Probably the most curious reaction guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Fred Frith's Cosa Brava, when it debuted at the 2008 International Festival International Musique Actuelle Victoriaville, was that it was "too melodic." Detractors of that show will likely be equally nonplussed by the group's overdue debut disc, Ragged Atlas, but it'll be their loss, as Frith's first "rock band" in far too many years may possess a decidedly lyrical bent, but is no less profound for it. Cosa Brava finds the perfect nexus between his more accessible yet still left-leaning music for dance, including 2006's outstanding The Happy End Problem (ReR Megacorp), and the more challenging structures of his 1970s work with Henry Cowell, broadly represented on its 40th Anniversary Henry Cow Box Set (ReR Megacorp, 2009).
Collecting a group of people with whom he's collaborated increasingly over the past several yearsnotably violinist/vocalist Carla Kihlstedt (Tin Hat) and keyboardist Zeena Parkins (Björk, Tin Hat)Frith has fashioned a group as capable of subtle interpretation as it is more aggressive stances. Use of electric instruments, including Frith's occasionally overdriven guitar, and some ratcheted-up energynot to mention drummer Matthias Bossi's occasional pulsing rhythmsmay make this a rock band by tenuous definition, but even potentially applicable terms like "progressive rock" only apply in the sense that this music is, indeed, forward-reaching. Broad dynamics, a blend of acoustic and electric instrumentation, fine compositional detail, and surprisingly memorable melodies make Ragged Atlas' largely continuous, 13-song suite best absorbed as a whole.
There are unmistakable high points to be found. Only Frith could write a song like "Falling Up (For Amanda)" where, amidst interlocking, minimalism-informed parts, a vocal chorus gradually reduces its time signature one beat at a time through regular and irregular meters, lingering long after the song is over. It may be mathematically precise, but it never feels considered, as The Norman Conquest's sonic manipulations gradually augment and expand the group's real-time sound. Elsewhere, the opening "Snake Eating Its Tail" acts as Ragged Atlas' fanfare; its knotty, serpentine unison melody punctuated with sharp percussive stops and starts, and a gradually expanding soundscape, courtesy both of Frith's arrangement and (once more) The Norman Conquest's aural enhancements.
But Ragged Atlas' greatest success is its ability to transcend time. Folkloric melodies abound, bolstered by the sound of Kihlstedt's violin and Parkins' accordion, and yet Frith's contrapuntal approach and shifting bar lines speak to his experience writing in a New Music environment. Instrumentals like "Round Dance" suggest how Renaissance Music might sound, had it evolved, without diversion, into the present millennium.
Despite Frith's clear leadership, and the defining presence of his angular yet eminently approachable playingin addition to Kihlstedt, who has emerged as one of the past two decades' most intriguingly boundary-busting violinistsCosa Brava is a group. Its overall conception may be Frith's, but its sound would be unmistakably altered were any of its members replaced. As a debut of music that transcends time and genre, Ragged Atlas stands as one of 2010's most auspicious debuts.
Snake Eating Its Tail; Round Dance; Pour Albert; R. D. Burman; Falling Up (for Amanda); Out on the Town with Rusty, 1967; Lucky Thirteen; Blimey, Einstein; The New World; Tall Story; For Tom Zé; A Song About Love; Market Day.
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