Saturday, July 04, 2009


I'm going to cheat a smidgen. I bought this album when it originally appeared, in 1974 or '75 I think, but it was purloined a few years later. Eventually I replaced it on disc and that's what I'm listening to now.

I understand, post-AMM, that Frith doesn't come in for a lot of praise, at least as far as proto-EAI goes. Some of it's not quite his fault, ie, getting credited with many of the technical innovations actually created by Rowe simply by virtue of being far better known. Frith knew AMMMusic as a youth but the first time he actually saw Rowe perform was with People's Liberation Music in 1974 or so. Not what he expected and nary an extended technique to be seen! He maintains there was no direct copyage, that things like bowing the guitar, using alligator clips, etc. were "in the air" and I think it's reasonable to take him at his word.

He never followed any real AMM-like aesthetic either, presumably another reason he tends to be ignored by eai folk. And, to be sure, his work was never so consistent, at least to the extent I was able to follow it. But there are nuggets to be found.

As always, a large part of one's appreciation has to do with when one encounters a given artist. His first guitar solo album was also my first exposure to his work (not counting having heard some Henry Cow, I guess, in the record shop, but that didn't stick with me). It was quite a revelation. I knew Bailey already, though minimally (Music Improvisation Company and his duos with Braxton, I think that's all at the time) but that was probably as close as I came to this kind of playing, which is to say, not very. For that matter, I'm not sure if I'd heard a solo guitar record either. (? not that I can think of) He does sound fairly unique here--you can hear some Bailey, some Fripp, some Zoot Horn Rollo maybe, but I really don't think, plus or minus, there was much around like this in '75. If there's a certain clumsiness in play as compared to Rowe in AMM (though recall, at this moment, Keith was strumming away with PLM), there's also a kind of romantic beauty, a wistfulness in pieces like "Glass c/w Steel" and, especially, "No Birds" which, for this 21-year old listener, was a summa of experimentalism and knock-yer-socks-off bravura.

It was certainly one of the key ear-opening records of my yout'.


I think I picked this up in the Summer of '76. My copy has a circular green sticker on the front saying "Recommended Retail Price £1.59" so I'm guessing it was an import into the shop in Poughkeepsie where prog was king. Its noteworthiness for me isn't to be found in Frith's contributions (which are fine) but in Bailey. This would be my third exposure to him but the "purest" so far. It's one of those musical things I really kick myself for--I liked the three tracks very much but shortly fell into my "if it wasn't AACM-oriented avant jazz (or similar) I wasn't interested" period which included a general antipathy toward efi. I wouldn't really rediscover Bailey until his own Guitar Solos, vol. 2 in 1990. Three beautiful, short, gentle pieces by Bailey here, though, including one with voice, "The Lost Chord" that's just fantastic.

Frith's "Water/Struggle/The North" is actually quite good, maybe a step behind "No Birds" in solidity of conception though with a refreshing raggedness.

Whatever became of G.F. Fitzgerald? I take it there's a 1970 LP, "Mouseproof" (review of that disc hereand a duo with Lol Coxhill from '75 here). From the evidence here, he sounds like a rockier Frith, scattered ideas not really coalescing.

This was also my introduction to Hans Reichel, really my only exposure to him for probably 20 years. Again, silly me, as these are very attractive pieces and I thought so at the time. Not that Reichel records were easy to come by, even so. To this day, I don't own a Reichel album! Recs appreciated...


Tough not to smile when listening to this 1983 release, a collection of pop songs, more or less DIY with generic drum samples, (intentionally) cheap Casio tones, goofy vocals that nonetheless slide easily enough into the bitter (Some Clouds Don't [have a silver lining]", "Same Old Me", "One loving lick from a little pet dog can kill"). Not as slight an album as it might seem at first blush, very enjoyable to return to.


I'm guessing this isn't held in very high regard by experimental music fans with an appreciation for acoustic blues. Kaiser's rep is pretty low (often deserved) and two white guys tackling Skip James amidst mid-80s, drum machine, fractured avant-rock; well, not a formula for critical success. But I think this was my first taste of James, albeit second-hand and, though I'm still woefully laggard in updating my acoustic blues knowledge, it did open the door a wee bit. Those two James tracks (Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues and Special Rider Blues) aren't really so bad; honest attempts anyway. The rest--well sometimes they're little machines that chug along ok ("The Golden Eighties"), other time Beefheartian takes ("One of Nature's Mistakes); not bad, but not so interesting today.


