25 years on: The Church “Starfish” appreciation thread / song-by-song review

Discussion in 'Music Corner' started by 1970, Mar 1, 2013.

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  1. 1970

    1970 Forum Resident Thread Starter

    Twenty-five years ago this month, Starfish, the milestone album by The Church, was released. This anniversary also marks 25 years since a new legion of dyed-in-the-wool Church followers, many among a wider North American audience, discovered the seminal Australian band. The alluring strains of the unexpected hit “Under The Milky Way,” shimmering from both commercial and college radio, ushered in the beginning of what would become the band’s most prodigious, and subsequently tumultuous, era.

    After issuing four full-length albums, three EPs, fourteen singles and a compilation album on five different record labels, The Church, already with six years of ups and downs under their belt, found themselves not only facing a familiar uncertain future but were, for the first time, without a recording contract. Ironically, the band had reached this juncture in spite of the recent, respectable success of their 1985 album Heyday, which had also featured a rare American release. Following intensive negotiations with several interested labels, The Church worked out a new worldwide record deal with Arista Records (with distribution through Mushroom Records for the Australian market), in 1987.

    At the behest of Arista, The Church would not cut tracks for their next album in Sydney, but instead would journey to Los Angeles to record with producers Greg Ladanyi and Waddy Wachtel. This artist-producer pairing, while a seemingly incongruous association, was an intriguing prospect for all concerned… if they could make it work. Almost by self-fulfilling prophecy, this arrangement quickly imploded into a fractious working relationship. But regardless of (and, by contrast, because of) the discord, a month of rigorous pre-production work realized some very strong material, and the ensuing recording sessions achieved one of the tightest, most formidable collections of songs The Church have ever offered. As a result, Starfish arguably remains The Church’s most pivotal album in their 32 year history, still venerated to this day by the press and music fans alike.

    We know that in the wake of Starfish’s success, history records a rocky aftermath for The Church. “No Certainty Attached,” as their 1998 song goes… yet the real story is that the band has endured on its own terms. But 25 years ago there was this brief shining moment, known as 1988 a watershed year for The Church.

    Let’s take this opportunity to reflect back and discuss Starfish, and while we’re at it, we’ll do a song-by-song review.


    THE FINE PRINT: Let’s keep this a dedicated Starfish appreciation thread. If either Starfish or The Church are not to your liking, or if you think The Church have made better albums, that’s perfectly fine, but please post that elsewhere, such as in the rich, ongoing Church “Congregation Thread,” right here. Thanks for respecting this.



    Side One
    “Under The Milky Way”
    “Blood Money”
    “North, South, East and West”

    Side Two

    “A New Season”
    “Hotel Womb”



    Fulmer, Mike (Publ.): The Church Discography
    Kilbey, Steve: “sel-fish,” The Time Being, December 1, 2006.
    Lurie, Robert Dean: No Certainty Attached: Steve Kilbey and the Church: A Biography, Verse Chorus Press, 2009, pp. 161-187
    Smith, Brian (Ed.): Shadow Cabinet, various 1988 articles compiled
    You Tube: The Church – Starfish Radio Interviews – 1988

  2. George Blair

    George Blair Forum Resident

    Portland, OR
    Just this evening I was at a loss for what to play from my vinyl collection and randomly pulled this out. A great album indeed. For what it's worth, "Under The Milky Way" is a good song for beginner guitarists to learn. Requires a steady rhythm without too much fingering. :)
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  3. 1970

    1970 Forum Resident Thread Starter

    1. "Destination"

    The Church certainly have offered up some compelling album openers over the years. Nearly every record kicks off with a piece that is nothing short of a stroke of pure genius. But prior to Starfish, this was not always the case. “Destination” firmly establishes this tradition (one that really only started convincingly with Heyday’s opener “Myrrh”), and uncompromisingly welds it down forevermore.

