Photograph by Scott Chatfield
Mike Keneally seems poised to make the transition from guitar god to art-pop icon. Maybe “pop” is too hasty, as it’s hard to imagine anything from the gifted guitarist being quite so intentionally simple and fun as pop music. But look at XTC, a band that defined how good art could be made from seemingly simple pop songs.
It’s fitting to mention XTC, of course, because Wing Beat Fantastic is a collaboration between Keneally and XTC’s erstwhile lead singer/guitarist Andy Partridge. This might have the XTC fans drooling at the thought of getting something new out of their man, but hold off – this is not an Andy Partridge project. The collaboration between the two was behind the scenes, with Partridge and Keneally crafting the songs together but Keneally recording the songs on his own. Partridge’s musical contributions extend to some drum loops and that’s about it.
I suspect the like-mindedness of the fans is because, while stylistically so different, their aims are similar. While Keneally is always an excelling guitarist, he never sacrifices the song for showy technique, and his focus is on creating strong melodies – something so many other guitarist’s guitarists forgo in order to get to the big solo. Partridge has always kept melody at the forefront of his songs while weaving delicate wordplay around that structure. One gets the sense that there’s little room for compromise in the music of both musicians, but when room is given, it’s for that great moment that makes a listener need to hear a song again and again.
There’s one of those great moments early on in the album, in “I’m Raining Here, Inside,” when the song breaks for Keneally’s solo. It’s such a perfectly timed sequence that I can’t help but get shivers each time his guitar peels away from his vocal line.
But this is an unusual album for Keneally. While I may have mentioned before that he’s always focused on the song and not showy fretwork, there’s always been more than a fair share of incredible, mind-boggling displays of his guitar wizardry. Here, however, Keneally puts the emphasis squarely on the melody, crafting vocal lines that bob and weave with the best of them. Among the best of them being one Andy Partridge, wouldn’t you know it. And the interesting thing that comes to light for a long-time Keneally fan is that working with Partridge seems to have brought to the forefront a particularly Partridgian bent that has always existed in Keneally’s work. It’s hard not to look back at older material and hear an admiration of Partridge. Purely dreaming, I now wonder if perhaps Keneally used the inspiration of wondering how the XTC frontman would approach one of his just-written songs. Over the years, Keneally’s work has sharpened abstract oddities into tight, memorable melodies.
It’s easy to hear how he has grown as a songwriter in his own regard with “That’s Why I Have No Name,” the only vocal track on the album credited solely to Keneally. Yet it fits in perfectly, its pace and melodic style a fitting complement to the other tracks the two collaborated on.
But listen through and see if you can’t hear the vocal line becoming an instrumental line very easily. Me, I hear a piano running free with Keneally’s vocal suggestions, but it’s just as easy to swap in a trumpet or some other expressive instrument. The point is, these are vocal lines that don’t simply run to the chorus as quickly as possible. They cover musical terrain, and follow the trail they leave is the great reward. It’s an adventure. If you don’t think this is such a big deal, listen to other popular music and give it the same mental-instrumental treatment. I think you’ll see that it quickly falls apart into a dreary, monotonous pile.
Wing Beat Fantastic represents a peak in Keneally’s career, one that has had a pretty good share of peaks in different forms, if they’ve sadly gone unrecognized by the general music world. Maybe pairing up with the XTC frontman wasn’t the best idea to right that wrong, as that band has, aside from a few key singles, gone almost as ignored as Keneally. But artistically speaking, this is a meeting of the minds that results in something fans of both artists are going to cherish for ages.