one of the most-anticipated albums of the year among fans of both keneally and xtc (and their ace songwriter, andy partridge), “wing beat fantastic” does not, in any way, disappoint.
this is the first batch of “new” andy partridge songs we’ve heard in a long, long time, even if they are delivered by collaborator and mega fan mike keneally, rather than partridge himself – who declined to perform on the record (even though some of his samples did survive the process), wanting instead to ensure that it is viewed as a keneally solo album.
the story of how this record came to be is well documented elsewhere, how whilst keneally was in frank zappa’s band, their bassist, scott thunes, had the audacity to invite partridge to a zappa concert in the uk – and much to their surprise, he actually turned up – and both a friendship and a writing partnership was born. there were two discrete sessions where the two actually sat down and worked on these songs, but it was left to keneally alone to create “wing beat fantastic”.
it seems to me that this must have seemed like the most amazing opportunity in the world, similar to a scenario where lennon and mccartney said “here, take these songs, we can’t be bothered to record them – YOU DO IT” – and keneally not only rises to the challenge…he hits the ball out of the park.
first of all, it’s clear to me that keneally is not just familiar with xtc’s style, but that he must have studied it in minute detail, or else this record would not sound the way it does – as if it were the next XTC album. and that is exactly what it sounds like, and at some moments, when the vocal harmonies are particularly sweet, you can close your eyes and EASILY forget that this is mike keneally, because what your ears hear, especially on a tune like “you kill me” – is pure andy partridge.
as with all zappa band alumni (such as steve vai, adrian belew, etc.) keneally has more than excellent chops on guitar, meaning that he has the skill to sound like a dead ringer for the very capable partridge OR xtc’s other (former) guitarist, dave gregory. But the real surprise here are the absolutely amazing vocal arrangements, and sheer beauty that keneally manages – that study paid off – and ALL of the trademark xtc vocal tricks are here, revolving vocals, beach-boys-like harmonies, delicate, beautiful solo vocals – we knew that keneally could sing, but we never knew he could sing like THIS.
so – partridge picked the right person, the exactly perfect person, to work up these demos into proper songs. and what a batch of songs they are!
keneally has wisely interspersed the partridge songs with some tunes of his own, and I have to say, some of those are so beautiful that they easily rival the songs co-written with partridge, and they fit in perfectly. the opening track, “the ineffable oomph of everything, part one” clocks in at exactly one minute, a keneally tune rather than a keneally/partridge, but it’s one minute of incredibly melodic, beautiful guitar music – including amazing slide guitar reminiscent of the master – george harrison. so my first feeling for the first song, was that it was very harrison-like – a great way to start, and certainly a good indication of what was to come…
I’ve been a fan of mike keneally’s music for a long time, beginning way back when with his groundbreaking “hat” cd (“thank you for buying hat”…) which is utterly unlike “wing beat fantastic” – it’s more like a zappa album, lots of impossible guitar, funny vocals – but, with the occasional moment of sheer beauty. those occasional moments have now, in this new album, been transformed into an ENTIRE ALBUM of sheer beauty. I kid you not, this album is a completely atypical album for keneally, but oh my god, I wish he’d done this before, and I hope he does it again – perhaps with an entire album of his OWN pop masterpieces.
and when that first guitar solo comes in on the second track on the album, the gorgeous “I’m raining here, inside” – well, that’s it, it’s absolutely perfect, it’s beautiful, it’s seamless, flawless – and so very like the very best andy partridge or dave gregory guitar solo imaginable – it’s cut from the same cloth – just as the vocals are, even the bass and drum parts remind me of xtc – every song on this record sounds like an xtc song, or occasionally, a george harrison song or a beach boys song – hey, wait a minute, that’s just like you would get on an xtc album.
I do imagine though, that mike and his crew would have studied existing xtc album’s, because the production values, the use of phasers and flangers, the song arrangements, the guitar solos, the vocal harmonies – it just SCREAMS “xtc” – the title track, the third track, is a perfect example of this, it’s so much like xtc it’s not funny, acoustic guitars chiming, passionate, layered vocals, harmonies to die for, great chord changes…it’s perfect, an imitation maybe, but actually, a beautiful creation in it’s own right – as if keneally were some sort of musical genetics engineer, taking the xtc “dna” and re-arranging it into new, cloned musical lifeforms – xtc through the mind of keneally.
and then another amazing guitar solo, this one jagged, clean, lovely – comes flying through the song, as the flanged vocals build and build, a lovely descending figure that you can’t get out of you brain, amazing “oohs” – then, a serene, heavenly bridge ending in a beautiful high note – and it’s over.
next comes track four, a 30 second reprise of the opener, “the ineffable oomph of everything, part two” – which is even more enigmatic and beautiful than the first version – just beautiful, mike.
