Mike Keneally: Wing Beat Fantastic
Get it here.
(H/T to Jason Crane, who first alerted me to the existence of this record in a post on his own blog.)
I first came to Mike Keneally’s music through long-time IJG member Evan Francis, who played in Keneally’s band, Beer for Dolphins. (Coincidentally, Evan contributes clarinet to one track on Wing Beat Fantastic.) This was around 2000. I was already a serious Frank Zappa fan, but had yet to get to the later albums, or at least the ones that featured Keneally—the guy Zappa referred to as his “stunt guitarist.” Yet I was immediately attracted to the measured exuberance of the man’s playing, and indeed his whole approach to music. Like many Zappa alumni, that approach seemed driven by an underlying aesthetic omnivorousness, even (sometimes) to the point of liability. Perhaps there’s a downside to being so enormously talented—when you’re able to do everything, is it easier to lose focus?
Yet the first thing I noticed about Wing Beat Fantastic was its gorgeous coherence. “This is a nebulous term, but to me it really feels like an album,” as Keneally puts it on his website. Could that have been the influence of his collaborator, the famously picky Andy Partridge, of the British band XTC? Hard to say: collaboration is always obfuscated—even, or perhaps especially, to those doing it. Here’s mundane evidence of that confusion: the liner notes and the back cover of this album credit a few of the tracks differently. (“Land,” for instance, is credited to Keneally/Partridge in the booklet; on the back cover it is credited only to Keneally.) But keeping a tally of these things is a ruse anyway; we write differently just by having someone else in the room, whether or not she overtly contributes a note. Best to assume it is all collaboration.
By “coherence” I do not mean that all of the tracks do the same thing. Some are comparatively brief instrumental interludes, dropped throughout the album just frequently enough to allow us to savor the songs proper. And one of those, “You Kill Me,” is much sharper than its companions. Incongruously cloaked in the bright colors of lilting, tight pop, it treads a line between cynicism and something more like despair—a tension captured in the double entendre of the title, which we can hear as both slang for being brought to laughter or surprise, and an implication of literal violence. When Keneally sings, “I don’t mean to vote for you, but your machine will fix it so I do,” we may recognize ourselves, trapped like flies in the amber of twenty-first century political inertia. (Do we want “it” to be fixed? Well, that depends on what you mean by “fix.”)
That sting is salved by several of the more impressionistic songs, by a child-like wonder at words (“Inglow / snow motion snow crow / Inglow / Did we ebb and flow there?”), by a melodic richness, and by one track in particular, which captures the oddly tender spectacle of a middle-aged man yearning for companionship, while he is simultaneously self-conscious enough to tread lightly. This is the poignant “Your House,” an awkward snapshot of courtly love on par with other masterpieces of modern art song (McCartney’s “She’s Leaving Home” and Brian Wilson’s “Surf’s Up” and Joni Mitchell’s “The Last Time I Saw Richard” all come to mind). “What if you should see me here?” Keneally asks, his voice rising as he stands outside the home of an anonymous and none-the-wiser beloved, suddenly sensing his own ridiculousness. Is it self-awareness that causes him to “whirl blue and disappear”? We are left only with the failure to connect; “I won’t be back again,” the song concludes.