News From Babel
Sirens And Silences/Work Resumed On The Tower
Letters Home


Although she was quite young by the time she joined Henry Cow, Lindsay Cooper was already an experienced musician. She was to replace Geoff Leigh, but in a quite specific sense: a highly skilled musician performing on saxophone, flute and clarinet, Leigh was the group's last link to their previous evolutionary stage bearing traces of jazz, Zappa and Soft Machine; while not as technically proficient on the instruments she played - mostly oboe and bassoon - Lindsay Cooper was the right element for the group in their journey to a more European-sounding musical approach (just think about the importance this choice will have for a lot of music about to be born all over the Continent). Listening to the albums released by Henry Cow after she joined the group makes it possible for one to appreciate Lindsay Cooper's increasing maturity: from Unrest (1974) to In Praise Of Learning ('75), from Concerts ('76) to Western Culture ('79), where she penned the music appearing on Side Two.

After the group split, she demonstrated her considerable growth with the music she wrote for two movie soundtracks, where she fluently composed music that worked well in the service of the movie but which could also work just as well when listened to on its own: of course, I'm talking about Rags (1980) and The Gold Diggers (1983), two nice albums which can be placed alongside the very good Music For Other Occasions (1986). On those albums Lindsay Cooper made use of a larger instrumental palette, playing many types of saxophones (alto, soprano and sopranino), flute, assorted keyboards, even guitar and bass. So, at the time when the new collective named News From Babel released their first album (1984), for which she penned all the music, she already possessed a style she could call her own, and a certain degree of self-assurance; both qualities made it possible for her, for the most part, to succeed.

On News From Babel's first album, Lindsay Cooper's music goes hand-in-hand with Chris Cutler's lyrics; as per his usual brilliant self, he also plays drums and percussion. The new ingredient here is Zeena Parkins, who plays accordion and a whole series of harps: regular, electric, and prepared. But the ingredient one notices the most on their first album is the quite original timbre of Dagmar Krause's vocals, which are often overdubbed and so fill a lot of the sonic landscape. We also have Georgie Born, on bass on one track, and Phil Minton, on vocals and trumpet, on two tracks.

The group's first album is sharply divided in two parts, with six brief tracks featured on Side One under the title Sirens And Silences, and three longer tracks featured on Side Two under the collective name of Work Resumed On The Tower. Their being poly-stylistic, their combining studio work and "real time" playing, their often claustrophobic atmosphere, all makes it easy for one to hear the similarities between this music and some older pages by Henry Cow and Art Bears, the group formed by Cutler, Krause and another former member of Henry Cow, Fred Frith; however, calling this album an album without much personality would do it a great disservice. If at the time of its first release it had sounded a bit on the difficult side, today it sounds even more so, since the concept of what one expects to find in an album we call... rock? has gotten incredibly narrower with time.

A new album by News From Babel was to appear only two years later: when compared to its predecessor, Letters Home could not be more different. Maybe this was due to a natural process of changing/maturation on the part of Cooper. Maybe one could take into consideration the time spent in the looser climates inhabited by The Pedestrians, the line-up where Cutler and Cooper played alongside former Pere Ubu David Thomas (their 1985 album More Places Forever is one not-to-be-missed). What I know is that News From Babel's first album is quite dark and somewhat impenetrable, while their second LP is a lot more open and communicative. And their sound could not be more different, the first one sounding oppressive, the second sounding more "open".

Those that appear on the first album can technically be described as being "songs", while those that appear on the second album would be described as "songs" by almost anybody. With just one exception - A Dragon At The Core, sung by Phil Minton, which closed Side One and offered a (quite appropriate) sense of interruption in the course of the narrative - all songs on Letters Home participate of a sense of directness (also from an emotive point of view) which makes their "first person" approach quite involving for the listener. It could be said that the fact that it is Robert Wyatt who sings a lot of the songs here that accounts for a large part of its success, and it well could be: as we all know so well, Wyatt's vocals can turn a colloquial-sounding approach into fine art. But the fact that this is due in the first place to the compositional process is proved by the fact that those positive qualities are also shared by those tracks sung by Sally Potter and Dagmar Krause (two each, though due to a strange mistake that appears in the CD booklet Krause is not indicated as singing Fast Food, where she's quite easily recognizable).

Lindsay Cooper plays very well, with nice overdubbed unisons on bassoon and sopranino (the latter played almost like an oboe), which sometimes remind me a bit of Univers Zero, and a skilful use of keyboards (just listen to the beautiful and highly appropriate instrumental motif which brings Moss to its close). Again on accordion and various harps, here Zeena Parkins has more space at her disposal, but she also sounds more sure of herself and more extroverted than on the previous album (dunno whether this could also be attributed to her being a member of Skeleton Crew - check their excellent album The Country Of Blinds); we also have the fine instrumental work of Bill Gilonis on bass and guitar, with the latter in its acoustic guise adding a touch of ambiguity to the harp. Chris Cutler's work is excellent as per his usual, with those snares and percussion which make it easy to recognize him starting with the first hit of the stick.

The nine tracks on the album add up to a "song cycle" of sorts, where every listener will find his/her favourite moment. After confessing my predilection for those tracks where Robert Wyatt is the featured singer, I'll mention the first track of the album, Who Will I Accuse?; the aforementioned Moss; the closing track, Late Evening; and the bizarre Dark Matter, with its dark instrumental interlude that never fails to remind me of Pink Floyd and The Who (are those really the chords to Baba O'Riley?).

I have to confess that, in consideration of the current trend when it comes to digital remastering and its excessive use of compression, waiting for those CDs I prepared myself for the worst. Especially when it came to Letters Home, one of my favourite albums ever. So it's with a lot of pleasure that I can say that this time everything turned out to be for the best: the new mastering has only a bit more volume, with the whole sounding a bit clearer, with no horror stories to talk about in any part of the sound spectrum. After comparing these new editions (I never listened to the first CD editions) to the original vinyl, 45 r.p.m, I can only say "well done!" to... Bod Drake, I think, since there are no mastering credits on the covers.

While I'm talking about the covers, I have to add to the aforementioned weirdness a couple of serious mistakes of the kind that I've never encountered before on a CD released by ReR. The back cover of the first album has Dry Leaf again instead of the closing track, Anno Mirabilis; while the Letters Home back cover has the tracks in the wrong order. (Guys, it's time to change your glasses!)

In closing, it has to be said that both albums are available as separate CDs, or as a box offering a "replica" of a rare one-sided single, Contraries (which is a rare track, but also a fine one).

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2007 | Mar. 25, 2007