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13 May 2017

Henry Cow/Slapp Happy - 'In Praise of Learning' (Red)

I have a lot of records; some would say 'too many', and I probably must concur, even though I find it hard to part with any. One sign that your accumulation is too vast is when you don't actually remember if you own a record or not. One of the many things I've enjoyed about doing this project over the past 8 years is realising these possessions and omissions, and now I've realised that I do NOT own a copy of Desperate Straights, the one credited to Slapp Happy/Henry Cow (in that precise order of credit, and which I guess came from the same sessions as this LP). I always thought of these two bands as having briefly merged for two albums, rather than merely 'having collaborated', and In Praise of Learning is probably the high point for both bands' careers, though I realise I said in the last post that Unrest was the best Henry Cow record. By now you should know to ignore my superlatives, anyway. But anyway, the distinct sensibilities of each band are perfect in combination, different enough to challenge and pull the musicians in new directions, but unified in their passions and penchant for adventure. This LP is credited to Henry Cow (except on the spine, where Slapp Happy gets some love), and this makes sense as this is much more of a Henry Cow album with Slapp Happy's spin, as opposed to Desperate Straights which is the other way around. Plus it has a sock on the cover, dyed red in case you had any fucking doubt about their politics. The opening cut, 'War', is the most explosive juxtaposition of the two ensembles, opening with Blegvad's voice briefly before Dagmar Krause (credited here by her first name over, a proto-Madonna if there ever was one) comes crashing in. This is the first Art Bears song for sure, with violent poetic imagery and rhyme soaring over a potent mix of musicians. Former Henry Cow member Geoff Leigh returns to guest and Mongezi Feza is also present; it's almost a pop song and a perfect introduction to 'Living In the Heart of the Beast'. This is Tim Hodgkinson's composition, and it's an epic number, taking up the rest of side 1 and moving through an absolute plethora of words, printed on the back sleeve like the polemic/essay it properly should be read as. This piece is hard to grasp, with its title the most memorable thing, but in its density lies many rewards. As it proceeds through several movements, it gradually takes on the role of the anthem, as if Henry Cow has figured out how to write aggressively political music that avoids cheap sensationalism or inconsistent wavering; indeed, 'Beast' finds its own footing by the end, where it comes marching to a conclusion over a what's probably the most conventional "progressive rock"-sounding moment on the record. Side two (as usual) has the free improvisations, though they are just the bread around 'Beautiful as the Moon - Terrible As an Army With Banners'. This sound is a bit more stripped down, with Greaves/Cutler locking into a plodding groove over which Frith's piano arpeggios perfectly complement Krause's rising and falling voice. I guess to some people her singing might be an acquired taste but I love it, and would buy any record of hers sound-unheard; I remember already gushing here about Babble and the Commuters EP, and this is another one of her greatest accomplishments. Her timbre is so uncompromising that it's a perfect match for Henry Cow, one of the most principled bands there ever was (to me, they approach Crass-like territory), and 'Beautiful as the Moon' finally releases in it's conclusion into a cadence that is actually catchy, probably the most hummable part of this record and of Henry Cow in general. The improv tracks on either side are both wonderful and I can only dream of what outtakes there must be; 'Beginning - The Long March' is a little punchier, but 'Morning Star' gets into some truly extended technique'z recalling eastern gong music as much as it resembles rock, jazz, or anything western, really. Cooper in particular shines here, especially over scraped guitar strings that occasionally sound like bowls of water rotating on a giant animal skin. The lyrics are printed on the back, which you really need to follow, and at the bottom is the (amazing) quote by John Grierson: 'Art is not a mirror - it is a hammer'. I find that as inspiring today as I did at 17, even if it feels like more of a struggle to believe it (or to implement it). I don't know much about the personal journeys of the Henry Cow people over the years, but they've at least managed to keep a public image that they have really lived this ethos without compromise. I'm not sure if any young musicians today listen to Henry Cow for inspiration, but they really should.

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