Not sure why I have this filed here instead of "S" but because I like it so much, I'll play it anyway. One of my favorite avant-rock albums of the 80s, Frith with Tom Cora and Zeena Parkins. Lot of risks here, sometimes totally over the top, often gorgeously lyrical, almost always bitter, bitter, bitter. And incisive. (I didn't realize until just now that "Man or Monkey" was a Cassiber album/tune?

Eve didn't make a monkey out of man
She made a man out of a monkey.
Get down out of that tree!


Great mix of extremely catchy songs, folk melodies and noise. Quite an explosion of imagination in this context, a wonderful record, possibly the best work I've heard from all three involved.


Was never crazy about this one, from the 4th Victo festival in 1986. Still not. Way too much bravado, a lot of really aggravating vocalizing, drum machines, etc. Everything that was wrong with the extended prog scene in the 80s. Take it off.


This was the last Frith LP I bought. I did continue to follow his work up to maybe 2000 or so (Pacifica, on Tzadik, which I liked, is the last I've heard). From 1987, it's two LPs. The first a quartet with Zorn, Tenko and Christian Marclay, though it often sounds like solo, overdubbed Frith. It's ok, some of it works, but there's a stiffness in play that, to me, plagued a lot of Frith's work from here on in. He's such a great melodic player, especially on violin, that the kind of rigid, almost martial rhythms and lines here just fall short. I recall liking this pretty much back when but this is a good example of something just not holding up. Between the basement tech of "Cheap at Half the Price" and, presumably, more recent digital work, this period sounds like a gawky adolescent.

For the solo album, Skeleton Crew and other bits and pieces, I'm appreciative toward him. Thanks, Mr. Frith.

21 comments:

Jon said...

"To this day, I don't own a Reichel album! Recs appreciated..."

The Death of The Rare Bird Ymir is the acknowledged pick, coupled with Bonobo Beach on a FMP CD. I can lend you it if you want.

Simon Reynell said...

As you say, Brian, these days Frith is a figure who a lot of people in improv circles look down their noses at. I don't and have always had a big respect for him (though this may have less to do with his music than the fact that we were in the same political party for several years).

In fact musically I've never related to much of his stuff, not really liking any kind of rock or rock-influenced improv. But one exception that you don't mention is the Guitars on the Table Approach double LP from the early 80's. When I listen to it today it feels overdramatic, but I still have a fondness for it and it's worth revisiting now and again if only to see how table-top guitar-playing has developed in the intervening 28 years.

The other double LP on which Frith features that I still listen to is 'Epiphany' by Company (from 1982). Playing in a context dominated by full-on improvisers, Fred blends in incredibly well and his contributions are excellent. He could have been a really interesting mainstream improviser, but the very varied path he chose instead is pretty unique and as I said I give him a lot of respect even if his music very rarely crosses with my particular tastes.

Wombatz said...

I love Gravity and nothing much thereafter, can't stomach him in improv (and he lived in my town in Germany for several years, so I've seen him plenty), but the film on him, Step across the Border, is really striking. While I don't enjoy the music (he brings out the worst in some of his partners, Lowest Common Dominator) his powers of communication are really such that he heals the world, makes it a better place. So more power to him, but as an improvisor he's thorough at best to me. Ah yes, and if Skeleton Crew would have had the good taste to hire an actual singer to transport the necessary verbiage, their sides would have been classics. (Same with Cassiber, really, while the music's great, the vocalizations border on disrespect to the listener.)

Brian Olewnick said...

Simon, never heard (or even heard of, I don't think) the Guitars on the Table recording.

I think I only have a couple of Company things, maybe '81 and '88 (?) but never really got into them.

Wombatz, dunno, I don't really have a problem with the Skeleton Crew vocals, kinda like their harshness and rough edges. Imagining, say, Phil Minton doing them--could have worked.

Barry Chabala said...

see, i think part of the charm of skeleton crew was their vocals. not a good singer between them but it it just goes along with their style. bashing away playing everything all at the same time. i played the hell out of those 2 albums way back when.

graham halliwell said...

