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John Greaves - Kew Rhone CD (album) cover

KEW RHONE

John Greaves

Canterbury Scene


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Syzygy
SPECIAL COLLABORATOR
Honorary Collaborator
5 stars With special thanks to Martin (Alucard)

Kew.Rhone is an often overlooked masterpiece from the 1970s, a multilayered concept album that combines the complexity of RIO with the melodic sensibilities of the best Canterbury bands and which features perhaps the most erudite lyrics in the history of progressive rock.

John Greaves (music) and Peter Blegvad (lyrics) began their creative partnership when Henry Cow and Slapp Happy joined forces for Desperate Straits - their song 'Bad Alchemy' was one of that album's highlights, and they have continued to write and perform together on an occasional basis ever since. Following the recording of 'In Praise Of Learning' Henry Cow and Slapp Happy split, and John Greaves left Henry Cow at about the same time. He and Peter Blegvad went to New York, where they wrote this album and then recorded it with the assistance and participation of jazz greats Carla Bley and Mike Mantler. Vocalist extraordinaire Lisa Hermann was rightly given joint billing with the two songwriters; like Dagmar in Slapp Happy and Art Bears, it is her interpretation of the material that brings it to life. Robert Wyatt was so impressed that he bought two copies, in case one got damaged or worn out, and later sang a version of the title track on John Greaves' 'Songs' album.

Side 1 of the vinyl original opened with "Good Evening", which functioned like the opening tune of a Broadway musical - some of the main musical themes of the album are played in a short but highly effective big band arrangement. This leads straight into "Twenty Two Proverbs", which is just that - a collection of proverbs from a variety of sources set to music and sung by Lisa Herman with occasional interjections from other voices - John Greaves' delivery of 'What have I to do with Bradshaw's windmill?' is one of the album's early highlights. The proverbs sometimes seem to relate to each other; 'A cat may look at a king' is juxtaposed with 'By night all cats are grey', while 'Names are not the pledge for things but things for names' flags up one of the album's main lyrical concerns. "7 Scenes From 'Exhuming The First American Mastodon' By CW Peale" follows, the lyrics based on the cover painting, itself based on CW Peale's painting of his own scientific project. This track has some remarkable brass by Mike Mantler, which plays off Lisa Herman's lead vocal to stunning effect. "Pipeline" follows, which pulls off the rare feat of having a line such as 'Figure b. illustrates the assertion 'Ambiguity can't be measured like a change in temperature' and making it melodic and catchy. The lyrics refer back to "7 Scenes"; objects mentioned in that song reappear here in a different guise (Names are not the pledge for things...). Again, despite the apparent complexity this a breezy, melodic song which will linger in the mind for a long time. The title track is the album's centrepiece, another hummable gem with opaque lyrics. The first part of the song is written solely using the letters in Kew.Rhone, for example 'We who knew no woe', and the second features a lengthy palindrome: 'Peel's foe, not a set animal, laminates a tone of sleep'. Once again all this is sung to some extremely memorable music, with some wonderful strings by Michael Levine and a superb vocal arrangement with another sterling contribution from John Greaves' pleasing Welsh tenor. The first half of the album culminated with Catalogue of Fifteen Objects and their Titles (Names again...), which is also referred to obliquely on 'Squarer for Maud' by National Health.

Side 2 kicked off with another short track, "One Footnote", which suggests further anagrams from the title and invites the listener to think of some more. "Three Tenses Onanism" is a highly poetic paen to the pleasures of self gratification and sees the music move more towards RIO/Avant prog territory, each of the three tenses being represented by a different musical idea. Peter Blegvad is the main vocalist here, his knowing New York drawl adding an extra dimension to the lyrics. 'Nine Mineral Emblems' returns to the jazz tinged Canterbury stylings of the first half of the album, and contains some accurate information about mineralogy given an unlikely but effective erotic subtext: 'When heated, SCOLECITE lengthens, squirms - not unlike the worm that looks for lodgings in a pearly urn'. "Apricot" feature's Blegvad's second lead vocal, and is probably the closest the album comes to a straightforward rocker (not very close, admittedly, but there's something of Lou Reed in the vocals and it has the album's most prominent electric guitar)."Gegenstand" brought the album to a subdued close - this track has the sparsest arrangement on the album, dominated by John Greaves' bass playing.

