Monday, June 11, 2012

Album Review: Right Away, Great Captain! - Church of the Good Thief

Album Review: B+
Every trilogy has its clunker. The Fellowship of the Ring drags its furry hobbit feet along slower than its glossier Lord of the Ring counterparts, and God forbid I stop pretending that Alien 3 doesn’t exist. And that’s without mentioning the Star Wars prequels. But the plaintive poetry of The Church of the Good Thief is probably the best installment in its series. In fact, if Andy Hull hadn’t written I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child, this would probably be his opus. It’s not fair to stack his solo efforts with Right Away, Great Captain against his prolific work with Manchester Orchestra, especially since his full-band works lean toward grandiose tendencies. But Right Away, Great Captain is meant to shy away from the spotlight. Instead, it’s just one man, a few instruments, and a story to tell.

The poetic third album in Hull’s winding ballad of a jaded sailor’s return home is probably his most confessional. Brooding lead single “Blame” sets the tone of the album with haunting piano notes creeping in over bare-bones acoustic guitar. Hull’s vocals are at the forefront of the track, and stay the focal point of the entire album. The understated instrumentation slides to the background and isn’t exactly awe-inspiring. Sure, the softly-strummed guitar work and droning piano are a nice touch, but pale compared to Hull’s morose lyricism. 

As far as concept albums go, Hull’s isn’t as showy as Razia’s Shadow or juvenile like Andrew Dost’s Columbus. This is a dark album that slams the door when glimmers of hope come knocking. "We Were Made of Lightning" is probably the album’s moodiest track: instrumentally trancelike and a vocal performance that’s heavy on the reverb pedal. It’s a “doom and gloom” sort of track that’s pitch-perfect for rainy days.

Like any good thief, Hull does steal from his bag of old Manchester Orchestra tricks. Songs like “When I Met Death” borrows the band’s traditional balance of subdued verses backed up by frenetic choruses. But Right Away, Great Captain doesn’t reach for the triumphant highs hit by Manchester Orchestra’s biggest anthems. Instead, Hull pulls a 180, ditching gossamer production value for a raw, organic sound. Strip down the fuzzy guitar chords and moody ambience of Manchester Orchestra, and you’re left with Andy Hull as a sullen troubadour on acoustic guitar-heavy tracks like “Old Again.”

Yes, The Church of the Good Thief is folky and rides high on Hull’s acoustic guitar. But it’s not an upbeat Good Old War album, and it’s not Conor Oberst moping in all the glory of his teenage angst. Hull strapping on his acoustic guitar is like Tom Waits fumbling with the blues or Johnny Cash walking the line; just one man being honest with himself and humbly confessing his sins through the microphone. 

It’s not Hull’s own sins that come out on The Church of the Good Thief, though. Hull sings from the point of view of the down-on-his-luck Captain. The lyrics read like pages torn from the Captain’s journal, and the gently plucked guitar strings ring with despair. But just when listeners think that Hull’s bleeding heart catharsis hits its emotional peak, he unleashes the wrenching two-part “Memories from the End” suite. Spanning seven minutes, Hull brings listeners to church, not with Baptist soul, but with hymnal arrangements and lyrics from the gospel according to the Captain. With sweeping acoustic chords, proves Hull abandons the Captain to die in the final act of his cinematic, if not cerebral, record. The story isn’t too dense or ponderous for casual listeners, but it’s worth a second listen to The Bitter End and The Eventually Home before diving in.

Compared to the obtuse broad strokes of Simple Math, Hull’s subtle poetry is a breath of fresh air on The Church of the Good Thief. Though fans will inevitably clamor for a follow-up to Manchester Orchestra’s killer of an album, Hull’s latest release under the Right Away, Great Captain moniker stands out in its own right. It’s not as aggressive as Simple Math, not as massive as Mean Everything to Nothing, and lacks the personal touches of I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child, but it’s every bit as heart-wrenching.


Track List: 
1. Blame
2. When I Met Death
3. I Am Aware
4. Old Again
5. Fur Stop Caring
6. I Wait For You
7. Barely Bit Me
8. Rotten Black Root
9. We Were Made Of Lightning
10. Memories From The End Pt. 1
11. Memories From The End Pt. 2

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