    So, yes along with a legion of 1988 converts, it was “Under The Milky Way” that first captured my attention. However, it was “Destination” that made me a lifelong fan of The Church. Upon playing my first copy of Starfish, twenty-five years ago this spring, and hearing its illustrious prelude for the first time, my compass points were Blue Öyster Cult’s first two albums (rock staples for me in any decade).³ It was very much like an invocation. The lyric bleakness of it and Peter Koppes’ lead guitar lines conjured that familiar, mysterious undertow. I was swept to those starlit, black and white landscapes where Tyranny And Mutation always takes me. It was, for me, an astonishing revelation that sometimes happens with new music.

    To that end, “Destination” captures the very essence of Starfish. It has “a cinema feel” ⁴ that pulls the listener in; and as the piece builds, it deftly sets the tone and mood of the entire album. The guitar interplay between Koppes and Willson-Piper reaches previously unscaled heights here. The underlying urgency in the verses is brilliantly punctuated by opposing, flowing passages that dissolve into simple, quiet interpolations of guitar swells where Kilbey’s calculated vocal, so evenly measured for dramatic effect, becomes so serene and unsettling at the same time. This contrast might come off as odd on the first listen, because it has the effect of a momentary freeze-frame on the action. To this day, I find the song’s construction absolutely brilliant.

    So that’s “Destination.” It’s an extraordinary 5:51. I believe that Kilbey and his mates accomplished what they set out to do with this one. It really is very much like a short film with “an obscure point in the distance.”



    Final comment: Accolades aside, I find this song a curious choice for a single. And the 4:41 radio edit on Side One of the 12” promo is a real hack job. Not sure how this might have charted… probably not very high, if at all. This one was just far too esoteric as 1980s, ravenous radio fodder. “Lost” would have been a better offering for the airwaves of that time.

    Next up: “Under The Milky Way.”


    ¹ Wishing On A Star: The Church Suffer Under the Bad Karma of L.A., Find Communion with Each Other, and Deliver a Hit Album,” Rolling Stone Australia: Issue 419, June 1988

    ² Kilbey, Steve: Mushroom Records Starfish press release, 1988

    ³ An asynchronous side note that harkens back a quarter of a century: it was only this past week did I learn from my research that when Steve Kilbey was asked how “Destination” might be classified, his reply, back in 1988, was “it’s more like Blue Öyster Cult than anything else.” (see interview in Bucketfull of Brains, No. 25, May 1988)

    same as ¹

    ⁵ “The Starfish Enterprise,” Sounds, April 16, 1988

    ⁶ same as ¹
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  4. nsmith1002

    nsmith1002 Forum Resident

    Monticello, IN USA
    I also was one who bought Starfish on the strength of “Under The Milky Way” and was absolutely floored by the opening “Destination”.
    This song has what is for me the best lyrics in the entire Church repertoire,at least of all their songs that I've heard.
  5. Efus

    Efus Forum Resident

    Jackson, NJ, USA
    Similar to my experience, but I had also heard "Reptile" and took the plunge.

    This cd stayed in the player for a good year or so, and I still enjoy revisting it from time to time.
    Looking back on it, not only are the songs top notch, but I think the sequencing of this album is just superb.
    I can't think of too many albums off the top of my head that were sequenced as well as this one was.

    Which leads me to "Destination"
    A perfect leadoff cut to this project, and sets the mood well for what's about to follow.

    But I'd totally agree, that's it not the best choice for a single.
    I'd have gone with something harder, while "Reptile" would have been obvious, I'd have probably gone with "N,S,E&W".
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  6. AlienRendel

    AlienRendel Forum Resident

    Chicago, il
    Great album, great opener. Definitely an odd choice for a single (and probably killed any radio momentum that "Milky Way" and "Reptile" had built up.

    Really nice simple, snaky guitar line from PK. Good spooky lyrics from SK.

    As much as SK complains on his blog about all the pre-production time, this album has the most well thought out arrangements of the bands career. This really helps the songs be more impactful and I think is part of the reason for the albums success. I also think that they got some of the best instrumental tones of their career on this album.

