Slapp Happy/Henry Cow
Desperate Straights


Those were fantastic times indeed, when - thirty-one years ago - the newly-established Virgin Records signed contracts left and right, getting the services of some of the most beautiful musical realities from England - and from abroad: just think of Faust. And it was due to the fact that the bass player from Faust was featured on the album that I immediately bought Slapp Happy's Casablanca Moon, an album that I'd never heard before. Of course, I also knew nothing about their previous career, their album titled Sort Of and so on. Which didn't make it difficult for me to like the nice songs featured on that album - sometimes humorous, sometimes lyrical, always sung with unmistakable grace by Dagmar Krause. Written by Peter Blegvad and Anthony Moore, the songs were a strange mixture of irony and seriousness, "out of time" and "of their time" at the same time.

The following year, Desperate Straights left many listeners quite puzzled, and for many reasons. Compositions were now shorter, and more serious - Stranded, the only song that could remind the listener of the previous album, sounded almost out of place. The three founding members had collaborated with the highly esteemed (and loved) Henry Cow and other friends, who provided austere clothes by adding clarinet, bassoon, oboe, flute, trumpet and trombone - besides guitar, bass and drums - to Blegvad's guitar and Moore's piano. But it was Dagmar Krause's new vocal attitude - more similar to the "art song" approach, or to some modern classical music, than to the more common "rock vocals" - that constituted the highest rock to climb.

Given time, the songs revealed their considerable charm - just listen to the opening track, Some Questions About Hats, then to A Worm Is At Work, Europa, Apes In Capes and Giants to have an idea of the territory that's covered here. Bad Alchemy, whose music was written by Henry Cow's bass player, John Greaves, is a track that's impossible not to mention, a track destined to become a classic, and the first of his long and successful series of collaboration with Peter Blegvad. Lyrics work on different levels, arrangements are noteworthy. The two instrumental tracks I have always regarded as peculiar: the title-track for not being an inspired vehicle in the first place; the long closing track, Caucasian Lullaby, because it doesn't sound as belonging here.

The new remastering work (by Bob Drake) enormously widens the stereo field, placing the instruments on an imaginary stage. All instrumental voices are clear, and evenly balanced. This has the perplexing effect (for this writer, at least) of producing an aural sensation similar to listening to a (idealized) score becoming audible. The previous CD edition - on Virgin, in 1993 - while less "faithful", gave considerable more weight to Cutler's hi-hat and Greaves's bass strings, which sounded as they possessed a considerable mass, which anchored and propelled the songs.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2004 | Sept. 5, 2004