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Skeleton Crew - Learn to Talk / Country of Blinds

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Artist: Skeleton Crew

Album: Learn to Talk / Country of Blinds

Label: ReR Megacorp

Review date: Mar. 12, 2006

I’ve listened to Fred Frith’s work for so long that past impressions are difficult to judge, harder to dispel if necessary. Having the chance to re-evaluate Skeleton Crew’s two albums in this package, fleshed out by several bonus tracks, has been revelatory. Hearing them again some 18 years later, the DIY factor seems somehow admirable and quaint, striking an uneasy but thrilling balance with some of the most fascinating music ever to crowd underneath the broken umbrella of “pop.”

Surealism and heavy politicization were nothing new to Frith in 1984; Henry Cow and the Art Bears had mined the territories quite thoroughly, using all manner of sonic manipulation to make the point. Massacre, along with some of Frith’s solo discs, had initiated a move toward aphorism, and this was continued on 1984’s Learn to Talk, which featured the duo of Frith and the late Tom Cora. Yes, there was studio fun involved, but overall, the music exudes constructed looseness or disconnection; it’s string heavy, with all the associated folk-baggage, low-end drum machines thwacking out near train-wreck asymmetries that still somehow cohere, possibly a deconstructionist view of musical manifestations of the machine age, but who can tell? Segmentation is palpable throughout, in both lyrics and music. “Learn to talk, your friends will be amazed. Try to think of something to say …” Cora beefs in the title track, with increasing antagonism and venom as clean 1950s guitar competes with plodding drum thuds, a funky bass line and some alien bleeps. All is set against a background of words in alphabetical order, seemingly taken from some educational record; as the track ends with our comic and increasingly corpulent hero outliving his relevance, the monotone female voice provides commentary: “Comfort, complacent, corpse …” Even the more blatantly experimental passages sound homebrewed, my favorite being an open-air-recorded montage of TV snippets boasting the line “I’m here to help kids of America eat dirt.”

It’s all fun, a bit sarcastic and unhinged, but the second album brings a certain tightness and rigor to the table. HC saxophonist/composer Tim Hodgkinson produced Country of Blinds in late 1985 and early 1986. The addition of multi-instrumentalist Zeena Parkins fleshes out the sound with even more clever theatricality, and even the lyrics take a turn for the socio-politically metaphysical. “Step across the border, one foot after another, think, think, think, think, Small step to elsewhere, follow the quick light, knowing what I know …”

Those lines are as fitting a distillation of this disc, or of SC’s output, as can be demanded in linear verbiage. From the fractured polkapop of “Bingo” to the dance-inflected quasi-rockabilly of “The Hand that Bites,” it’s all a morphing mass of cross-cultural pan-ideological influence, expertly channeled by all involved. While the bonus tracks show the band’s live prowess, it is the two albums that hold up best, and the decision to put them in one double disc package was a good one, as it demonstrates a consistency of intent and approach. The reissue is timely, standing as both reminder and testament to what “the song” can achieve.

By Marc Medwin

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