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While the group never truly gained the popular acclaim many of us thought it was due, the Church has still managed to carve out a consistently interesting career for itself, moving from underground sensation to (briefly) popular mainstream act to legendary veterans, all while never resting on its own laurels. In celebration of 30 years of existence, the band has begun a reissue campaign for its major label work, most of which is inexplicably out of print. A reassessment of the Australian quartet’s early LPS is especially useful considering how well it displays the band finding its way toward its signature sound, a swirl of psychedelic rock that contains familiar elements but that sounds like no one but the Church. The reissues also include bonus tracks, plus historical liner notes from guitarist Marty Willson-Piper.
Fans who entered the Church following the international success of its fifth album Starfish and its career-defining hit single “Under the Milky Way” might be surprised by the forthright sound of the band’s debut album Of Skins and Heart. The gauzy psychedelia for which the group would become known appears only in hints and glimmers here. Instead the band – bassist/singer/songwriter Steve Kilbey, guitarists Peter Koppes and Piper and drummer Nick Ward – boasts a rocking sound that’s more in line with the rising tide of new wave. It sounds like a young band with talent to burn eager to get its ideas down on vinyl as quickly and energetically as possible.
The snarling postpunker “Fighter Pilot…Korean War,” the straightforward ballad “Don’t Open the Door to Strangers” and the bombastic “Memories in Future Tense” sound very different from the band with which most people would become familiar – the guitars are much more muscular and less pretty. Kilbey had not yet found his style as a vocalist, pushing his natural croon into an urgent yelp influenced by his 70s glam rock heroes. It mostly fits but he occasionally sounds like he’s straining beyond his comfort zone. Sprightly pop rockers like “She Never Said,” “For a Moment We’re Strangers,” “Chrome Injury” (which is marred by a dated electronic percussion thwack) and the Australian hit “The Unguarded Moment” show some of the group’s hallmarks – the uncommon chemistry between Koppes and Willson-Piper’s axes, Kilbey’s enigmatic lyrics – but also have a stripped down, propulsive power folks rarely associate with the band now. The leisurely epic “Is This Where You Live” and the jangling “Bel-Air” give hints of what was to come, but overall Of Skins and Heart sounds like the work of a different band than the Church we all know – though quite a good band, to be sure.
This edition comes with a pair of B-sides as bonus tracks, and, not uncommonly for bands of this era, they’re both as good as anything else on the main record. “Busdriver” achieves a jagged, melodic drive very familiar to fans of today’s neo-new wave crop, while “In a Heartbeat” mixes an almost strident wash of chords, soaring lead guitar and a particularly catchy melody into a near-classic that the band should consider reviving. Indeed, it would be interesting to hear how the mature, experienced Church would handle these songs today. Even if little here sounds like the Church we all know and adore, Of Skins and Heart is still a strong debut by a band full of ideas that would be more fully developed as its career progressed.
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