Skeleton Crew
Learn To Talk/The Country Of Blinds

(Fred Records/ReR)

We could discuss for a long time about the first "American" album recorded by Fred Frith - and a lot longer about whether such an album indeed exists. Even when taking into consideration the "American" "pronunciation" of the rock trio Massacre, I've always considered the recently re-released Cheap At Half The Price as being Fred Frith's first "American" album - and Skeleton Crew as his first "American" band.

On their debut album, Learn To Talk (1984), Skeleton Crew consisted of Fred Frith and Tom Cora: a vibrant, multi-instrumental duo (Cora: cello, electric bass, drums, a Casio keyboard and vocals; Frith: guitar, six-string electric bass, violin, Casio, piano, drums and vocals). A very fast reaction time which demonstrated their confidence with the practice of improvisation, most tracks on the brief side, a spirit in a sense quite near to the "new-wave" and which easily showed its ties with the protest spirit of folk music, a plurality of forms which was only logical when taking into consideration the variety of their background, highly ingenious arrangements, a "contemporary" use of pre-recorded voices: "communicative, with depth", to use a fast formula. Instrumental tracks which could be quite complex (Que Viva/Onward And Upwards), songs that could be ironic (Learn To Talk, It's Fine), dramatic (The Way Things Fall (Back Apart)), sad (Factory Song). Frith played as his per usual, but it was the late Tom Cora who was a revelation for me at the time of the album's original release. Here we also have four added tracks, nor indispensable but not too bad, either.

Two years later, The Country Of Blinds saw Skeleton Crew become a trio with the nice addition of Zeena Parkins (organ, electric harp, accordion, drums, vocals), while the production by former Henry Cow Tim Hodgkinson gave the album a certain "family air". Compared to its predecessor, the new album had maybe a more precise target, but in my opinion this was achieved by limiting the palette of possibilities (maybe a truism?). We had more "European echoes" (something from Art Bears, a pinch of News From Babel, also some tense nuances quite typical of The Work) which the production style made even more apparent. Arrangements were very good, but maybe a bit on the "conventional" ("predictable" definitely being the wrong word here) side. Communicative songs on side one, instruments to the fore on side two. Here we have six bonus tracks: they are really not too bad, but sometimes (Safety In Numbers, Second Rate, Hasta La Victoria) a certain air of "angry new-wavers" is a bit too much.

Let's have a look at the re-release. Strange as it may sound, a brief instrumental track originally on the second album (Money Crack) is nowhere to be found. But the real absurdity is that there are no lyrics! On the first album they had not been included (not in my copy, at least), and for years I dreamed of the possibility to add the missing pieces to the bits I had managed to get; the second album had a nice, heavy sheet with the lyrics. So I ask: what the heck is the purpose of a "definitive edition... with no lyrics"? The remastering is not bad, even if the A/B of vinyl vs. digital saw analogue make mincemeat of digital: my LP had more level (!), more highs (!) and even less compression (!), especially in the case of the first album; but since the CD player I used was not my usual good one, and since my cartridge is not too bad, I'll leave this topic to be decided later.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2006 | Feb. 3, 2006