    It's very different from where the band went later in their career, but I think this set of songs was represented perfectly on this album.
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  7. curbach

    curbach Some guy on the internet

    The ATX
    Wow. A thread with footnotes. I'm impressed :)

    I'm another who snagged this album (on cassette!) based on the strength of "Under The Milky Way". I remember a lot of promotional push for this album at the time. The funny thing is, as much as I liked this album (and I did), I have never bought another Church album in the 25 years since then, although I did pick up an lp copy of Starfish fairly recently. I often think about trying another Church album, but somehow I've never pulled the trigger. Just one of those those things . . .
  8. heyday2day

    heyday2day Forum Resident

    Huge Church fan.....if push came to shove and I was forced to pick one band's catalog to listen to the rest of my life, they'd be the choice. Gonna scattershoot a bit now...

    I remember well when Starfish broke. I was one of the few North Americans that were into the band before this was released, granted it was by happenstance (great Church track on their last album btw), and was feeling pretty smug that others were catching on. Earlier, there was a thread about buying an album based on it's cover. I didn't respond in that thread but that's how I found The Church. My musical tastes had changed dramatically since first being turned on by a friend's older brother to things like The Cult's Love, Violent Femme's S/T, The Cure, etc and by 1988 I was firmly into alternative, underground music. So it was 1987 and I was at Ray's Records and Tapes in Lubbock, Tx scanning through the "C" section when I saw four guys wearing shirts that looked strikingly similar to the one's I had taken to wearing on a cassette cover. All paisley and mysterious. It was Heyday. I was floored by that album and in quick order bought import copies of Blurred Crusade and Seance. When Starfish was released, I was already fully committed to the band.

    I disagree that Starfish is where the Church tradition of opening albums with killer tracks started. I would submit that this had been in place since their second record. "Almost With You", "Fly-One Day", "Myrhh", "Constant In Opal" off an EP were all worthy partners to Starfish's "Destination". That being said, "Destination" has a black and white, cinematic, epic feel to it that's perfect in the lead off spot. One of Starfish's strengths is the sequencing. Among the albums tracks, there isn't another candidate that could achieve what "Destination" does. Same thing with "Hotel Womb" as the closer (but that's later).

    "Destination" hooked me immediately. The way Kilbey describes physical space itself is sublime. It's the lead off to what the album quickly reveals itself to be (imo of course).... distances, push-pull, trying to get to somewhere that you just might not be able to, tensions, the wistfulness of just the process, etc, etc. Tho' it's no new trick of Kilbey's, I adore his lyrics for the space of imagination it leaves you and "Destination" has many such instances. "in the space between our houses, some bones have been discovered"...crime scene, horror movie from an old blck and white film noir style. Brooding but resigned to the fates. "Draconian Winter unfortold"....beautiful, wistful melancholia. Dusty caravans in wide open spaces out west.

    At some point, all those feeling and images have been evoked by "Destination". Sometimes all together within it's playing time. For me, an indicator of a great piece of work.
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  9. morgan1098

    morgan1098 Forum Resident

    My experience is similar to what others here have said. I fell in love with "Under the Milky Way" and promptly went out to find the cassette of Starfish. "Destination" blew me away. It's easily my favorite track on the album. There's so much mystery and foreboding packed into that song, and yet it's also beautiful.

    I think there was the idea at the time (probably Arista's) that The Church would be another U2. Being a massive Joshua Tree fan, I almost felt a little disappointed after my first listen to Starfish, because it wasn't anything like a U2 album beyond some superficial similarities in guitar tones, etc. I still love both bands and I'm glad they're not clones of each other.
  10. Twangy

    Twangy Forum Resident

    Boston, MA, USA
    i was a longtime fan at that point, having picked up the import of "Unguarded Moment" when it came out, but i just remember Starfish being a compromise of sorts, but in all good ways...it kind of realigned the band with the reality of the record industry, in terms of a product that was not only sellable, but could widen their audience, and it succeeded.....the band didn't truly change their sound, just kinda sharpened it up a tad, but also showed their songwriting skill too....and no doubt, their own discomfort of being in Los Angeles, with producers that didn't share their tastes, perspectives, etc, it was the right tension that actually, creatively worked....not sure that Arista was thinking they were another U2, i think Clive Davis would've been happy if they were another Cure, or Echo and The Bunnymen....
  11. 1970

    1970 Forum Resident Thread Starter

    I should restate what I am saying, so there is no confusion. I was choosing my words very carefully, perhaps to the point of being unclear.

