The Church

Arista, 1988

REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray


The alternative music scene was at an interesting place in 1988. Bands that had defined the genre through the 80s offered stone cold classics (Surfer Rosa, Daydream Nation, Green), while debuts from Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Jane's Addiction, the Sugarcubes and solid efforts from Prefab Sprout and King's X pointed toward a fascinating year, one that proved college radio was a thriving side option for far better music than the mainstream. It was also the year that one could argue really began to push the music into the mainstream; the debuts of the Seattle bands this year and the next pointed the way forward.

The Church's breakthrough effort Starfish feels like it got a little lost in the shuffle over the years, which is a darn shame. The lush, haunting, acoustic single "Under the Milky Way" was one of the best songs of the year and met with some chart success, but it just didn't seem to fit in with where alt-rock was heading. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Starfish is a mature effort, heavy on the post-punk mood but never too dour or stifling.

More than many of their peers, the Church seemed informed by the Berlin-era David Bowie albums, not only in bassist/singer Steve Killbey's low-pitched baritone but in the general sense of momentum, creeping edginess and gray mood of the music. What makes it work is the lack of arrogance, the songcraft and the melancholy beauty of it all; these guys are serious, but far less so than Bauhaus or Joy Division, more like a Depeche Mode but without the shift toward electronics.

"Under the Milky Way" remains a very good song worth rediscovering, but it is only one of the highlights here. Highly recommended is "North, South, East and West," which uses an off-kilter drum pattern to create a sense of unease, then fills the space with chiming guitar fills (think Television's "Marquee Moon") and echo-heavy vocals that swirl around. It's beautifully executed and confident.

"Spark" rocks a little more, albeit in a British Invasion kind of way, while "Destination" sets the stage perfectly, falling short only in the awkward pauses between the verse/chorus segments, which sort of kill the momentum. "Hotel Womb" is a fine, elegant closer and "Reptile" is yet another solid number, concluding with an extended instrumental section. 

There's not a bad track here, although there are a few that are unengaging, like he dull "Lost" and the ineffective "Blood Money," which has the elements to be good but can't quite pull them together. "A New Season" and "Antenna" are fairly forgettable too, although seamless and well played, fitting into the tenor of the album as a whole.

I suppose if this disc was on iTunes, it would be under the category of "dark 80s alt-pop-rock," and would be recommended next to the Cure, but that doesn't do justice to it. Starfish never rises to the level of lost classic, but it's far more engaging and intelligent than whatever passed for pop in 1988 and is much more than its one admittedly great hit single.

Rating: B

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