4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Very satisfying collaboration,
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This review is from: Desperate Straights (Audio CD)
Looking back, the decision to join forces made by German art-pop band Slapp Happy and Canterbury avant-garde jazz/prog etc. ensemble Henry Cow seems like an especially strange one, especially considering it was the mid-1970's. Bizarre though it seems, the merger produced two excellent albums, not to mention plenty of unreleased material and future collaborations. Although Desperate Straights, the first of the team-ups, isn't necessarily the best place to start for either Slapp Happy or Henry Cow, fans of each group should find that the album combines the best of both bands without sacrificing either group's individuality.
Like the first Slapp Happy album(s) (the history of their second album is too complicated to go into now--I recommend Acnalbasac Noom above the other options), Desperate Straights is primarily structured around the lyrics of Peter Blegvad, sung by the peerless Dagmar Krause, set to music by both Blegvad and Anthony Moore. Of course, since Henry Cow is along for the ride, there are many exceptions and much of the instrumental backing is made complete thanks to their collective virtuosity.
Compared with Slapp Happy's first two albums, this one's much more out there--Dagmar's chanteuse-style of previous releases often gives way to a much more elastic, otherwordly sound. Her German accent gives the English lyrics a unique sound, and she's obviously in complete control of her tone and phrasing as she waltzes through alien avant-garde, cabaret, prog-jazz and weird rock styles without breaking a sweat. Of course, it helps that Blegvad's lyrics are great--concise, multi-layered, surreal, bizarre and often hilarious. Take "Some Questions About Hats," which is just that, featuring such classic lines as "Can one pit hats against vicious things, pernicious things? Licorice? Fish with wings?"
While the spirit of Casablanca Moon is still at play, fans of that album who are unfamiliar with Henry Cow may find themselves scratching their heads at the dearth of straight-up pop tunes. "Bad Alchemy" sees Dagmar doubling an angular piano line while Fred Frith and Chris Cutler go hog wild on the guitar and drums, respectively (Cutler's drumming all over this album has to be some of the most creative and entertaining I've ever heard). "Giants" is a dialog between a father and daughter set to creepy, swirling clarinet and piano. Though the structure is very progressive, the songs are actually chock full of hooks and most clock in at less than 3 minutes. "A Worm At Work" has that irresistibly catchy "no no no no no stop that cynical line!" refrain, "Strayed" sounds like a Velvet Underground outtake without the cutesy lo-fi feel, "Riding Tigers" and "Excerpt From Messiah" rock with a generous helping of pathos. Throughout, Henry Cow lends a totally off-kilter hand with unconventional wind arrangements, crazy jazz, but the tightly-written nature of the songs reins them in from their usual sprawling and more challenging sounds (for a darker take on this sound, check out the Henry Cow/Slapp Happy In Praise of Learning).
Really, the only thing holding this fine, challenging and eclectic batch of experimental pop from five stars is the length--"Caucasian Lullabye" and "Desperate Straights" (less so) seem present to take up space, and without them this would be a very short album indeed. But with such entertaining music, it's hardly a serious complaint. If you're new to either band, check out Acnalbasac Noom for Slapp Happy or Leg End for Henry Cow. If you like what you hear, you'll probably enjoy Desperate Straights.