I can’t imagine how it must have felt, to have these songs in hand, in demo form only, and then sit down in your leucadia studio and say “right, how are we going to do this then?” – and the answer is the result – the album “wing beat fantastic” – IS fantastic, totally fantastic…and the next song “you kill me”, track five, is just staggeringly beautiful – even just the introduction is so beautiful I can’t believe it, a great guitar riff, followed by chord changes that you don’t expect, that give you the shivers before the song proper has even begun. a clean pair of lead guitars leads us into the vocal – and those vocals – I would ask AGAIN – who knew that mike keneally could sing THIS beautifully?
the harmonies are straight from every xtc album from “skylarking” onwards – really, really complex, really, really beautiful vocal arrangements – and from a distance, if you don’t dissect it too closely, you would NEVER KNOW it wasn’t andy partridge singing. an almost zappa-like “linking riff” repeats irresistibly in between the choruses, a tiny reminder that this is a zappa band alumni – but the sound overall, is not zappa at all – it’s PURE xtc.
in fact, I played the record for my partner, who doesn’t really know the music of xtc that well, and she said “that guy sounds EXACTLY like the guy in xtc” – and I could not agree more.
this album is an unqualified success for keneally, and I think that this album will do well for him, even if it didn’t have the songs of andy partridge, it would do well, but having that extra kick – not to mention many, many xtc fans ravenous for “new” andy partridge fans (myself included – and just about everyone I know pre-ordered the CD).
track six, “friend of a friend” is a very short little linking piece, 0:49 of acoustic guitars that works beautifully as a lead in to the next track…in fact, it almost sounds like the introduction of track seven, rather than a piece in it’s own right – the two fit together so well.
the album now moves into some really wonderful uncharted musical territory, as exemplified by a song such as track seven, “that’s why I have no name” – a song that is so very strange, with a lot of unusual reverse sounds burbling in the background, and a lot of wonderful clean jazz and reverse guitar (that is probably forwards guitar played through a reverse guitar patch, using something like a line 6 dl-4 delay modeller set to “reverse guitar”) as well, a very strange chord progression, very odd, almost dirge-like vocal, the whole piece is very…minor key, almost jazzy – but again, even though UTTERLY different from the preceding pop masterpieces – even this very odd songs screams “I sound like xtc!” at the top of it’s musical lungs.
I was not surprised to realise that this is a keneally song, not one of the tracks co-written with partridge, and I think all of the “solo” keneally pieces fit in beautifully with the co-written ones – a beautiful job of integration.
a remarkable, ascending clean jazz guitar solo is as startling in it’s appearance as it is in it’s intelligence, and then, it suddenly mutates into a reverse guitar solo of extraordinary beauty – keneally uses every bit of skill he has, but any very strange or very dissonant elements that we might have got on a zappa-influenced record like “hat”, have been replaced with a melodic sensibility of almost uncanny proportions – this solo just TAKES FLIGHT, and it’s the perfect vehicle for the song, drifting waves of reverse guitars float over the top of a steadily building background, the clean guitar returns for a moment – and then we are back to the verse once again.
the end section features all of it: the jazzy guitar, volume pedal guitars, reverse guitars – and it’s just perfect – and it then STOPS on a dime. perfection, but – strange perfection.
then it gets weirder still, with the very odd vocal melody of “your house”, track eight, and it’s incredibly melancholic mood – but very quickly, you realise, this is sort of like the “chalkhills and children” of this album, an odd, unusual vocal melody, which then moves into really beautiful moments “drawn by some strange magnetic pull…” it’s so weird, that you can’t get it out of your head “I know this is crazy, cause after all, it’s only…your house”.
this song sounds resigned, final, triumphant, sad, uncertain “I walked slowly at first, tried not to break into a run…I knew that was your house at the end of the road…”.
I feel like I already knew all these songs, because in a way, I have heard them all before – in those last ten or twelve xtc albums – because keneally heard those records too (in fact, he was in the studio during the making of “oranges and lemons” which xtc recorded in los angeles – which is where the partridge-keneally partnership really began to blossom), and he knew EXACTLY how to inject the magic xtc dna into these songs – and he’s done it!
then we have track nine, “miracle man and woman”, which has the most remarkable vocals, a very, very unusual vocal arrangement – and this is the weird thing, it features a lot of really, really good acoustic guitars – which remind me of gentle giant, the vocals too, are almost gentle giant-like in places – until you get to the godley & creme “deep”/”creepy” backing vocal – beautiful synths (which might well be guitar synths) accompany a strangely equalised vocal section…what a wonderful musical construction!
