As the de facto blues’n’roots guy at The Orange Press I find myself often lauding those artists who root their music firmly in the past – acknowledging and continuing the treasured traditions of their musical jazz and blues forebears. But I get equally turned on by those who push in the other direction – those who head out into the future, treading an entirely original virgin path (see my Can reviews here and here).
Mike Keneally and Andy Partridge seem an odd couple yet both have musical pedigrees of great originality. Keneally (most recently seen in Australia on the G3 shred-fest with Steve Vai et al) was an important member of Frank Zappa’s last great band and Partridge was/is the brain of UK prog-poppers (pop-proggers?) XTC.
Wing Beat Fantastic is the wonderfully strange fruit of their coming together in two songwriting sessions in 2006 and 2008 and Keneally’s shaping of the results of these sessions. Nominally a Mike Keneally album, Andy Partridge’s highly distinctive pawprints are all over it even though he sonically only contributes a couple of percussion samples.
Songs such as ‘I’m Raining Here, Inside’, ‘Miracle Woman and Man’ and the title track could have come from XTC’s golden-period albums such as English Settlement (1982) or Skylarking (1986). ‘Your House’ is quite possibly the best XTC song I have ever heard.
The lysergicity (google it) of ‘That’s Why I Have No Name’ and ‘Inglow’ recall the charming psychedelic pastiche albums made by XTC’s freaky fun alter-egos The Dukes of Stratosphear – albums which also had the Partridge touch throughout. Yes Partridge is everywhere…
But not entirely and this is what makes Wing Beat Fantastic so enjoyable. Mike Keneally’s efflorescent ideas and seemingly unlimited musicianship (together with collaborators Allen Whitman, Matt Resnicoff and Marco Minneman) is what built Wing Beat Fantastic. Just listen to the two asymmetrical miniatures ‘The Ineffable Oomph of Everything Part 1’ and ‘…Part 2’, and the Zappaesque curlicues that bristle from ‘Land’ to hear Mike Keneally’s singular musical mind at work.
As singular a mind as XTC’s Andy Partridge… yes, Wing Beat Fantastic is a singular delight. If you love power-pop, psych-jazz or just the joyous riot of art at play, you will love the work of these two mothers of invention. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.
Prior to publishing this review, TheOrangePress asked Mike Keneally a few short questions. Here are his responses:
1. When I first heard of a collaboration between Mike Keneally and Andy Partridge I first thought – with all respect – ‘odd couple’. What is the common ground you share?
We both enjoy intense musicality, and like angular things (Beefheart was big for both of us), and share a desire to explore harmonic territory thoroughly. I remember him saying, in an interview in the 80s, that his main goal was to make songs so good that they hurt to listen to. That was wonderful to hear because I idolized his writing and was happy to hear that he was serious about it; I also recognized that I was trying to do the same thing. Where we differ most is lyrically – he’s much more classically poetic and literate, I’m more absurd and idiosyncratic – and I think those distinctions are a plus for the album.
2. How did the writing sessions (2006 and 2008) that led to Wing Beat Fantastic come about?
I’ve known Andy since 1988, when he and Dave Gregory came to a Zappa gig in Birmingham; both myself and Scott Thunes, the bassist in the Zappa band, were tremendous XTC fans, and Scott called Virgin Records from my hotel room and left an invitation for the band to come to our show, and to our utter disbelief Dave and Andy came to see us play. I was a complete Zappa fanatic prior to being hired by Frank, and I idolized Andy just about as much – it was an overwhelming evening for me and it was all I could do to maintain composure, but Andy and Dave were as warm and engaging as could be, and they invited Scott and I to attend the “Oranges And Lemons” sessions in Los Angeles later in the year – an amazing opportunity, which I used until it bruised. We kept in touch afterward, but I primarily stayed in contact with Dave Gregory through the years and maintained a pleasant but less regular communication with Andy. At some point in the mid-2000s the idea of collaborating was introduced, and while I vaguely recall that it was Andy who may have suggested the collaboration, neither one of us can remember for sure; all we know is, the idea was there suddenly. There was never much chance of luring Andy to Southern California for the writing sessions, and the idea of attempting to do it via internet was supremely unsatisfying to consider so I flew to Andy for two separate weeks in ’06 and ’08, and we spent days in the shed in his backyard, or at his kitchen table, batting lyrics and/or musical ideas back and forth, until I emerged with a set of demo tracks; I recorded the finished versions in California in 2011 and 2012.
