Cosa Brava
Ragged Atlas

(Intakt Records)

I was quite surprised upon learning that Fred Frith was about to go on tour, his brand-new, lively, "rock band" being ready to travel 'round the globe. It was at that time, about two years ago, that I noticed that I had tacitly assumed the "rock way of playing" to be a closed chapter for him, twenty years (it's twenty years, already?) after his last rock group, Keep The Dog, had been onstage. News of a more precise kind told of a quintet, bearing the name Cosa Brava (the way Americans pronounce Costa Brava? Or maybe an Hispanic translation for Brave Thing, as a friend suggested to me? Well, I don't know, and the label's website doesn't tell, either). A new album was to be expected, after the tour made performing the pieces a breeze. Later, I read, and heard, about more than a few fine concerts by this group, but here I have to confess I had my doubts, having learned that in this age of "diminishing expectations" the music that one would really like to listen to and the music that one is quite willing to settle for are two very different propositions.

It's at this point, for the sake of clarity (especially, but not exclusively, for the benefit of younger readers), that I have to spend a few words about the "rock" quality of this group, when it comes to their (music) language. It's an old story, with an early 70s scenario having both audience and critics in Europe file groups such as Henry Cow, Can, and Faust under "rock", with US critics inventing definitions such as art-rock, avant-rock, and the like, for them. A cultural issue being at stake here, this obviously not being a mere problem of using a different tag. It has to be noticed that, decades later, a group such as The Eagles is today considered as being in a "particular subgroup" of the "rock music" category, not as something that stands for "rock music" as a whole: which only shows how larger the number of "accepted styles" in the USA has become.

So I was surprised, but quite cautious about the actual outcome. And this is why.

It goes without saying that arguing that Henry Cow was the only excellent thing in Fred Frith's long career would be very wrong. But I really believe it can be said that Henry Cow can be considered as one of the highest peaks of rock music, beyond any issues of "genre", time, and material success - and so, as a logical consequence, also of Fred Frith's career. But Henry Cow were a group, a collective - and a classic case of the whole being a lot bigger than the sum of its parts - where the rhythm section (their names: Chris Cutler and John Greaves) made any risky, audacious, moments flow quite successfully and seamlessly.

After Henry Cow, and Art Bears, Frith decided to "Live in the Heart of the Beast": good for him, 'cause this made it possible for him to get in touch with many different musicians, and also to act as an "older brother" of some sort - let's think about his work with groups such as Curlew and Orthotonics (and, here in the Old Continent, Etron Fou Leloublan). But "Living in the Heart of the Beast" also made it possible for him to be a part of what was once described as "the theory of the table-land", i.e., a place whose steep sides make the act of climbing it very difficult, but that offers to all who reach the top a great deal of legitimate opportunities.

I went on listening with great interest to 80s Frith: after Gravity, there were Massacre, Skeleton Crew, those albums with Zorn and Kaiser, Curlew, and much more, and I regarded those moments I didn't really like as a simple matter of "different taste" (a good for instance being The Technology Of Tears, an album I absolutely disliked). This attitude on my part abruptly ended with the release of The Top Of His Head, which I recall with particular distaste also due to money reasons, it being one of the first CDs I bought, at a time where CDs were quite expensive. It was at that moment that I thought that a man that thought it plausible to sell me that stuff could have tried to sell me literally anything, however lacking in quality. Which is an assertion I really have to explain at length.

Theatre and Dance are the fields where, slowly but surely, Frith decided to spend most of his time when it came to making music. These are frameworks where music is just a (minor) part, and rightly so. The music that gets produced this way, and which is eventually released on CD, is (technically speaking) a by-product, the main goal of the CD being to make this music easily accessible to those who could potentially be a source of commissions, not to be sold in great quantity to the general public. Theatre and e Dance are by definition self-referential domains, with revenues from ticket sales being just a minor part in covering expenses. This is reality. My personal opinion being that, when compared to the best part of the "rock audience", most of the "fine arts" audience is not really that discriminative or competent, with the aforementioned self-referential framework perfectly explaining why the role of the critic is quite unimportant (those who regard the (rock) press which deals with the market domain as featuring for the most part incompetent, whorish writers are invited to read stuff written by those who mostly review "cultural items" funded by politic-infested boards). This is a scenario which gives a sound structural explanation of why a lot of fine musicians fall into routine, going through the motions as soon as they fall into the dark black hole of music mostly supported by funding.

It has to be said that, besides cultivating the world of Dance and Theatre, Fred Frith never stopped collaborating with musicians of different kind, never forgetting the world of improvisation, and those "special projects" such as the recent resurrection of the Art Bears Songbook (he also has a post as Professor at the prestigious Mills College). It's all stuff that, one way or another, is funded. If I'm not mistaken, it's been more than thirty years now that Frith has only played music whose life and health doesn't get its existence from paying customers, which is something noteworthy indeed: "Living in the Heart of the Beast" without having to confront the market, ever, is not at all easy.

It goes without saying that I went on listening to Frith's music (all of it? obviously not), with much to like. Frith kindly made my life easier when he started Fred Records, which releases a lot of his stuff, some of it having been out of print, or quite hard-to-get, for a long time.

Lotsa forces were used to produce Ragged Atlas, though they are quite diverse when it comes to matters of quality. Writing lyrics and music, here Frith is obviously also featured on guitar, bass, and vocals. A member of the "scary rock" line-up called Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, violin player and singer Carla Kihlstedt is also known for her solo work in the realm we could call Academia-related, also for several albums that feature her work, some of which are to be found under Frith's name. On drums and percussion, Matthias Bossi is also a member of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. A familiar name to many since the days of News From Babel and Skeleton Crew, keyboardist, accordionist, and singer (also harpist with Bjrk), Zeena Parkins has quite a few albums released under her name, also a long list of works for Dance and Theatre. A guy going under the name The Norman Conquest is featured on "sound manipulation". With the only exception of Bossi, all members are also featured in the resurrection of the Art Bears Songbook.

