After falling out with its U.S. label almost a decade ago, the Church virtually vanished from American consciousness. The Australian quartet has returned auspiciously, however, first with last year's "Hologram of Baal" and now with "A Box of Birds." The band has made enough of a comeback, in fact, that its former U.S. label has decided to release a greatest-hit album.
The Church's merger of power-pop and art-rock is obviously indebted to the three B's -- the Beatles, the Byrds and Bowie -- and the group recorded songs by two of those inspirations for "A Box of Birds." This remarkably cohesive assortment of covers includes versions of George Harrison's droning "It's All Too Much" and Bowie's stately "All the Young Dudes" (written for Mott the Hoople). The other songs range from punky (Television's "Friction," Hawkwind's "Silver Machine") to eccentric (Kevin Ayers's "Decadence," psychedelic Monkees obscurity "The Porpoise Song"). At a time of tribute-album burnout, the result is remarkably satisfying. "A Box of Birds" makes an eloquent case for the Church's taste in shoulda-been classic rock.
While the Church calls attention to such overlooked bands as Television, "Under the Milky Way: The Best of the Church" puts the spotlight on the quartet's own neglected back catalogue. The compilation is named for the only Church song to visit the American Top 40, but all 17 tracks are keepers. The group has never been innovative, but it assimilates skillfully, crafting a spacious, airy sound worthy of principal songwriter Steve Kilbey's lofty melodies. Recorded from 1981 to 1992, these songs show the band moving from the epic folk-rock of "Myrrh" to the spacier sound of the title song to the (slightly) funkier "You're Still Beautiful." It's not the most audacious stylistic journey, but it is a consistently pleasant one.
Appearing Friday at the 9:30 club.
To hear a free Sound Bite from "A Box of Birds," call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8101. For a Sound Bite from "Under the Milky Way: The Best of the Church," press 8102. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)