Thursday, June 25, 2009

A Little-Known New Pop Gem

One of the most enjoyable new CDs I’ve been listening to this spring is Nightjar, the latest release from Marty Willson-Piper of the Australian rock band The Church. It may be one of the best CDs to come along in a while that very few people are likely to hear. It’s a shame really, because this CD’s 10 tunes are finely crafted, multi-dimensioned pop artisanship that anyone with good taste in music could find pleasure in.

Despite a near three-decades-long career and dozens of records released under various guises (solo and with The Church, All About Eve, Noctorum, The Saints, et al), MWP – unlike better-known-but-lesser artists – does not have a powerful record conglomerate promoting his work. Unless you’re already familiar with this accomplished intercontinental musician and make an effort to seek out his work, you’re not likely to know what he has been up to.

Nightjar is MWP’s sixth solo release (not counting several live CDs) and may well be his best since Art Attack, his best-selling 1988 solo release. Nightjar harkens back to Art Attack in both its cast of characters (pal Dare Mason once again plays a prominent role as producer and pianist) and its similarly effervescent feel. Both albums share an organic acoustic foundation, sophisticatedly colored with piano, electric guitar and other instrumental embellishments, and matched with MWP’s distinctive, crisply annunciated vocals.

Nightjar is particularly lush in its instrumentation – not that there are lots of instruments piled on, but what is there makes for beautifully rich sounds. The multi-layered acoustic guitars are supported at various points by cello and violin (at times melancholy, at others buoyant), crisp piano, and even accordian, flute (actually, bamboo whistle according to the liner notes), trumpet and trombone. Harmony vocals (male and female) are especially evocative and effective in the overall sound. Yet most of the songs retain an uncomplicated, almost stripped down, sound. As much as The Church’s music of the last two decades has been dense with overlaid guitars and atmospheric effects, Nightjar comes across as clean and airy.

Lyrically the CD is rich and literate – as one familiar with MWP’s work and worldly views would expect, but this one is perhaps even more so. A range of themes – love, loss, quests, fear, imagination, contradictions, history and the future – make for mature, thoughtful and often romantic songs that will appeal to both rockers (well, Pink Floyd fans, at least) as well as fans of folk and classic pop music.

The entire CD is enjoyable listening, but my favorite tracks are, first and foremost, the brightly shimmering pop of “High Down Below,” with its snatches of electric guitar and baroque sounding choruses that circle back to jangly guitar pop. (I’m really not much of a fan of most pop music, but this is really good pop music!)

“Lullabye for the Lonely” is another standout pop song with a truly captivating hook. Meanwhile, “Feed Your Mind” starts with a recitative vocal approach and pointed strums of guitar that give way to a jaunty upbeat tune (it’s one of the most literate songs on a very literate album). Then there’s “I Must’ve Fallen,” a piano-driven romantic ballad with haunting cello and violin flourishes and effective male-female duets on the choruses.

Lest the pop overwhelm everything, there are momentary prolapses into Floydian electric guitar, most notably on “The Sniper” and “No One There” (the most Church-like song on the CD) – ensuring that Nightjar is not devoid of rock references. The CD closes with “A Game for Losers,” on which trumpet embellishments complement prominent accordian, giving the song a South American/gypsy feel like something off of Dylan’s latest release (Together Through Life) – only with better singing!

There is real drama – both lyrically and musically – in the all of the songs on Nightjar. It’s exuberant and romantic music that manages to be both crisp sounding and atmospheric. Strong hooks abound, while the words are well-crafted and effectively sung. This is timeless pop music – or perhaps, pop music for all time. I’ll be listening to it for a long time, I’m sure. Seek it out. You’ll be glad you did.


• I recommend also checking out Art Attack (1988) and Spirit Level (1992).

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