Monday, July 13, 2009

ART BEARS
Here's a band of yore still much loved in this household, though probably not talked about a whole lot. Of course, the trio known as the Art Bears - that's Fred Frith, Dagmar Krause and Chris Cutler - aren't exactly gonna be everyone's cup o' tea. Spawned from the early/mid '70s avant-progsters, Henry Cow, who did a bunch of pretty cool discs on Virgin in the day which I recall liking back in the dark ages (not the '70s!) but haven't played for over a decade, the Art Bears were a tighter, more potent and economical proposition. Inspired by the rising punk tide at the time, the band cut some of the prog fat from their wares and slimmed the sound down to a mightily listenable mixture of Euro prog of the Soft Machine/Magma/Faust school, punk anger and US art-rock of the Mothers/Beefheart/'Ubu variety. Their first album, Hopes & Fears, from '78 is still kinda in the halfway zone, mixing the epic with the trim (and featuring pretty much the whole line-up of Henry Cow), though for me the real goods have always been the rekkids from '79 and '81: Winter Songs and The World As It Is Today.
Both of these had somewhat of a renaissance in the early '90s after Forced Exposure gave the whole Rock In Opposition (RIO)/Recommended Records scene a major buzz to a generation of budding young post-hardcore dorks looking for the next thrill, and since I was one of those dorks, I bit in, hard. The major beef folks might have w/ the 'Bears is Krause's vocals: they can be painfully Germanic and austere, like Nico singing Brecht, and if you're not up for what sounds occasionally like a heavy slab of Aryan berating on the vocal front, they can grate. Strange that she took such a route of delivery w/ the band, since an early '70s disc I've got of her older (and on and off) outfit, Slapp Happy, the terrific Cascablanca Moon, has her singing like a sweet princess (and lemme take a sidestep and thoroughly recommend that disc; it is like nothing else of its time: ramshackle yet highly melodic slop-pop that sounds more at home on the K label ca. 1990 than Europe ca. 1973).
These latter two LPs got licensed to Ralph Records in the day, where the band found a nice home w/ fellow oddballs, The Residents. I doubt they sold much, since such a European flavour likely didn't gel w/ a US audience at the time, but persist w/ the Art Bears and ye shall be rewarded. Their combination of American and European influences, along w/ the rad politics and punk-ish verve still make for a hot listen, and, along w/ their buddies This Heat or even Throbbing Gristle, are a great example of an ever-so-slightly older generation who'd been under the radar in some form or another for several years getting a boost by the anything-can-happen buzz when punk hit. Seriously, I can thank these two albums, both available on one CD, for opening a gateway to other good things on Cutler's ReR label empire, as well as Cutler's rather excellent File Under Popular book from the early '80s (still in print and well worth a read), solo Frith, This Heat, Camberwell Now, Magma, Mothers Of Invention, Robert Wyatt/Soft Machine, you name it. I guess they were rediscovered in the early '90s; time for a re-rediscovering.
UNREST - Imperial ffrr LP/CD (Teen Beat/No. 6/Ajax/1992)
Have I written about this before? Possibly. I know I certainly did back in 1993, but that was a lifetime ago, so I guess I'm granted the right to do it again. You may be surprised when you hear the record itself, but Imperial ffrr rates as one of my absolute top 10 albums of the 1990s. I still play it to this day, and quite a lot, too. Probably shoulda made it into that Top 100 Albums Of All Time list as well, but hey, that thing's probably already bloated upwards of about 250 albums as it is. Unrest were a DC group headed by Teen Beat label honcho Mark Robinson and, at least in the '80s, were known as being somewhat of an "anti-Dischord" band, much like the similarly great (though also totally dissimilar) No Trend. OK, OK, it all sounds rather quaint now, but I guess back in the day Ian & co. dominated the nascent DC hardcore scene with such force (as he and his musical offspring probably still do) that someone had to stand up and give 'em the middle finger for no particular reason whatsoever. Unrest are actually named after an old Henry Cow album, which probably gives you an indication of the kind of oblique reference points the band were making back in the hey-days of HC. Robinson himself is/was a total Anglophile in his musical tastes, outlook and aesthetic (especially the Factory label), though he's still got that DC HC blood pumpin' through his veins whether he likes it or not, and that's one of the great things about Unrest that made 'em work.
They certainly clicked on Imperial ffrr, which is possibly more than I can say for their two previous efforts: 1988's Malcom X Park and 1990's Kustom Karnal Blackxploitation (both on Caroline). In all fairness, I haven't heard either of them since about 1995, but I bought 'em both in about 1990 and they never clicked. Robinson seemed to be attempting a stab at every genre which took his fancy and coming off none too successfully w/ any of it, whether it was hardcore, noise, pop or the kinda extraneous noise which makes you want to flip the needle off. I sold 'em years back, and perhaps before I drop dead I'll get 'em back again, but I doubt it. I recall the both of them being musical struggles I couldn't endure (and that was when I was knee-deep in Whitehouse and Merzbow records!). Which brings me to this LP. Why would you be surprised I'd like it? Because it's so darn nice. Pop songs. Harmonies. Melodies. My work colleague called me a sissy-boy and was befuddled by my love of such supposed musical lightweights. The key to Unrest actually becoming not just "good" or "interesting" but rather excellent was the addition of Bridgett Cross to the group. After Imperial ffr they made the almost-equally-as-great Perfect Teeth then called it quits, and it's those two discs w/ her you really want. They're an ace mix of almost Eno/Roxy-style Brit art-pop mixed up w/ Factory fodder and east coast undie-rock a la Sonic Youth/Yo La Tengo, and Robinson drops the smarminess that beleagured his early work - a smarminess that made Unrest come across like an annoying fuck-you in-joke only he and his buddies really fully understood - and made 'em sound like an actual rock band making records people might wanna hear.
The pedigree of songwriting on Imperial ffrr is unbeatable: the opening power-pop of "Suki", the 8+ drones and falsetto vocals of "Imperial" (the best track here), the fey cheese of "I Do Believe You Are Blushing", the '80s New Wave of the Cross-sung "June" and even the tracks, such as "Firecracker" or "Electrico", which sound like the kind of art-damaged afterthoughts which cluttered their earlier works, only this time with some effort put into them. I've got this on both LP (w/ bonus 7") and CD, the latter being reissued years later by Teen Beat w/ a ton of bonus tracks that keep fanatics such as moi satisfied (and there are actually a whole slew of alternate versions and B-sides well worth hearing, if you're at all inclined), and I don't purchase albums on multiple formats unless I really mean it, man. Imperial ffrr is pleasant as all get-up, but it kills.

Thursday, July 02, 2009


Paraplegic street musicians from Congo jamming it out w/ their own garage-level take on Afrobeat. Kids, this is punk rock!