way” coming from Starfish. To me it’s like loving your children. Each one is different, each has a unique personality, but you love them all and marvel at the growth. The Church always are rooted to an atmospheric ethic, but Starfish might be the most direct, straightforward and accessible of their records. If you want to have any kind of collection of the classic records, then The Church’s Starfish is absolutely a must-have.