Maybe a bit overrated at the times of their connection to trendy names like Bill Laswell and Fred Frith in his New York period - not to mention the (so called) "Knitting Factory Sound", the work of the ever-changing collective called Curlew seems to be quite underrated, almost forgotten. But their catalogue is solid, from the album North America (1985), recently re-released on CD, with J. Pippin Barnett's highly personal drums (what happened to him?), the cello and the compositions of the sadly departed Tom Cora and the hybrid saxophone approach - part free, part r'n'b - of their primus inter pares, George Cartwright; we also have Bee (1991), with Davey Williams on guitar; and their atypical song album, A Beautiful Western Saddle (1993), with very fine vocals by Amy Denio. There are those who say that the real story of the group ends here. I beg to differ. Just listen to Fabulous Drop (1998), with the contrasting playing styles of Williams and Chris Cochrane and the agile and versatile Ann Rupel/Kenny Wolleson rhythm axis.

But I have to confess that I was more than a bit surprised by the approach the group chose to pursue on Meet The Curlews (2002), an album whose mediocrity I was absolutely unprepared for, and whose only redeeming grace was Davey Williams's guitar. The main problem (I think) being that George Cartwright's compositions have more in common with a "club aesthetic" than architecture - in other words, he's not Wayne Horvitz - and so they really need musicians whose musical language (and instrumental "pronunciation") keeps them from sounding mundane and ordinaire. Which is exactly what happened on Meet The Curlews: if Fred Chalenor's bass was as solid as was expected, Bruce Golden's drums and Chris Parker's keyboards (mainly a ho-hum acoustic piano) went towards a kind of mild acoustic jazz we've heard a thousand times before.

Mercury is their new album - no Williams here, we have Dean Granros on guitar. Is the new one any better? I think so, even if the group seems to have traded the acoustic jazz of their previous effort for a kind of electric fusion sporting an angry guitar and a lead synthesizer sound (the one with both oscillators in "sync" mode) that's not any less dated; a type of fusion that - given the times - is not likely to provide them with any visibility or success. The really strange thing is that the best part of the album is the second half - the one that I think not too many people will bother to listen to (the second track, Funny Money, is really a bit too much). There Is has a nice theme and an intelligent development, the Chalenor-penned Ludlow manages to sound fresh (and makes good use of a simple piano/bass interlude), Small Red Dance (with a guitar sounding a bit like Clapton in his Cream days) is at least funky and the final Song Of The New uses the bottleneck to good effect. Let's hope for their next album.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2004 | Jan. 3, 2004