the middle section of the song is some sort of synthesizer duet, with tinkling piano in the background – and then, here it comes, the kevin godley vocal “ahhhh” from heaven (remember the backing vocals on “I’m not in love” by 10cc?? – like that) – a wordless vocal accompaniment to the middle section – which resolves into a synth-backed acoustic guitar solo, that is SO gentle giant it isn’t funny – like an odd outtake from an early giant album like “acquiring the taste” or maybe “octopus” – and then that crazy, ominous godley & creme creepy vocal returns to end the song on a note of pure creepiness – brilliant!
next is “inglow”, track ten, and it’s very serious indeed, a slinky rhythm overlaid with carefully bendy guitar notes, then, a cheerful, clean, simple melodic solo – a beautiful introduction, resolving on a really wonderful chord – and then starting again, this time with multiple lead guitars, the acoustics gently swaying behind them – a magical instrumental, that makes me think of tropical islands and sunsets and evening closing in – a slowly fading in, mysterious, wordless vocal appears and disappears – the clean melodic lead guitars continue their beautiful journey – what a fantastically beautiful composition, I just find the mood and feeling in this piece to be remarkable – a lovely interlude indeed, and one of keneally’s most mature and respectable guitar compositions ever.
eventually, the vocals begin, and if the first half of the song can be attributed to the genius of mike keneally – then the second half, the vocal section – well, that’s pure andy partridge, but realised by keneally – so they are both brilliant.
track 11 is one of my favourites, “bobeau” – which is a snappy little number with a funky horn arrangement, and a very complex layered vocal arrangement – not to mention great guitars and basses from keneally – then, a fantastic, sing along chorus, with great piano and horn backing – sort of this album’s equivalent to something like “extrovert” from the xtc canon, that’s the only thing I can even imagine I can compare it to – then, a very, very weird vocal melody, backed by ocean sounds and wonderful ghostly background vocals – leads us, via a very odd bridge, towards the song’s remarkable conclusion – which is all about the guitar.
after the final verse, we get another chance to experience the incredibly mature skill of keneally as a lead guitarist, or actually, in this case, as a slide guitarist – for me, the last section of “bobeau” is a huge highlight, during the second chorus, you start to get some lead guitar bits – but then, it starts, a sinister bass and drums, with creeping horns, backs an amazing, slapback slide solo, which is either double tracked or remarkably delayed – but it’s a scorcher, and then keneally really starts to mix things up, with a heavily syncopated guitar riff that is sinister, killer and fucking brilliant. I love it!
then suddenly, it stops, the ocean sounds and seagulls return for a moment…
“land”, track 12, the final track on this amazing album, is another keneally-only piece, which makes a great end piece for the record, and it contains one of my favourite lyrics on the entire record “you understand, finally that, you don’t understand…” which I think is…fantastic. wing beat fantastic, maybe…
it seems to be cut from the same genome that the keneally-partridge co-writes are, almost as if it were inspired by the other songs, it has a bit of everything, including some really beautiful acoustic guitar – short and sweet, just over two minutes, but a perfectly constructed finale for one of the most important pop records – ever.
“wing beat fantastic” is a remarkable achievement, I’ve never heard anything quite like it, where a well known ex-zappa lead guitarist takes away a handful of andy partridge songs, and creates an album that is so xtc-like as to be almost indistinguishable from the real thing – and that is clear praise, mike, you did an amazing job with this, you transformed these demos into a thing of real beauty, a succinct and very musical album that successfully captures the spirit of xtc beautifully, in a very respectful, and perfectionistic, way – every detail has been considered and reconsidered, the vocal arrangements, the vocal harmonies, are absolutely among some of the most beautiful I have ever heard on any album – and if keneally were now to switch hats permanently (no pun intended) and just make beautiful pop records, I would love every one of them.
I know that when andy partridge first heard the completed keneally project, he was absolutely overwhelmed by the result, in fact, literally moved to tears, and I understand why that is. this is a gorgeous record, it would have fit seamlessly into the xtc catalogue anywhere between “skylarking” and “apple venus” (either part) and no one would have been the wiser – OK, you can tell it’s mike keneally singing, not andy partridge, but beyond that – the guitar work is top notch, the guitar solos are simply amazing, and the songs – wow, the writing, the lyrics, the tunes, the arrangements – it’s all good!
there is not a bad or even lesser tune on this record, keneally has done the impossible, he has almost “out-xtc’d” xtc themselves. but it’s done so respectfully, so tastefully, it’s imitation as sheer flattery – but perfect imitation, glorious, beautiful, joyful music – music like the music that xtc themselves produce.
a pop masterpiece, not to be missed – genius. “wing beat fantastic” truly is, fantastic.
I cannot recommend this album highly enough.