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Skeleton Crew: Learn to Talk / The Country of Blinds

Matt Cibula By

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Caution: this is extremely challenging listening. Fred Frith and Tom Cora's twisted pop/jazz/Americana/punk band Skeleton Crew managed all of two albums in the mid-1980s, and no wonder why—they flip back and forth wildly between dark anarchic anti-songs and weirdo hooky new-wavey stuff, sometimes even within the same song.

Learn to Talk dates from 1984, and sounds like it, too. There's more than a hint of the Eno/Byrne axis here, especially in Cora's high, agonized, ironic voice, and a whole lot of the Zappa, and some Ornette, and quite a bit of... well, everything, really. From the cut-up commercial vocal samples telling us to eat dirt to the songs telling us "Yes the east is bread / Yes the king is dead," it was meant to be all disorienting and freaky and silly.

But time has taken a whole bunch of the grime and grit off this style of music, and now it sounds downright charming and pop-friendly. I could see an enterprising producer loop the semi-funky bass groove of "Learn to Talk" for hip-hop purposes. Some of these moments still startle—the sliced-up version of Sousa's "The Washington Post" with avant-noise all up in the mix, for example—while others just sound like guys messing around. Which is what they are, so it's okay.

For 1986's The Country of Blinds, Frith and Cora added harpist Zeena Parkins to the mix, and she helps them beef up the sonics of their project from amateurish to something approaching professional. Sure, they still have musical ADHD—the title track changes genres and sounds about 54 times in four minutes—and sure, they are still trying to bring down the system through aural terrorism; but now their riffs mean something and go somewhere. "Bingo" combines Devo-jerk with strange Laurie Anderson-type fiddling to underscore the song's message of... okay, I have no idea what it means, but it sure is fun when it turns into a Celtic hoedown at the end. You can hear how big these guys could have been on tracks like "Birds of Japan" and "Man or Monkey"—good thing they got afraid of how good they were and broke up right after this recording session, huh?

Both these titles add several bonus tracks, and the ones on this disc are extremely impressive, especially because most of them were all done live on stage. "Sparrow Song" is a wild tonguetwister with pinpoint timing, and the accordion version of Jelly Roll Morton's "New Orleans Stomp" is as loving as it is ironic.

Overall, this is a very interesting document of three very creative people who were in love with their own weirdness and kind of afraid of success. It's also a great way to wake up in the morning. But if you are a sensitive jazzhead type, lay off this slider and wait for the next fastball to come whizzing down the middle.

Visit Fred Frith on the web.

Track Listing: Disc One: Que Viva / Onwards and Upwards; The Way Things Fall; Not My Shoes; The Washington Post; We're Still Free; Victoryville; Los Colitos / Life at the Top / Learn to Talk; Factory Song; It's Fine; Zach's Flag; Sick as a Parrot; Automatic Pilot; Hook; Killing Time. Disc Two: The Country of Blinds; The Border; The Hand That Bites; Dead Sheep; Bingo; Man or Monkey; Foot in Hole; Hot Field; The Birds of Japan; You May Find a Bed; Sparrow Song; Safety in Numbers; Howdywhoola Too; Second Rate; New Orleans Stomp; Hasta la Victoria.

Personnel: Tom Cora: cello, bass guitar, casio, drums, home-made drums and contraptions, accordion, singing. Fred Frith: guitar, six-string bass, violin, casio, home-mades, piano, drums, singing. Zeena Parkins: organ, electric harp, accordion, drums, singing.

Title: Learn to Talk / The Country of Blinds | Year Released: 2006 | Record Label: ReR Megacorp

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