    It is my opinion that after Starfish, The Church’s selections for album openers are consistently strong; prior to that, it’s a little hit or miss. I mentioned “Myrrh” – to me that’s the genesis for the practice that was ultimately cemented with “Destination.” The Church haven’t had an underwhelming album/EP opener since those two knock-outs. But certainly “Constant In Opal” and “For A Moment We’re Strangers” are other formidable openers. “Almost With You,” “A Different Man,” "Fly," and “Maybe These Boys” are all up for debate, I suppose. Surely, they are all songs with merit ─ well except for perhaps “Maybe These Boys.” :laugh: It's just my personal feeling that as album/EP openers, those four tunes don’t necessarily serve the purpose of defining where the release is going to take the listener.

    Anyway, I respect your point of view, and thanks for weighing in ─ I was hoping you would. You are among a very elite society ─ a pre-Starfish, American Church fan. :thumbsup:
  12. cb70

    cb70 Forum Resident

    Count me in as one also. I saw the video for "Under The Milky Way" and went out and bought the album based on that. "Destination" then and still does floor me and gives the that 'shiver' effect when the song kicks in proper.
  13. AlienRendel

    AlienRendel Forum Resident

    Chicago, il
    oh, you HAD to bring up "Maybe These Boys", didn't you? o_O
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  14. 1970

    1970 Forum Resident Thread Starter

    :laugh: I hadn't intended that. It just happened!

  15. BadJack

    BadJack Forum Resident

    Boston, MA
    I use the song as a defense of the capo; for some reason, a lot of guitar players I know view using a capo as "cheating". The two acoustics, one capo'd (sp? word?), create such a cool texture in my opinion.

    I was one of the teenyboppers who really discovered the band with this album, though I do have vague memories of seeing "The Unguarded Moment" on early MTV. It remains a great collection of songs and probably the easiest starting point for someone just starting to investigate the band.
  16. jeffmo789

    jeffmo789 Give The Gift of Music!

    New England
    That is shocking - I didnt think there was such a thing as a casual Church fan and recommend you pick up the career spanning Deep In The Shallows and have that guide your next purchase.

    Destination is probably my favorite amongst the many great album openers in the catalog, by a hair over Myrhh and Block.
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  17. heyday2day

    heyday2day Forum Resident

    I've always found it surprising that the band wasn't able to retain the fans gained by Starfish and UTMW. Gold Afternoon Fix played a part in that but it wasn't so far off the mark that I can lay blame solely at it's feet, and Priest =Aura should have made them as revered as the mighty U2 so not sure where the answer completely lies.

    I was hooked from the first time I heard "Myhrr" on Heyday and have been a die hard ever since but I'm one of the few. I've always had a hard time comprehending how a band that talented and unique, that had a brief swim in the mainstream, has become almost ignored. Those that tuned out after Starfish are missing some phenomenal stuff.

    Sorry to go off topic there
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  18. jeffmo789

    jeffmo789 Give The Gift of Music!

    New England
    There are about a dozen Church songs that give me that shiver feeling you mentioned, and two of them are Destination and UTMW to lead off this great album. I'd love to hear Destination live at some point (assuming Mr Kilbey changes his mind and doesn't disband this great band).
  19. 1970

    1970 Forum Resident Thread Starter

    Absolutely true on both counts. On one hand, Greg Ladanyi had a palpable distaste for The Church. To put it plainly, he thought they lacked serious talent. During the sessions, he would only occasionally show up at the studio between golf outings to turn a few knobs on the console and hurl a few insults before disappearing again. This is all well documented. On the other hand, Waddy Wachtel really worked with The Church and while there was disagreement between him and the band, there was astute professionalism on both sides as evidenced by just one listen to the production. So all the tension and SK's bitching aside, Wachtel had gained the respect of the band. And not long after, The Church publicly acknowledged how they had grown to appreciate what had happened in L.A., with MWP stating "it was probably the best thing that ever happened to The Church," and SK stating:

