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30 May 2011

Lindsay Cooper - 'Rags' (Arc)

Lindsay Cooper's one of the less famous members of Henry Cow, no doubt due to having fewer extracurricular activities than Frith and Cutler, etc. But she's pretty fucking integral to their sound, and her list of other projects is not a short one. This is all I really know about her solo work, unless you count Western Culture, which is pretty much dominated by her touch. So Rags comes as a unsurprisingly satisfying blast of RIO, which of course stands for Rock in Opposition, which was a stupid name given to a group of bands that came out of the Cow. There's actually nothing rock about Rags, which isn't surprising given that it's based around Cooper's bassoon, oboe, and other reed instruments, often overdubbed into very somber, beautiful harmonies (the 'Woman's Wrongs' tracks in particular). Rags is of course intensely political, based around the concept of sweatshops and labour exploitation, which a specific indication of the woman's role in such things. Of course this is drenched in that 70's British Marxism, which I can't get enough of. This inevitably means a Kurt Weill influence in the songs, and when they're sung (by either Sally Potter or Phil Minton) it is a wee bit instructional in nature. Potter, who I know mostly as a filmmaker, is stunningly beautiful when singing 'Prostitution Song', and can also bash out la française in '1848'. She overdubs with herself on the eerie 'Stitch Goes the Needle', and it's haunting in its simplicity. Frith and Cutler are here, of course, sometimes doing the slowly unfolding Henry Cow style which makes this feel very familiar. Frith's acoustic interlude on 'General Strike' is delicate and beautiful, which sets the emotional resonance for the whole album. 'The Charter' is like being in history class, but the 'Chartist Anthem' duet is a little more lively, ending with a segue into the intense 'Cholera'. 'The Song of the Shirt' appears to tie everything together, really transcending any agit-prop content and finding a rolling, almost pastoral beauty in it's rising and falling piano runs. These pages will show how influenced I am by these RIO things, even though I hate the term and find a lot of it to be too pedantic. Rags is actually really compelling, though it's influenced by nothing of its era (and 1980 had a lot of great stuff going on); it's interesting how these artists look to the earlier precedents of the 20th century as a basis for their radicalism; such musical gestures could be seen as reactionary were it not for the lyrical and cultural associations. I've always personally had a strong feeling that the innovations of today have to reflect the classics, even if by 'classics' I mean the anti-traditions of the post-war avant-garde, etc. So maybe that's why I spent my 20's seeking out late 70's political art-rock instead of the hits of my own era. My particular copy has some black piece of paper glued over one line of the liner notes, as if to correct or redact something; I'm tempted to peel it back, but the 30 year old glue will surely rip up the record sleeve and I'm too prissy for that. Anyone else want to tell me what it says?

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