Wednesday, June 28, 2006

"Starfish" = Los Angeles

What's the most plausible thematic album to have been written about the sprawling, choking metropolis of Los Angeles? No, it's not something as immediately obvious as The Eagles' "One of These Nights", or something as drearily dull as Counting Crows' "Recovering the Satellites". Instead, it's from a most unlikely source, and many quarters might disagree vehemently with this choice, but I dare say it's The Church's 1988 all-round masterwork "Starfish".

While the veteran Australian psych-rock band might have started out as a archetypal post-punk jangle-pop outfit (albeit addressing lyrical concerns about occultism, existentialism, and just feeling rather strange, really), it was on "Starfish" that their collective strengths came together in a superb, equal-parts fusion of confidence and edginess. Uprooted from their usual surroundings of Sydney to the decidedly unfamiliar environment of LA, The Church responded to the new backdrop by presenting a whole album's worth of relevant songs about the corresponding bright-lights, big-city ambience. And what an album it is too.

"Destination" sets the tone for the journey ahead appropriately enough, a darkly disquieting and ominous opening that segues easily into the elegantly atmospheric but uneasily dreamy "Under the Milky Way", which brilliantly details those stifling, smog-filled nights in the seedier parts of North Hollywood. The self-explanatory "Blood Money" is a quietly menacing, taut-to-the-breaking-point mid-tempo rocker that makes the most of The Church's virtuosic guitar wizardry, while the forlorn, despondent "Lost" effortlessly captures that inimitable feeling of psychological dislocation when wandering around without purpose in a foreign location.

The incredibly assured, turbo-charged "North, South, East and West" is a bitterly cheerful castigation of all the various quirks and eccentricities seen in the culturally distinctive districts of LA ("The real estate's prime, and the number plates rhyme", "Wear a gun and be proud, but bare breasts aren't allowed", "Dream up the scams, and then rake in the clams in this city", "The face of today is just a scalpel today"), and the ballsy, punchy rock-out "Spark" is a tribute of sorts to the myriad underground clubs dotting Silverlake.

The deceptively stately "Antenna" meanwhile bemoans Southern California's phenomenon of here-today, gone-tomorrow cultural fads through a sea-shanty guitar waltz, and "A New Season" fluently encapsulates that wide-eyed sense of wonder as one looks out over the wide expanses of the cityscape as the plane descends upon LAX. The sneering, derisive "Reptile" is a venomous two-fingered salute to a vacuous, airheaded starlet, but The Church save their best for last with the closing, final charge "Hotel Womb", a perfectly poised final blowout that takes in an all-inclusive overview of the city, and comes up with the conclusion that it's better to "dream I'm safe in my hotel womb, soft and soul made, it's a wonderful room" - equating the bare comforts of a cheap hotel room to a preferred refuge from the urban insanities of the exterior vicinity.

While The Church today are reduced to a cult act specialising in neo-Floydian theatrics, it was "Starfish" that well and truly established their credentials as bona fide masters of the Los Angeles concept album.


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