on 15 February 2009
This is the second half of unreleased recordings, unrecorded compositions, one-off events, radio and concert recordings of what I think is the most important and engaging of avant-garde rock bands, Henry Cow.
If you want to know how they evolved their unique mix of composed and improvised sounds, this 4 x CD and DVD set is a must buy.
This covers the period 1976-1978. This picks up the point in Henry Cow's 10 year history when Lindsay Cooper's distinctive bassoon added a new depth to their sound and Georgina Born's cello too to a lesser extent but you can also hear the maturing compositonal and playing skills of HC's bedrock players Frith, Cutler and Hodgkinson.(Dagmar Krause's heartfelt singing straddles the two CD sets).
In this set of 4 CDs there's great concert playing from Sweden and Germany, some new songs you may never had heard, and many new never heard before compositions, some of which you may recognise as morphing into tracks that appeared on subsequent Art Bears LPs.
The DVD is the only surviving film footage of HC and was recorded in France with a 6 piece line-up (Cutler, Frith, Hodgkinson, Krause, Born and Cooper). It's not exactly got the theatricals of a Kiss gig, or the physical energy of AC/DC but it's engrossing nonetheless, featuring some well known tunes from In Praise of Learning and others less familiar. If you're interested in the music, like me you've always wanted to see how the players interacted on stage (and I didn't know Dagmar sang with her eyes shut).
The CD book is great too - full of unseen photos, all you need to know backround info and recollections. The book for this second CD set has a more comprehensive review of the whole of HC than the first (there's details of finances for instance), and recollections from Frith and Hodgkinson, but the best piece was written by Georgina Born, who was only with the group for 2 years, and so has written a considered piece from an insider's and outsider's perspective. As a Professor of Sociology, Anthopology and Music, her words have the objective authority of a priviledged observer.
I was just going to buy one half of this box set but once you buy one, you'll want the other.
on 22 February 2009
Henry Cow 10 disc boxed set (40th Anniversary)
Is it likely at this point that there are any `undecided' old Cow fans? For the majority of `us' there's just one question about this set: buy it now, or wait?
The short answer for anyone interested in Henry Cow is that this set is indispensable, and remarkable value for money (yes, it's expensive, but it is also 10 cds, a dvd and other stuff). Going to the RER site will allow you to purchase the discs one by one, which is also what will probably happen in a few months (disc six is already available).
Generally, the plus of these superbly remastered recordings is to show the energy and liveliness of the band in live format - though the sheer verve of the playing overcomes the occasional slight deficiency in sound quality.
For the long answer - see below - here's a potted overview.
The albums show that the Cow barely released half of what they wrote, and even then, familiar songs were only the scaffolding for live improvisation. Time and again, a lovely or eerie improv will segue seamlessly into a well-known theme. At times, this was the Ur-theme, the birth of a melodic fragment which later became the core of an officially recorded tune. It's the fascination with spontaneous creation and the re-working of melody which is the great joy and surprise of this set. We see songs coming into being, changing and morphing into new compositions. A propos, as has been commented elsewhere, the liner notes are extremely insightful as to both general theories of improv/composition, and specific Cow practices. A handbook for musicians, in fact. We also get to hear the instrumental chops of the entire band, but I was struck mostly by how complex and subtle Chris Cutler's drumming is all through this ten year span. A musical drummer? Whoda thunk?
And - a footnote - those of us who were a little disappointed with the earlier `Concerts' album (it came too close on the heels of `In Praise of Learning' and included much of that material) the live concerts here are another beast altogether: dynamic, in context, exciting and always surprising.
For Henry Cow fans, some notes on each cd follow. For clusters of devotees, I'd suggest an eminently Cow solution to the cash/value problem: club together and buy the set for $25 per person. Listen, share, collectivise. I'm sure the band would understand and approve.
see also review of Box One
CD6: Stockholm and Goteborg
The band in its second or third (or fourth?) home - Scandinavia, the gem of this set is a long composition called alternately `Hold to the Zero Burn' or `Erk Gah' (the latter apparently being Fred Frith's reaction when he first saw the score). The `March' with which they routinely drew concerts to a close has its loveliest version here.
The last performance of the original line up with John Greaves. Some very impassioned playing here.
Fragments and performances from the time around `Western Culture' (or WestCult as Chris Cutler refers to it) with new song styles showing that the current punk scene had been taken on board. The tension between ever imore complex compositions and shorter, punchy (but hardly less complex) songs would soon fracture the band into two parts, one of which (Frith, Cutler, Krause) would take the style further as `Art Bears'. Some of those songs are seen here just before they escaped from the Cow's grasp.
A simple nighttime concert in a field from the `In Praise of Learning' days, featuring Georgie Born on bass. It's worth it just to put faces and movement to the sounds.
CD 11: of limited availability, there's a whole nuther hour of excellent unreleased material - A Cow Cabinet of Curiosities - for those of you who go for the whole set. In addition, having shelled out for all the cds, the manufacturer cheekily assumes you must be a H. Cow nut, and includes an empty box which exactly fits the five studio cds you are presumed to own already.
A class act indeed.