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28 June 2009

Art Bears - 'Winter Songs' (Ralph)

I'm not sure where the idea of the "power trio" first came from, but I think it should apply here. There's not a weak link in this triangle. My copy of Winter Songs is missing an inner sleeve -- I image lyrics and credits or some sort of liner notes should be there. So I don't know if there are lots of guest musicians present or it studio magic and overdubs are being used to make this mix so thick, because it can't be Frith playing the bass and the piano at the same time. It doesn't really matter except that I wanted to talk about how in addition to the peerless compositions on this album, the actual playing is remarkably expressive. On a song like "The Summer Wheel," Frith and Cutler are so in-sync that it's hard to believe. Cutler's drumming is so languid, yet with a momentum; Frith chases after it, and occasionally kicks it forward like a stone being kicked down the road. If Hopes and Fears is their pastoral record, this is their gothic one. Although there's still an overall medieval theme in the lyrics (and artwork), this is the sound of the black death. The earthy chord changes are gone and in place are strange intervals and macabre tunings. Even if the piece is someone bouncy, like '3 Figures', there's something still a bit doom 'n gloom going on. 'Rats and Monkeys' was a single from this album and it's easy to see why Ralph records would jump on it. The frenetic pace, layered affected vocals and herky-jerky violin part make it feel like the end of the world is happening. Krause really explodes here; most of the vocals are double-tracked or more, and she seems more inspired. The gusto is used to dramatic effect - she has a way of turning on the electricity in a way that the most powerful vocalists in music can do (Beefheart comes to mind, actually). With the political changes going on in Britain when this was recorded, you can feel the rage seeping through tone-refracted misery. The UK was entering a long winter and these are the chronicles. If this is a protest album, its avant-obfuscations probably meant they could only preach to the converted. I first heard it too late anyway - well into the reign of New Labour, which is a whole other can of worms, a horror probably unthinkable to them at the time.

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