3. Apart from a couple of drum samples Andy Partridge does not appear sonically on the album at all (even though I am sure he is there in the harmony chorus on the title track – can we trust you, Mr Keneally?). Why is this?
In this matter at least, I am trustworthy – Andy’s voice doesn’t appear on the record, although of course in an abstract sense his “voice” is all over it – the imprint of his musical personality is extremely strong. But whenever I tentatively broached the topic of his performing on any of the songs (I thought his voice would sound great on “You Kill Me” especially) he was adamant that his singing would weaken its identity as a Mike Keneally album (which was probably more important to him than it was to me!). To me, it would have been nice to hear his voice on there but I don’t think any of the songs are damaged goods in its absence, and now that all’s said and done I think his instincts were probably right. (I should point out though that there’s one more track which resulted from our collaborations – a strange instrumental called “Indicator” – on which Andy played some very intriguing guitar, and this track will appear on a future album where it’ll sit a little more comfortably amongst other odd ducks.)
4. The XTC influence throughout the album is clear – but there is also so much more. What are the influences that you bring to this music, Mike?
My own albums have always shown the effects of certain musical influences which imprinted themselves deeply – Zappa, Beatles, Todd Rundgren, Beach Boys, Joni Mitchell, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, The Residents, Beefheart, Henry Cow, Keith Emerson, Wendy Carlos, Gentle Giant, They Might Be Giants, The Minutemen, of course XTC and tons of others. On my earlier albums I would often let these influences come through the music in a brutally obvious way, but for these songs and this album I consciously calmed my action down, and dealt with each song on its own terms. Three years had passed between the second week-long demo session and my finally beginning work on the finished versions. With that much distance, I was able to listen to the demos we had done and treat them very objectively, almost as though it wasn’t my own work I was listening to, and it seemed very clear what the final result was supposed to be. Although, my manager still had to talk me out of including a couple of peculiar songs which in retrospect I can see would have really broken the spell – throughout my album-making career I’ve been constantly striving to willfully interrupt my albums in progress, send them shooting suddenly off into a completely different direction, but on this album I was much more interested in creating a, not predictable, but comfortably enjoyable procession of musical events. I’ve also really enjoyed the sound of certain pop records which seemed simultaneously warm and inviting while still having power and aggression – a perfect example being “Black Sea” by XTC, but it’s a sound I’ve been working with my engineer Mike Harris on refining for years now and I think it’s starting to become a sound that I haven’t heard anywhere else. So I brought a vision of what an idealized sort of ultra-musical pop-rock album is supposed to sound and feel like.
5. Andy Partridge appears to have gradually driven off every one of his XTC brethren over time and has always been portrayed as a ‘difficult’ artist to work with. Were your sessions with him cordial?
Actually, the sessions were mind-rattlingly cordial, and anyone who might have come around looking for controversial behavior at one of our writing sessions would only have been confronted by obscene amounts of gentility. It was sheer pleasure, for both of us I’m happy to say.
6. And finally (and briefly), what are your thoughts on current music?
A lot of things I hear that sound really good to me have a strong echo of something from the past that I liked more. But I’m not even remotely up to speed on everything that’s happening musically, and I don’t consider myself qualified to make any kind of informed statement on the current scene – but I have been surprised, on occasions that number in at least the mid-double digits, to check out a new artist who has been praised by a publication I trust, only to find that the description of their music in the article outshone the music itself, for me. But fairly often, here and there I do hear new things that I enjoy – I think more often now than I did a few years ago – and I’ve had fantastic musical experiences at Flying Lotus and Modeselektor shows over the last couple of years. I’m a longtime hardcore Radiohead nerd and could talk for hours about their present phase, so I’ll stop right there.
Mike Keneally’s website is here.
Published August 2012 on theorangepress.net