From the Mobile Press Register, by Lawrence Specker
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Jeffrey Cain, Steve Kilbey continue Isidore collaboration with ‘Life Somewhere Else’
The music comes from another continent. From another world. From another time. From a dream. The sound is dense, layered, deep; the vocals are dreamy, yet the lyrics overflow with crystalline imagery.
The conventional thing to say would be that Isidore has returned. But it might be more accurate to say that a door has been opened so that listeners can return to Isidore.
Either way you look at it, the Fat Tuesday release of the album “Life Somewhere Else” signifies that a new chapter has been written in one of the most unlikely and noteworthy musical collaborations to come out of Mobile.
Once upon a time, a young man stood in a Mobile record shop, flipping through the racks, looking for something different. He stumbled across “Heyday,” an album by the Australian rock band The Church. The music was indeed different, and the mystical lyrics of singer Steve Kilbey opened new musical horizons to the young man.
Jeffrey Cain eventually moved away from Mobile and joined a band called Remy Zero, which went on to have some respectable success in the world. It’s biggest hit was “Save Me,” used in the long-running TV series “Smallville.” That song, while well known, doesn’t work well as a summary of Remy Zero’s sound or Cain’s ambitions: The group was really more of an experimental collective than a straightforward band, and Cain was open to other outlets. (Much the same can be said of Kilbey, whose artistic accomplishments go far beyond “Under the Milky Way,” The Church’s lone major U.S. hit.)
Established as a rocker in his own right, Cain wrote some instrumental tracks and saw that they got to Kilbey. Kilbey responded overnight, offering a vocal. And that was the genesis of the first Isidore album. Released in 2004, it was made up of tracks that Cain recorded in America and vocals that Kilbey recorded in Australia.
It was a collaboration that left many listeners, and both of the music’s architects, wanting more. But it took seven years for that desire to come to fruition.
Looking back on the moment when he first heard music Cain had written for his voice, Kilbey recalled how strongly it stood out for him.
“Sometimes people write music and it’s, there was no need for it to be written,” he said. “And other people write music and it’s already kind of finished, they give me instrumentals and they haven’t really left anywhere for you to sing. And Jeffrey gave me this track and it was brilliantly ready to have a vocal on it. And I could hear that the vocal had to be my vocal.”
“It seemed it had to be done,” he said. “It was one of those things of fate, and I’m very open to that.”
Cain returned to the project as an older, more accomplished artist. In the interim he’d moved from the West Coast back to Birmingham and founded a new label, Communicating Vessels. But he was also grappling with the death of fellow Mobilian Gregory Slay, a musical kindred spirit who’d been in Remy Zero and worked with him on other outside projects.
Working on new Isidore material provided therapy.
“That was a place I would go to late at night and go write that gave me some peace of mind and made me feel close to Greg,” Cain said. “When I would write new songs and hear them coming out of the speakers, I felt in tune with Gregory.” (The album is dedicated to Slay; Kilbey and Cain both say they felt his presence throughout the recording work.)
Whereas the first record had been a shot in the dark, naive in a way, this one had to be an “informed” album, Cain said.
“It had to be different, it had to come from a different angle,” he said. “We had a little bit more knowledge of each other, so I had to find out the rest of the story.”
So, late in 2010, he journeyed to Australia, so the two collaborators finally could work face to face.
“I did the music in Alabama,” Cain said. “I went to Sydney, rented an apartment, we set up a studio in the living room, and we both stayed there. I stayed there for 10 days and we would just go song by song. He would write the lyrics right then, with me sitting there, and then I’d record them.”
The resulting lyrics are largely improvised: Kilbey said he generally goes with his first impulses, making minor changes as needed. Several times he works the name of the band into his songs, as if Isidore is a character in the story he’s telling, or a spirit he’s trying to evoke. He laughed about it, describing it as a bit of bravado borrowed from the world of rap.
Cain said he savors the experience of that fast-paced process.
“I think Steve has practiced so much at wordplay and poetry for so many years that he’s not coming at it blind and just mixing up random things,” he said. “There’s so many tricks up his sleeve to help it all flow out, and I got to watch him use those, which is pretty amazing.”
Asked about evolution from the first Isidore album to the new one, Kilbey described it mostly in terms of Cain’s growth.
“I think he’s gotten more complex, in the kind of music he’s writing,” Kilbey said. “He’s definitely turned into himself more.”
Cain said he’s been thrilled to see early response to “Life Somewhere Else,” which already has gotten strong reviews in outlets such as the Huffington Post. The first album fell far outside the mainstream, but clearly reached an audience. And that audience has been waiting eagerly for more.
“Putting that first one out, it was kind of a subtle, cool, underground record,” Cain said. “But I did see it connect with people and I knew the people that got it, it meant a lot to.”
“Sometimes when you make music that’s subtle and nuanced in this world, a lot of times it gets trampled on and looked over,” he said. “Sometimes you wonder, did anyone hear it. But people have been really good about letting us know they were hearing it, and that keeps wind in our sails.”
That suggest they’ll keep on sailing to points unknown. And Kilbey, for one, is eager to voyage further.
“It’s pretty much up to Jeffrey, you know,” he said. “I think we always understood this would be an ongoing thing. And hopefully there’ll be a third and a fourth and so on.”