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  20. Groggy

    Groggy Forum Resident

    Been a Church fan since they started, saw all their early gigs right up to a gig a few weeks ago. I remember Starfish being really well anticipated by a lot of fans in Oz including myself. The track Destination is a killer
    I like morgan's use of the word foreboding....that basically sums it up, a resignation and foreboding of what is ahead, brilliantly done.
    Great description of the track by heday2day........including my favourite line; Draconian winter, unforetold (genius)

    Just want to add lastly the album contains one of my favourite all time guitar solos (Blood Money) very short but brilliantly done. I asked Peter Koppes how he did it, said it wasn't anything special then showed me on his guitar backstage...wow, so cool.
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  21. Groggy

    Groggy Forum Resident

    This is cool Marty talking original early albums (by other people!) He knows his stuff, he's also the friendliest to talk to of The Church........imo
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  22. This album was life-changing for me; I was in my early teens and had pretty much stopped following music at that point, having grown tired of metal/hard rock and trading tape buying for comic collecting. I was vaguely aware of "Under the Milky Way" and later in the year was listening to the radio when the Church's Westwood One radio show performance came on and I was floored. Picked up "Starfish", the rest of their catalog and spent the next year playing catch up on everything in the "College Rock" genre I'd missed out on and exploring the current/budding "alternative" music.
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  23. 1970

    1970 Forum Resident Thread Starter

    2. "Under The Milky Way"

    “Under The Milky Way.” Where do I start? It is such an ethereal, seductive song. Yet everything that makes this song great is part of an exquisite veil between its beguiling charm and its nascent circumstances. This is a story of pure serendipity and some close near-misses.

    The inception of The Church’s best known song came about one summer evening in 1986 when Steve Kilbey struck an A Minor chord on a piano at his mother’s lake house in New South Wales. As he pondered the chord’s characteristics and possibilities, the song’s signature progression with its descending bass line, along with a rough melody hummed to it, took form quickly. And then, just as quickly, he lost interest and had turned his attention to other abstractions on the out-of-tune upright. The fragment he had so offhandedly forged was nearly relegated to the ‘forgotten’ bin. Luckily, Kilbey’s then-girlfriend Karin Jansson, a songwriter in her own right, was in earshot at that critical moment and, hearing rich potential, encouraged Kilbey to again play what she had just heard and to stay with it. Together, they worked out a sketch for the song.³

    At that moment, Kilbey did not attach a lot of importance to what had just happened, but he figured with a little more work, he could have something unusual that might fit on his next solo record. Sometime after, he rearranged the song in his studio on an eight-track recorder with guitar, bass, keys and a drum machine. The unfinished demo was then put on a shelf. One day later, Church drummer Richard Ploog, who dropped in on Kilbey at his home, heard the tape. Ploog recognized the same world of possibilities as Jansson. He insisted that Kilbey play the song for Peter Koppes and Marty Willson-Piper; the two tepidly agreed it was worthy of consideration as a Church song, even though the band had agreed to write new material together. Far more enthusiastic were Ploog and the band’s manager, who insisted “Under The Milky Way” was a hit in the making. Kilbey and the others weren’t as sure about that.

    On the opposite end of the fervor spectrum were Greg Ladanyi and Waddy Wachtel. As biographer Robert Dean Lurie states, the producers were not at all keen on recording “Under The Milky Way” because, as Lurie puts it, the song “showcased just the sort of swirling psychedelia that [they] were trying to get the band to move beyond.” Obviously, the band held their ground and won that argument.

    Ironically, Richard Ploog, the true believer who had exerted great influence to get The Church to take on “Under The Milky Way,” didn’t play on the version that made its way on to the album. His performance was rejected by Wachtel, who then had the other three record their parts to a click track. And even though Kilbey once said “[the producers] didn’t [want to] waste their time putting real drums on it” (which could only lead the reader to conclude they supplemented their work on the song with a drum machine), we have since learned from Lurie’s book that Wachtel brought in studio veteran Russ Kunkel to add human drums and percussion.

