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27 June 2009

Art Bears - 'Hopes and Fears' (Random Radar Records)

Art Bears are the cream of the crop from that whole scene of musicians that are sometimes called R.I.O. I mean the intellectually-motivated, politically strident, highly prolific gang that stemmed out of Henry Cow (represented by one of those rock music "family tree" diagrams in an insert that came with the first Henry Cow CD boxset many years ago). And oh, what a crop to be the cream of. I don't need to list the many accomplishments of Messrs. Cutler and Frith, and Dagmar Krause is a figure who will pop up several times on this blog. And when I say Art Bears are the best, I don't mean to slight the Cow, the Work, the Lowest Note on the Organ, Lindsay Cooper solo, the Catherine Jauxniaux stuff, Aksak Maboul (who I'd probably have to say are worthy of joint 'cream' crown-sharing), La Societe des Oiseaux etc. It's just that Art Bears were particularly revelatory to me. Prog is a great egg to start chipping away at, and Henry Cow were one of the first prog bands that appealed to me, but Art Bears were ultimately more my thing. I guess it's because they adhered to song structures while maintaining an uncompromising approach to experimentation - not that they are the first band to ever do this, but they do it in a way that blends their incredible eclecticism with their own personalities. There are enough artistic brushstrokes to tickle under the testicles of the sublime, yet still with a coherence that is very direct. Hopes and Fears is their first album, and it actually emerged from Henry Cow sessions. It's funny that this is thought of as being a Henry Cow album since it feels like the most stripped down and simple Art Bears record to me (while Winter Songs, recorded as a trio, feels much more dense). Maybe that's because the songs on HaF have a somewhat folky feel, with a lot of guitars and keyboards, though they occasionally explode into anthemic, driving rock (check out 'In Two Minds', which Wikipedia claims is influenced by the Who but I think that's just cause the piano line is stadium-rockish). This album feels really pomo-rustic to me, like you're walking the Yorkshire Dales but still thinking about the contradictions of capitalism. The lyrics touch on self-reliance ('Labryinth'), surrealist feminist narrative ('Joan'), media ('The Tube') and I think romance though maybe just relationships between humans -- yet the whole album feels infused with someting distinctly British. It's like there's a current that drains through the whole history of music from the British Isles and Hopes and Fears is just another stone in that stream. Dagmar's German accent doesn't alter this, but maybe I just associate her with this sound so much that I've given her an honorary U.K. passport. The bouncy instrumental bits make distinct overtures to these antecedents, though I really feel it more in the lyrics, which often strike pastoral chords in me. Also, most of these songs could be set in any period in history; there are few words that indicate that this record was constructed in the late 1970s. The more wild musical adventures are really going to come on the next two albums, though there are some chilling effects on the instruments. 'The Tube' in particular is a clawing, braying maelstrom of dark drones, and if you mixed out Dagmar and told me it was late Shadow Ring I'd never doubt you.

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