As soon as I placed the CD inside my CD player, I heard something so horrible, at such an impossibly high volume, that for a moment I thought I heard my hi-fi system pronouncing Greil Marcus's immortal words about Bob Dylan's Self Portrait: "What is this shit"? In truth, Snake Eating Its Tail is not for the weak of heart: a kind of "Kirghiz War Dance" with booms, howls, gunfire, ready to be featured in the soundtrack of a 3D war movie. I though about (in this particular order): Gentle Giant, Area, "nuevo metal"-era King Crimson, and Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. "What is this shit", indeed? To answer this question as best as I could, I listened to this CD for a whole week.

The album was recorded on 24 tracks analog. The guy with that funny name mentioned above dealt with "digital transfers, track rationalization, and additional recording". Mixed in Esslingen, the album was mastered in Oakland by a familiar name: Myles Boisen. The volume is deafening. In order to give readers a precise idea, I listened to the Robert Fripp track Breathless, off Exposure (this being the first CD edition from about twenty years ago): having the volume knob in the same position as before made the music sound almost as the amplifier had been turned off. There's a price to be paid, obviously: the sound of Ragged Atlas is heard in two-dimension, too static, plastic-y, the instruments sounding banal, not at all captivating (though I have to add that many instruments here already sound banal). It's nothing new, when compared to any "modern-sounding" recent CD, but here it speaks of the intention to take care of the superficial listener, at the expense of those who listen with the proper degree of attention.

When compared to his past standard, here Frith is more professional, his touch definitely more confident. But his new skills at arranging cannot hide the fact that his music vocabulary is for the most part the same as it was at the time of Gravity - and, if we talk about songs, of albums such as Cheap At Half The Price and The Country Of Blinds. Sure, nobody expected more from Muddy Waters in his old age than a sincere performance of Got My Mojo Workin'. While a surprise performance of Ruby Tuesday is the biggest surprise one could expect from Mick Jagger now. The big problem is that Ragged Atlas features timbres that for the most part are decidedly average, starting with the keyboards'; while the fact that Carla Kihlstedt's instrumental touch on the violin is miles better than Frith's old "Balkan" air makes it apparent that his melodies are a lot more conventional than they sounded at the time he performed them, his shaky technique adding a charm that sounded appropriate for them.

There's also a matter of "taste". The music is often tacky, bombastic, as if looking for an applause, with a few motifs which employ cheap means, maybe due to a lack of clarity, maybe due to a lack of trust in the audience being able to get subtleties. After the aforementioned "Kirghiz" intro, I'll mention the modulated filter in A Song About Love (at 4' 55" and 5' 58"), which sounds like off an album by Isao Tomita; the "dramatic pause" after the words "She Blew Herself Up" in Market Day; the melody played on guitar which reminded me of Concerto Grosso by New Trolls (at 2' 47" and 5' 20") in Lucky Thirteen; the vocal crescendo of "I'd Like To See You Again" in Pour Albert; the chorus part "Your Memory Is Fading Away - The Writing Is Fading Away - The Water Is Flowing Away - The Music Is Fading Away" in Blimey, Einstein, which I suppose should be tension-provoking (quite strange to see a "tiny, lonely little accordion" at the end of the piece, definitely not a subtle arranging gesture).

After Snake Eating Its Tail, Round Dance has a first theme which reminded me of Blast From The East by Jeff Beck, and a second theme, well-mannered, for violin, percussion, and accordion. Pour Albert is supposed to transmit an idea of pathos, but the track sounds forced. Open to outside influences, R. D. Burman travels Bollywood looking for a way out, but its obvious, apparent professionalism is at odds with the light atmosphere the piece is supposed to evoke; there are banal, pitch-bended keyboards, also tourist tablas at the end. There's a tearjerking theme for violin in Falling Up (For Amanda), the vocal parts reminding me of Skeleton Crew.

Maybe the track that most resembles the old Gravity, Out On The Town With Rusty, 1967 features odd meters and the old "Balkan" air we all know and love; there are keyboards and accordion, a nice arrangement, a fine guitar part here sounding fresh. Lucky Thirteen is maybe the best song here: vocals in stereo, a meditative mood, fine unison from vocals and violin, the whole suffering a lot due to that guitar melody. Blimey, Einstein I already talked about.

There's a different album hiding inside this one, maybe. The New World has less plastic and fewer effects, and the music breathes more freely; there's an acoustic guitar, and we are back to Gravity. Tall Story is good, too, with violin, guitar, keyboards, accordion, and a light, fine theme which for a moment reminded me of Lars Hollmer. For Tom Z has a contagious atmosphere, though the end result sounds contrived. A Song About Love has another tearjerking theme for violin, the same being true for Market Day, where Kihlstedt features the wha-wha and other effects on her violin, that to me had sounded quite unconvincing during the concert by Sleepytime Gorilla Museum I attended about three years ago.

Ragged Atlas is not a rock album, but this is not due to the language spoken here. As it's required in jazz, rock music requires that an instrumentalist sounds like his/herself, regardless of his/her technical ability. "Expressing oneself", this is the first rule of the game. Classical musicians  have to serve the music, which most of the time asks the musician to possess the proper amount of technical skills required to properly perform the music, the condition of anonymity here being a pre-requisite. This is even more true when it comes to "functional" music as the one that for the most part has to serve the image in a movie, or the movement in a dance. Those featured in Ragged Atlas are tracks working as the soundtrack to an invisible act that they desperately try to describe in all its details. In a word, kitsch.


Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2010 | May 1, 2010