[The Mail On Sunday, 2006]
THERE ARE CERTAIN musicians who constitute a school, but only by virtue of common career paths. They are prolific, idiosyncratic (which means they don't sound anything like one another), serial band-formers, outsiders whose occasional brushes with the mainstream have seldom done them much good commercially or artistically. But for fortune, Elvis Costello could easily have been such a figure. His peers then would have been Robyn Hitchock, Robert Pollard (Guided By Voices), Stephin Merritt (The Magnetic Fields) and the unjustly obscure Ed Kuepper.
A founder of Australia's foremost punk outfit, The Saints, Kuepper left in 1979 to start up Laughing Clowns, whose entire output is collected on the three-disc set Cruel But Fair (Hot ***). It's more music than all but the most devoted fan could need, but it contains some marvellous stuff. Kuepper developed a slow whirlwind of a sound for the band, fusing arty post-punk with avant-garde sax-and-horn-fuelled jazz - on paper an awful combination; but on record exhilarating, surprisingly easy on the ear and often enrapturing, thanks in no small measure to Kuepper's gifts as a songwriter.
Cruel But Fair documents a band forcing the issue; pursuing a singular, strong idea to its limits over a six-year period, at the end of which Kuepper embarked on a solo career. His recordings prior to 1990 (including a stint at a major label) are sadly missing from This Is The Magic Mile (Hot, out January 16 ****), presumably for licensing reasons; but the subsequent decade is exhaustively covered over another three discs.
Magic Mile is as varied as Cruel But Fair is single-minded. The overriding feel is of dark, ringing, echo-laden, high-tension guitar pop, honed on such excellent albums as 1992's Black Ticket Day (which included the superb It's Lunacy, one of several huge Kuepper hits that never were.) Still, Kuepper is quite the style-hopper, and has the knack of doing it without descending into pastiche or sounding unlike himself.
Magic Mile serves as a welcome reminder both of Kuepper's own gifts, and of the riches heaped up by some of those who restlessly plough furrows out in the leftfield, away from the public gaze.
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