    The striking and unusual middle eight was the result of some whimsical experimentation between Kilbey and a technician only known as Welles (nicknamed “Orson” by Kilbey, and credited as “Awesome Welles” on the album). Presumably this undertaking took place while Ladanyi and Wachtel weren't around. Kilbey and Welles recorded an African bagpipe, then tracked it backwards onto the song using a Synclavier. As Lurie tells it, the others’ collective initial reaction to the backwards bagpipe was one of “shock and bewilderment,” but “after a few listens… the consensus was the novelty of [it] further enhanced the song.” The sudden, clamorous appearance of the bagpipe “solo” is accentuated by some tasteful, restrained lead guitar lines played with an e-bow. (Coming out of this section, Kilbey repeats the lyric: “And it’s something quite peculiar…” Indeed! This entire section of the song is a beautifully peculiar – and unforgettable – slice of ingenuity.)

    What’s almost comical is that even after the stellar tracking and a perfect mix, Wachtel chided Kilbey for placing "Under The Milky Way" second in the song sequencing: “You want ‘em to hear some of the good ones before they get to that,” Wachtel told him, still failing to recognize the merit of the song and what they had accomplished.


    “Songs should be deliberately ambiguous things,” Steve Kilbey once said,¹ and he has always taken a sideways approach to the interpretation of his lyrics. So, hounded for some insight into the meaning behind “Under The Milky Way,” he has only stated that the words are “vaguely” inspired by a hash bar he visited in Amsterdam¹¹ and “some experiences…traveling about,” one of which being an unspecified encounter with a woman he met in Memphis who “shook [his] mind up one night,” likening this happening to “two worlds colliding.” ¹²


    "Under The Milky Way" is one of those songs that when it gets hold of you, it will never let go. I remember thinking while hearing it the first few times that there was nothing else like it on the radio at the time. I was compelled to find out more about this band, The Church. In that regard, it’s a very important song to me and many other fans, as it was the Nexus that got us plugged into the celestial universe of The Church.

    And, for better or worse, this is indeed the song The Church are most known for. But is it The Church’s signature song, the one that ultimately defines them? I don’t really ever think of the song in those terms. The magnificence of The Church is that there is no one song (or album) that can succinctly define who they really are. “Under The Milky Way” is one great work in a body of great works. (...And I still smile every time I hear it.)



    “Under The Milky Way” debuted on the U.S. Billboard "Hot 100" at #91 on April 9, 1988. It spent a total of 15 weeks on the U.S. charts, peaking at #24 on June 18, 1988. (It fared much better on "U.S. Mainstream Rock Tracks," reaching the #2 slot.) In Australia, “Under The Milky Way” went all the way to #5.

    Next up: “Blood Money”


    ¹ Biglione, Kirk: "The Church," Contrast magazine, c.1989
    ² same as ¹
    ³ Kilbey, Steve: "utmw," The Time Being, October 24, 2009
    Lurie, Robert Dean: No Certainty Attached: Steve Kilbey and the Church: A Biography, Verse Chorus Press, 2009, pp. 182-183
    same as
    Kilbey, Steve: “sel-fish,” The Time Being, December 1, 2006
    same as
    same as
    same as ⁴ and
    ¹"The Starfish Enterprise," Sounds, April 16, 1988
    ¹¹ Zuel, Bernard: "Wishing On A Star: The Church Suffer Under the Bad Karma of L.A., Find Communion with Each Other, and Deliver a Hit Album," Rolling Stone Australia, Issue 419, June 1988
    ¹² Beeson, Frank: "The Church," Bucketfull of Brains, No. 25, May 1988

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  24. AlienRendel

    AlienRendel Forum Resident

    Chicago, il
    I remember being excited that Starfish and hearing UTMW first on the radio. It reminds me of some of the more strummy, folk-rock tunes on Blurred Crusade. Despite the story that the producers didn't care for it, it seems like it received a lot of care in recording/mixing it - maybe this was Kilbey insisting on getting it right?

    As far as their catalog of songs goes, I would call UTMW middling, but I'm also glad that their best known song is not something embarrassing (which seems to happen to a lot of bands).
    1970 likes this.
  25. Standoffish

    Standoffish Don't you dare call me an ostrich!

    I absolutely love "Under the Milky Way". "Ethereal" is the best word to describe it. The bagpipe section was an inspired touch and really makes the song.

    As a bonus, it's easy to play and sing - even for a decidedly amateur musician like me.
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