Mike Keneally
Wing Beat Fantastic

(Exowax)

"Songs written by Mike Keneally & Andy Partridge": this is the subtitle of Wing Beat Fantastic, the much-anticipated CD featuring the fruits of the collaboration between US musician Mike Keneally and the former leader of much-loved, long-gone U.K. group called XTC. That this album was eagerly awaited was clearly demonstrated by the large quantity of reviews whose excerpts I happened to find on Keneally's website the day I had a look to see if said album was indeed out. All were very favourable, to say the least, my point here, however, being how timely they all were. Was I surprised by that!, being used as I was at seeing those reviews of his albums trickle very slowly. I think this is a good demonstration of the love many feel for Partridge, also of the perceived amount of "weight" thought of as distinctive of each man by those who write about music (which doesn't really appear to me as being a truthful description when it comes to paying customers, but that's life).

As it's succinctly but clearly explained in the CD liner notes (those in need of longer texts can easily access Keneally's website), the material featured on the album was for the most part conceived in the course of two one-week-long writing/demoing sessions - the first in 2006, the second in 2008 - at Partridge's place, in Swindon, the recording proper taking place in California in 2011 and 2012, tracking by Keneally, with "transatlantic input" by Partridge. Plus, there is some stuff from various periods, all composed by Keneally. Having a look on the Web (the album release date was July 24), reading between the lines, it appeared to me as though some fans felt maybe a bit let down by Partridge non-appearance as a vocalist and instrumentalist, though it's very clear that that's the way he wanted. (Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but there's a part in the last track where Keneally sings "I, as we, sing".)

Now's the time for me to detonate the little bomb that should explain why this review is a bit late (and no, it's not because I had to accustom myself to the sound of the new CD player I just bought): In truth, I never really liked XTC - there, I said it! - , which made me quite undecided about my writing this review. Those being the days, back in the day, I found myself listening to Drums & Wires, and having a look (but of course!) to the cover of Go 2. Later, I found English Settlement to be a significant step forward for the group, but I never felt compelled to listen to their music on a regular basis, my knowledge of the music of the group being on fact very sketchy to this day (does this disqualify me from expressing my opinion about Wing Beat Fantastic? Well, that's for readers to decide). The fact that Partridge produced a Peter Blegvad album called The Naked Shakespeare didn't help much, Blegvad being at the time one of my favourite "new" artists, Partridge's production work being in my opinion very competent and quite intelligent, but totally at odds with the material and the mood of the album (my opinion, of course, but not Blegvad's record company, of course). Case closed.

I have to admit it was with great curiosity that I started listening to this album. It's a very good album, I think, with just a few minor lows, but lotsa highs. At times, the album sounded more "English" than "American" to me, but this is just a red herring, given the sheer variety of "styles" Keneally has always featured on his albums starting from day one. Here and there one can hear more "streamlined" musical developments, but this doesn't mean much, either. The guitar tones - talking about the electric guitars, since the acoustic guitars, and there are lots of them, sound more or less the same as before - are a bit "thin" here, but I'd say that it's obvious the problem was not to have them compete with the vocals, which are so many and so varied as to defy description. And it's the function - and so, the placement - of the vocal parts that in my opinion makes this album so different from, say, Wooden Smoke, Keneally's "acoustic album" Wing Beat Fantastic is said to resemble: whereas the former saw vocals often featured as pure colour, the new album has a stronger narrative element, as shown by the lyrics.

The album is all good, but it's with the second half that, for me, it really takes off. Very well recorded - for the most part, by Mike Harris - it shows Keneally, with a little help of some featured musicians I'll talk about in a moment, at his multi-instrumental best.

The album features a few instrumental episodes which function as bridges and help the whole avoid a (potential) perception of sameness. Album opener, The Ineffable Oomph Of Everything, Part One, works as a charm, taking the listener to I'm Raining Here, Inside, which features a drum loop by Partridge: a perfect mid-tempo for a lively track with good backing by the clear thinking of old acquaintance Marco Minnemann; fine arpeggios, a classic melody, and a bridge that to me sounds like pure Keneally, the track has an "Indian-sounding" coda, which sounds very "English Psychedelia, circa 1966".

Wing Beat Fantastic is one of the album high points: dream-like, again with a drum loop by Partridge, Minnemann again on drums, with solid vocal backing by Allen Whitman (who's a valuable presence throughout the album) and by Matt Resnicoff (whose signature I used to read on Musician and Guitar Player magazines back in the day but who in real life is a much-appreciated guitar player and producer) adding "depth" and colours. A catchy chorus, a light bridge, which - with the help of "phasing" - leads us to the guitar.

The Ineffable Oomph Of Everything, Part 2 takes us to You Kill Me, for this writer the only really weak moment on the album. The song combines a lively tone and a serious text, but the variety of guitar timbres cannot conceal the monotony of the structure which makes the song appear quite longer than its already considerable length. A very "English-sounding" melody - think: The Who - with a solid backing, as it's to be expected, by an old friend, Nick D'Virgilio.

The brief, instrumental, Friend Of A Friend takes us to another high point, That's Why I Have No Name, penned by Keneally, who also sits on drums. A fine melody with a multi-coloured vocal backing, and many guitars, some of them "backwards"-sounding.

Another high point, Your House is maybe the most unusual track on the album: a "piano ballad" - which to me sounds as it was written on guitar - perfectly orchestrated to give the illusion of being "dry", with a tense naked vocal performance by Keneally, a first for him. The bridge has a fine development, while the song time framework made me place it side-by-side to As Far As Dreams Can Go, by Dave Stewart & Barbara Gaskin.

The brilliant Miracle Woman And Man is almost a mini-opera, not too far from 10cc, circa Sheet Music. Layered vocals, fine acoustic guitars - and what's that, a Moog Voyager? (Strange thing, I thought I heard a clarinet here, though Evan Francis is credited as playing on the last track, where I can't hear him.)

Variations on a melody off Wing Beat Fantastic, Inglow flows in a clear, clean way - acoustic guitars, tabla, keyboards - to end with a brief song.

A fine odd-meter played by Marco Minnemann at his skillful best - listen to that snare-bass drum passage - Bobeau features a tasty trombone played by April West, Alan Whitman on vocals again, evocative rain recorded by Scott Chatfield in his backyard, a fine contrast between complex verses and a simple chorus, and a guitar solo whose finger vibrato reminded me of David Gilmour (!).

Closing track Land appears to me as playing the same (musical) function as Gentle Giant's closing track, Three Friends, on their album of same name. Multiple vocals, Bryan Beller on double bass, Minnemann on cymbals (also Evan Francis on clarinet?), Keneally on piano and guitars.

Beppe Colli


Beppe Colli 2012

CloudsandClocks.net | Aug. 31, 2012