The Church
Deep in the Shallows
Second Motion

Making their mark on mainstream charts with the shimmery “Under the Milky Way,” the Church has long been known for wrapping their distinct blend of Byrdsian jangle and new wave pop in a hazy fog, sort of the audio equivalent of a dry ice machine. It’s been their stock-in-trade for 30 years now, as the band was already eight years into its career when that song became a hit. To mark their three-decade milestone, Second Motion has begun a reissue campaign of the Australian stalwarts back catalog. Culled from those back pages is this new 34-track compilation, Deep in the Shallows, a singles collection.

Of course, the Church didn’t emerge down under fully formed, and here it takes more than a handful of tracks before the Church sounds with which we are familiar take shape. Cuts like “She Never Said,” “The Unguarded Moment” and “Too Fast for You” (all from the Church’s debut, Of Skins and Heart) are lean and erratic, sounding like the Australian answer to the poppier post-punk sides surfacing abroad. Those cuts are wonderful in their own way, if slightly indistinctive. “Tear It All Away,” also from the debut, has hints of the guitar chimes that would mark their later work, but it isn’t until “It’s No Reason,” from Seance, the group’s third record, that their misty aesthetic begins to swirl. Here, a simple keyboard melody is augmented with shapeshifting guitars and Steven Kilbey’s multi-tracked resonating vocals. By the time of “Constant in Opal” and “Already Yesterday,” both from 1984’s Remote Luxury, they’ve almost fully matured.

It is, appropriately enough, with Heyday that the Church came upon the sound that was to be there’s. “Tantalized” is spoiled by some misguided horn parts, but “Columbus” is one of their finest moments, a song as mesmerizing as “Milky Way.” “Disenchanted” is simpler by comparison, but lyrically as clever and sardonic as anything Kilbey’s ever wrote. “Reptile,” from 1988’s Starfish like “Milky Way,” is as slithery as its title, with guitarist Marty Willson-Piper carving an echoing guitar line that shapes the song.

Of course, “Under the Milky Way” is brilliant in its own way, at once full of light and darkness. Unfortunately, it marked the band’s commercial highpoint. Arista dropped the band after Gold Afternoon Fix and Priest = Aura, and as singles like “Russian Autumn Heart” and “Feel” show, not without reason. With line-up changes (guitarist Peter Koppes left and returned and the band went through several drummers before settling on Tim Powles) lending to their inconsistency, the Church has never regained the higher ground they once claimed as their own. The band’s albums in the 21st century have largely and deservedly gone unnoticed. They recently returned to form with last year’s Untitled #23, which though more adventurous sonically than they had been heretofore, echoes those songtrails from their best work. It’s pointless to pretend that the band hasn’ had a legacy—as there are few bands who can hold a torch to the Church—but as this collection proves, here was a singular act who carved out a niche that no one could replicate.
Stephen Slaybaugh