Cosa Brava — Ragged Atlas (Intakt, 2010)
Is this the right time to admit I’m not that versed in Henry Cow and Art Bears? No?
I do know the music of violinist/singer Carla Kihlstedt, who is Fred Frith‘s main foil on this deep, serene art-pop album. The rest of the cast is terrific, too — Zeena Parkins on harp/accordion/keys is probably more widely known than Kihlstedt and absolutely no slouch, and neither are Matthias Bossi (Mr. Kihlstedt) on drums and percussion and the man named The Norman Conquest adding some sound manipulation.
But it’s Frith’s guitars and bass, his chirpy British vocals, and Kihlstedt’s violin — ranging from lyrical to threatening — that stand out on most of these songs. And there’s a similarity between the artsy pop of this album and the songs Kihlstedt has produced with the band 2 Foot Yard: musical atmospheres that can be pleasant but give you the feeling that something in the world is not quite right.
The tempos don’t lag and the guitar lines are bright — and yet, this isn’t easy pop. “Blimey, Einstein” is a good starting point: a heavy song, but with a strong beat and exotic Middle Eastern flourishes add up to a catchy sum. That’s the dichotomy here: Many songs don’t feel happy — there aren’t many concessions to sweetness — but there’s a joy in the playing of them.
That’s true even in the darker pieces like “Pour Albert.” That one is slow and ominous, with verses sung in a meterless narrative, and a chorus of dark voices singing, “I’d like to see you again.” There’s poignancy, aggression, and dread all at once.
I don’t mean to make the whole album sound morose. It opens with two bright instrumentals. The tricky “Snake Eating Its Tail” is a kind of grand entrance that has multiple instruments playing a theme in unison, possibly blurred together by The Norman Conquest. “Round Dance” is a folky, sunny instrumental replete with Irish/Celtic joy and time-signature tweaks.
“For Tom Ze” is a comic pop kaleidoscope: an easy and airy song that shifts into the “wacky modern compositional techniques” that Frith says he likes in Ze’s songs. (But only after a surprise bossa nova break!) Something about Frith calling wacky music “wacky” is really charming.
Frith has focused on improv in recent years, but the composing here includes plenty of prog rock trickery, too. That’s part of what makes it fun.
You can count the shrinking time signatures in the refrain of “Falling Up,” going 7/8, then 6/8, then 5/8, then 4/8, as the walls close in. This may be the poppiest song on the record, by the way. The instrumental theme is downright pleasant and radio-friendly, and the lyrics play over cute Philip Glass-like violin patterns.
There’s more prog fun to be had with “Out on the Town with Rusty, 1967,” a stern rocker with thick, brash guitar and reed-thin accordion stepping through irregular patterns. The sound combination alone screams “not normal pop/rock,” and the melody, especially where the violin joins in, is full of spiky protrusions, heady stuff.
Several of the songs are dedicated to influential people from Frith’s experiences, with short explanations provided in the CD card. One standout among these is “R.D. Burman,” Frith’s tribute to the famed Indian film composer. It’s one of the most upbeat songs here, full of swirling Bollywood drama and intensity, and featuring a kicking tabla solo from Anantha Krishnan.
Then there’s the story behind “Rusty, 1967,” told in short, basic sentences but crafting a touching little story.
The Norman Conquest, who’s apparently touring with the band, deserves a quick mention. His sound manipulations are quietly slipped into the stream, bubbling up enough to add some edge, not usually so thick as to distract. His presence adds sparkle to certain moments — like the watery effect over Kihlstedt’s violin solo on “Round Dance” — and yet can be easily missed. I like that. The only track where he’s too heavy-handed is “Falling Up,” where there’s a falling-up/falling-down effect that’s too obvious.
Ragged Atlas is a long-awaited CD, as the band’s music has been out, in performances and YouTube videos, for a couple of years now. Some, taken from live shows in Europe, are quite professionally filmed. The first video below is from a series of 4 that’s nicely produced; the second is from Mills College, part of a concert in honor of Professor Frith’s 60th birthday.