Brian, the record Simon refers to is 'Live in japan'. Frith undertook a month long solo 'guitars on the table' tour of Japan July 8th (!) 1981. I have a photo of Fred here talking to the audience at Kid Ailack Hall. If you REALLY would like to hear it I can transfer to CDR from vinyl for you.

The other record you haven't mentioned is Guitar Solos 3. Alongside Vol 2 these were important records in the UK in mid to late 70's, introducing young rock audiences (like myself) to improvisors such as Bailey, Reichel, AMM and Rowe. (Keith appears on side one track 4).

Also, I'd take up Jon's offer of Death of a Rare Bird, it really is a beatiful album in my estimation, and in 1976 it blew me away.

Brian Olewnick said...

Hi Graham,

I do have vol. 3, securing it just 2-3 years ago due to Keith's presence (I figured I *had* to get it, due diligence and all). However, I break ranks and insist on filing it under "R" for Rowe...:-) Hence its non-inclusion in my journey through the F vinyls...

I'll live without the Live in Japan for now, thanks for the offer, but may indeed take Jon up on the Reichel. (I think I may have already done so a few years back, not sure)

Jesse said...

The two Reichel releases Jon references are my favorites, Ymir really blew me away 20 years ago.
I came to Reichel around '85 via an FMP series of compilations entitled For Example. There was For Example Solo, For Example Large Ensembles, etc. On Solo Reichel had a 5 minute piece that integrated stuff I was into (Fahey/American Primitive/Travis-esque finger-picking) with stuff I was getting into (improvisation, extended techniques,chopped up guitars).
His Dachsophone works are o.k., but I strongly prefer his guitar sound.

graham halliwell said...

"I'll live without the Live in Japan for now"

don't blame you; disappointed from day one. just didn't want to hinder any serious research ;-)

peter said...

hello all,
thanks for the trip down memory lane Brian...i agree with WOMBATZ for the most part...S A T B is a great documentory and Firth comes off really charming...i had bought the first 2 Henry C albums (socks)...kind'a good but then i was kind'a stoned...liked his work with ENO and WYATT...i have the guitar solo albums and also liked the ones you picked...W/S/and the North reminded me of Before and after Science...

peter said...

oh one other thing ... i do think Firth is an important figure ... i have seen him live and have heard most of his albums ... he really adds a nice piece to that particular puzzle, the 70's contemporary music scene.

Jesse said...

god, i made the mistake of picking up the two-cd reissue of all the frith/kaiser duo a bunch of years back, and god. . . it's like a compendium of irritating element of 80's music-making: cheesy linn drums, terrible white-guy blues covers, and sooooo much wankery. probably for 80 minutes x 2. the early kaiser stuff reissued on dexter's cigar KILLS though.

Jesse said...

btw, that is/was jesse k just above, and not me earlier. i thought it showed "jkudler," but maybe not. . .

Jesse said...

They'll differentiate between us by our sensibilities, Jesse (K).

Jesse said...

now i'm just talking to myself

Jesse said...

Jesse K/jkudler/the kud=lowercase

Jesse said...

ah, you're right! i guess that's the end of that borgesian simulacrum. . .

Jesse said...

Borges loved a doppelganger.

Brian Olewnick said...

I'll get to Kaiser in good time (though I think most of my stuff of his is on CD). Generally speaking, I enjoy his cover bands and early work, can't stand his improv after, say, the mid 80s, though I recall liking Wireforks, the duo with Bailey very much. As with Frith, I think he gets characterized too simplistically by the eai crowd. Much of the scorn is deserved, to be sure (especially for assholery) but he's a bit more complex than that.

Chris said...

Brian:

I'm not great writing comments - so welcome back from Spain - an odd assortment you've picked or you have of Fred- and I have lost track of Fred until quite recently - recent work worth a check out, the last ten years - middle of the moment quite nice - anyway the other pianist I have playing Satie's work is Jean Yves-Thibaudet. Maybe we could catch a meal in town someday and I could lend it your way.

Your trip looked amazing and cause for good reflection.

Found out the Saalfelden triple bill I'm on: Vijay Iyer, Us and Ornette. Come check us out on August 25th if you are around. I'll tell you the venue when I know it.

Brian Olewnick said...

Chris, be happy to catch up. We have a new puppy arriving tomorrow (Saturday) so things will be hectic for a while, but drop a line and we'll figure something out.