Isidore is a collaboration between Aussie music legend Steve Kilbey and American guitarist Jeffrey Cain, best known for his time in Remy Zero. Kilbey’s claim to fame is being the bassist/lead singer of The Church, which is unquestionably one of the finest groups in the history of rock music. I don’t want to get into that band’s career too much, since a comprehensive Church-related post is surely in my future. Suffice it to say, anyone who is a serious listener of the best of modern music must at some point investigate the band’s discography. I must admit I don’t know much about Remy Zero…I believe they were in the chimy school of 90s rock, but I shan’t say too much in my ignorance.
Kilbey has a prodigious solo discography featuring many collaborative projects with such luminaries as the late and missed Grant McLennan of the Go-Betweens (as Jack Frost) and with Martin Kennedy of All India Radio. All of those are worth listening to, and Isidore is no exception. Kilbey’s output is so vast that he has his share of minor dogs in there (though I have to say his dogs are still better than almost anyone else’s finest work), but on the whole he’s always interesting and continues to push aside artistic barriers.
As I understand it, the music is basically generated by Cain, who ships the files off to Kilbey for the vocals and lyrics. This is the second Isidore album. The first album is quite good and gets quite a bit of play from me, though I can’t help but feel, in comparison to this album, that they were only finding their legs as collaborators on that recording…the tunes get a bit samey at times. This generous helping of songs has a lot more variety and just feels like a lot of care was put into it.
As a final note, it’s important to know about Kilbey’s primary skill, which is lyrics and which is the main draw for many of his fans. Kilbey’s lyrics are anything but average — he’s an erudite fellow and evidently widely read. He prefers to take listeners on a journey, often a spiritual one, since he has a strong interest in Eastern philosophy. When he was younger there was an ironic detachment to his work, based more on concept than emotion. As an older artist, more personal songs have crept into his work, full of wisdom and experience, and in many ways that is more satisfying than the ultra-cool imagery on Church classics such as Starfish and Priest=Aura.
OK, to the album in question. As I remarked, this is a generous helping of 14 tracks. The album opener, “The Privateer,” is classic Kilbey with a story that takes us on a journey back in time. After an ambient intro, Cain’s music is lilting and elegant, driven by acoustic guitars and stately keyboards as Kilbey intones a story of the sea. Excellent stuff.
After that the mood changes abruptly to psych-folk on the title track as echoey acoustics strum under Kilbey’s existential angst about “life somewhere else.”
Track 3, “Song of the City,” takes us into the territory of the first Isidore album in a pop song with a combination of chiming acoustic and electric guitars. But it’s not till track 4 that we get the money shot. As I said earlier, Kilbey’s work has become more personal as time has gone on, and “Old Black Spirit” obviously references some of the more difficult times in his life (the 1990s, I believe). On this song his tone is direct from the heart in a spirit of rueful reminiscence as he reflects (shit, that’s a lot of alliteration) on his mistakes. It’s really, really touching. Songs as good as this are a lesson in a five-minute package.
There are really just too many tracks on this album to comment on each individually without writing a 2000-word essay. The rest of the songs range from pop (“Some Reverse Magic,” “Belle in Mid Air,” the beautiful “Song for the Moon”), to funkier, moody rock (“Recoil,” “Just Dust”), to moody psychedelia (“Reappearance,” “Oh My Sky,” “Readymade”).
Kilbey’s also always been great at album closers (when you’re philosphically inclined as a writer, you’d better be!), and “You Will Remain” ends the proceedings with one of his classic ponderings on life and death (“Time to Say Goodbye” on Dabble is also a real heartbreaker).
All through the recording, Cain’s classy psych-tinged rock provides great otherworldly support for Kilbey’s famous dour baritone and his serpentine, meandering wordsmithery. It appears that these occasional collaborations provide constant revitalization of Kilbey’s talents, because some of his best work comes out of them.
This album provides an excellent opportunity to hear a grand master at work, supported by a great young talent. Albums like this make a great case for the artistic potential of rock music, which can be as uplifting and valuable as any other kind of art music when it’s not being watered down.