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With a 'Bang!,' World Party's Karl Wallinger was sidelined and took to digging up 'Arkeology'

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Karl01a_20120430_171603.jpgThe title of the first song on World Party's newest batch of recordings -- "Arkeology," a five-disc, closet-cleaning retrospective, just left of a traditional box set -- is a massive understatement for the project's central figure, singer-songwriter Karl Wallinger.

"Waiting Such a Long Long Time" finds Wallinger singing, in his world-weary voice over a party-pop guitar jangle, "I don't even know what I want anymore."

Which isn't really true. Not anymore.

"What I've been through, it's made me feel that all the stuff we worry about is not worth worrying about," Wallinger told the Sun-Times in a recent interview. "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. It's very true. In my case, it's made me fatter. I had to be stronger to carry it all."

What he's been through is a virtual decade-plus absence from music following a brain aneurysm in 2000.

WORLD PARTY
• 8 p.m. Aug. 30
• Cubby Bear, 1059 W. Addison
• Sold out
• (773) 327-1662; cubbybear.com

Following a brief stint with the Waterboys, contributing as keyboardist to the albums "A Pagan Place" (1984) and the phenomenal "This Is the Sea" (1985), Wallinger formed World Party -- essentially a solo project but frequently featuring guitarist Dave Catlin-Birch, drummer Chris Sharrock and, early on, multi-instrumentalist Guy Chambers -- then quickly charted a hit with the song "Ship of Fools" and enjoyed wide acclaim for an album of prescient environmental themes, "Goodbye Jumbo" (1990).

"Bang!" (1993), a superb album seamlessly blending genres from soul to rock to (briefly) opera, charted in Wallinger's native UK. But by the fifth World Party LP, "Dumbing Up" in 2000, many had stopped paying attention. Wallinger was already gone before he was really gone.

In February 2001, Wallinger was cycling with his son, Louis, when things went wrong.

"I just had a headache and said, 'I'm going to go to bed.' I came out half an hour later and said, 'I've got this headache -- phone an ambulance,'" he recalled. "I woke up a day or two and two hospitals later. ... I came to feeling I'd just gone a few rounds with Muhammad Ali and thinking, 'This is a bit strange.' I seemed fine, but it was a test weeks later when I looked into this periscope thing that we found my vision was wrong."

Wallinger, now 54, has no right-side vision in either eye.

As you might imagine, this poses two separate problems.

"I'm a menace when Christmas shopping. I do a lot of collisions and have to say I'm sorry a lot," he said.

More to the professional point: "Playing instruments is a bit weird now. I used to look at my right hand as I played piano. That's how I learned. Now I can't see my right hand. Same with the guitar -- I'm right-handed, but I play upside down like Bob Geldof or Jimi Hendrix. Eventually, I've gotten the hang of both again."

Two months out of the hospital, Wallinger tried his first gig, a benefit show -- just to see where his abilities stood. Also on the bill: Edwyn Collins, a contemporary of Wallinger's from the '80s band Orange Juice and his own subsequent solo career ("A Girl Like You") who'd suffered a double aneurysm in 2005. ("We're so competitive. He just had to have the bigger one," Wallinger quipped.)

His skills were largely intact, he found, but the recovery would be long and steep. Fortunately, Wallinger received an unexpected financial windfall.

The aforementioned Guy Chambers heard one of Wallinger's songs, "She's the One," and took it to his new songwriting partner, pop singer Robbie Williams. The 1997 piano ballad, which Wallinger said was knocked out "in 10 minutes and recorded in about half an hour," became a big hit for Williams.

"So we didn't have to sell the kids to chemical experiments or anything," Wallinger said. "I think I'm a bit of a lucky person."

Using his down time constructively, Wallinger began going back through old recordings. He wound up compiling an iTunes playlist with a runtime of 79 days -- B-sides, rarities, Beatles covers, interviews and a lot of tour tapes. He whittled it down to five and a half days, and his manager edited that to four CDs, which would become the bulk of "Arkeology." Some extra DAT tapes and one new project, a sweet ballad called "Everybody's Falling in Love," comprised the set's fifth and lead-off disc.

"Like 'Words,' that track's a great one," Wallinger said. "We did it, put it in a box and forgot about it. Great fun, that one. It was good going back and kind of recapping the 25 years, a good thing for me to do at this point in time. I've got stuff that I've done during the last 10 years I'm still going through, but really I'd like to get in and record new stuff. I'd like to get a new 12-song record out next year."

"Arkeology" -- 70 tracks, and a bargain at less than $40 -- immediately sold out a limited run and is now on its third pressing.

After this string of acoustic dates in America -- a half dozen shows featuring violinist David Duffy and guitarist John Turnbull -- Wallinger returns home for his first full-fledged British concert in 15 years.

Everything you need to know about how his career has shaken out geographically is in this sentence: He plays the Cubby Bear sports pub in Chicago, but in November he headlines the Royal Albert Hall in London.

"I'm burning the candle at both ends," Wallinger said, "but I'm good, I'm healthy, and I'm up for this. I'm told a few fans might be, too. So we'll give it a go."


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Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.

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