Wing Beat Fantastic (Exowax Recordings, July 17, 2012 release), the magical new album from composer/ producer/multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Mike Keneally, is the highly anticipated result of a songwriting union between the famed rock experimentalist and legendary XTC tunesmith Andy Partridge.
Their collaboration produced eight new songs, combining Partridge’s innate sense of angular pop melody and beautifully intelligent poeticism, and Keneally’s experimental bent and surrealist tendencies. For Partridge fanatics, the album will be a trove of rare new material from a songwriter who’s released precious little new work since XTC's 2000 album Apple Venus 2: Wasp Star. For Keneally enthusiasts, Wing Beat Fantastic represents his most concise album statement ever. The album features 12 tracks (four written solely by Keneally), and clocks in at 40 minutes long— just the way albums used to be. It represents Keneally's most melodic and pop-oriented release ever, while still maintaining the rich, detail-studded arrangements, love of sonic adventurism and superb musicianship for which he is renowned. More than any other Keneally album, Wing Beat Fantastic has an emotional resonance that engages the heart as adeptly as it does the mind.
A fairly breathtaking range of styles is presented, from the psychedelic pop sweep of the title song to the up-tempo layered rock of “You Kill Me,” a scathing look of modern hypocrisy in its many forms. “I’m Raining Here, Inside” kicks off the album with a ferociously infectious groove, indelible vocal melody and rippling guitars and keyboards. “That’s Why I Have No Name” is a mid-tempo, brooding meditation with a driving piano and all manner of mind-bending effects gently whizzing throughout. “Your House” is an affecting ballad of unrequited love, almost shockingly accessible coming from an artist with Keneally’s Zappa-related pedigree. “Bobeau” dances along on the infectious groove of Marco Minnemann’s drums like the old-fashioned Steely Dan groove of everyone’s dreams with an embarrassingly rich tapestry of keys, guitars, trombones and voices layered over the top.
And on Wing Beat Fantastic goes, one of the most nutritious and obsessively playable art-pop albums to be released in years.
The two musical forces first met while Keneally was on tour, playing guitar and keyboards with Frank Zappa’s 1988 touring band. Zappa bassist Scott Thunes, on a whim, phoned up Virgin Records to invite XTC to the Zappa show in Birmingham, UK (Keneally and Thunes, like most music-lovers of the 1980s, both idolized XTC). To their astonishment, both Partridge and XTC guitarist/keyboardist Dave Gregory responded to the invitation, all the more shocking since Partridge had not been known to attend many live performances since giving up playing live for good in the early '80s. Keneally went on to become a grateful fly on the wall during the recording of XTC’s classic Oranges And Lemons album in Los Angeles later in 1988.
Years later, after Keneally had already released 20 solo albums and Partridge had essentially retired from releasing new songs after the breakup of XTC, the idea of a songwriting collaboration was suggested by Partridge. In 2006, and again in 2008, Keneally travelled to Partridge’s hometown of Swindon, UK and the pair spent a week in the shed in Andy’s backyard, concocting new songs and demo-ing them on Andy’s recording rig. The songs are true collaborations, with both composers contributing equally to lyrics and music (although on some songs, the lyric division is more striking; “I’m Raining Here, Inside” and “You Kill Me” are nearly entirely Andy’s lyrics, while “Bobeau” and “Miracle Woman and Man” are Mike’s lyrical handiwork, and the distinction between their two approaches is made evident by an examination of these tunes).
Mike then took the demos back to California, and after working on several other albums, was finally browbeaten by Partridge into completing their tunes. Throughout 2011 and 2012, Mike painstakingly crafted Wing Beat Fantastic; in some cases incorporating elements of the original demos done in Andy’s shed. Mike regularly sent mp3s of the songs in progress to Andy, who essentially acted as transatlantic associate producer, providing much useful feedback and suggestions that Mike then worked into the completed mixes.
Keneally, continuing to conduct one of the most unpredictable and frankly bizarre musical careers in existence, will be on the road for most of the rest of 2012 as guitarist with best-selling death metal act Dethklok, and also as keyboardist with guitar hero Joe Satriani.
“I get something valuable and unique from each of these wildly different musical associations," Keneally says. The chance to work with Andy was absolutely a mind-blower for me. He’s a true songwriting hero of mine, and during the '80s he demonstrated that there was still a place for truly high-quality writing in pop music. While so many other artists of the era seemed to be hypnotized by then-modern production techniques into making thin, unsatisfying recordings, the XTC records of the day were banquets in comparison. His songwriting gift is still as strong as ever, and I’m fiercely grateful to be able to help bring new Andy Partridge music into the world.”
Andy Partridge speaks about Wing Beat Fantastic:
“How does he do it? When Mike took away the demo we made for a freshly co-written song You Kill Me," he had in his hands a rather lumpen campfire strum on acoustic guitars. What came back to my ears sometime later was a totally pulled apart, beautifully arranged mini-film for the ears, flowing like sonic liquid from one section to another, effortlessly moving from one time signature to the next. He'd made a tiny symphony, turning a bitter little protest tune into a well-crafted, cool, gliding, chrome...well...big protest song! Mike, what is your secret?
“I didn't know how any of the tunes we'd agreed to write together were going to come out, but I know one thing, SO musical is this man that him just sitting with a guitar across his lap or perched at a keyboard pulled things from me that I can honestly say I don't know where they came from.” One such piece was Your House." One morning I said give me a chord," he did, and another..."go up this time," and he did. Suddenly the basis for a whole bittersweet tale flew out. This is tough to talk about as I'm internally fighting the anti-vanity police writing this, but Mike and I wrestled from nowhere as beautiful a song as my best XTC work. Sat in my microscopic garden shed studio, I was privileged to be part of some rare magic that day.
“His inherent musicality set something off in me that was like a lovely bomb. No wonder Frank Zappa wanted to work with this man. When he sent me my copy of the finished album, and I got to this song, I couldn't hold back the tears. Thank you Mike, there are not many pieces of music that can do that to me.
“Love all the short between-song vignettes that Mike includes on the album. Sometimes commenting on the song past, sometimes lifting motifs from a forthcoming piece. Like scenes in a film, a prequel of what you are about to hear, bending the timeline of the whole album to his musical will. This is filmic sense Mike, who taught you that, show me?
“Sat at my kitchen table wrestling out the words to title track Wing Beat Fantastic" was a bit of a roller coaster thrill ride. Don't think I've been head to head with such a sharp mind. I'd come up with a good line, he'd come up with better, I just HAD to beat it with a better one yet...or he's not leaving this table. A privilege to be goaded by you, man, good results.”