The instrumental performances are all superb throughout the album. John Greaves plays some beautiful piano as well as anchoring the arrangements with his ever inventive bass work. Peter Blegvad is not a great guitarist (as he admits himself) but acquits himself creditably on some extremely tricky guitar parts, while the supporting players all turn in splendid performances - this is very much an album of tightly focussed, carefully arranged ensemble playing, the arrangements allowing the individual players to shine without dominating the proceedings. It also functions well as a whole package - Blegvad was responsible for the sleeve design, which informs some of the lyrics, and some CD versions have an enhanced feature which takes you deeper into the album's concept. Music, lyrics and visuals all complement each other to perfection.

Greaves and Blegvad have both had long and distinguished careers, and they have written a wealth of good material together and individually, but nothing since has quite equallled this gem of an album. This is a genuine masterpiece, and no collection is complete without it.

Report this review (#76501)
Posted Thursday, April 27, 2006 | Review Permalink
5 stars A thing no-one ever mentions is that the instrumentation on the album is the closest anyone ever has gotten to the magical arrangements on Unrest, which is a prog masterpiece. The piano, organ, bass, guitar parts (on for instance Kew Rhone itself or Apricot) are pure Cow (if such is an expression)
Report this review (#108097)
Posted Saturday, January 20, 2007 | Review Permalink
Mellotron Storm
PROG REVIEWER
4 stars I would probably think a lot higher of this if Robert Wyatt was singing. The focus here is definitely on the vocals and concept of this album. I've never been a fan of concept albums for that reason. Give me great music that's all I ask for. Peter Blegvad wrote the lyrics while John Greaves composed the music. The music is mostly laid back with horns and piano often standing out,but like I said the focus is on the singing (male and female). I acknowledge that the lyrics here border on brilliant, and I can appreciate why many consider this a masterpiece. I do prefer Greaves' "Songs" album more.

"Good Evening" is sort of a lazy sounding tune with horns to get us warmed up. "Twenty-Two Proverbs" is more urgent sounding as male then female vocals come in. Horns before 2 minutes. Vocals are back after 3 minutes. "Seven Scenes From The Painting" opens with piano as reserved female vocals come in. It sounds sort of loungey if you know what I mean 1 1/2 minutes in. It turns serious as these contrasts continue. "Kew Rhone" is piano and female vocal led early. Male vocals, horns and some violin follow.

"Pipeline" is again led by female vocals and piano. Bass, drums and horns help out. Lots of horns late. "Catalogue Of Fifteen Objects & Their Titles" features reserved female vocals and piano. It picks up as other sounds join in. Male vocals around 2 minutes. "One Footnote (To Kew Rhone)" is mostly horns and drums as vocals come in late. "Three Tenses Onanism" opens with piano. Male vocals before 2 minutes. It's dissonant followed by a calm before almost spoken vocals end it. "Nine Mineral Emblams" opens with female vocals. The tempo picks up. I'm not into this one at all. The horns are good though before 4 1/2 minutes. "Apricot" is better with male vocals. The horns after 2 minutes sound great. "Gegenstand" puts the focus on the almost spoken female vocals.

I much prefer Robert Wyatt's solo work which is of a similar style but this has grown on me to the point where I can give it a low 4 stars.

Report this review (#265724)
Posted Friday, February 12, 2010 | Review Permalink
Warthur
PROG REVIEWER
4 stars John Greaves and Peter Blegvad enjoyed working with each other on the Henry Cow/Slapp Happy albums Desperate Straights and In Praise of Learning so much that they got back together (and brought Lisa Herman into the fold) to produce this eccentric avant-Canterbury piece. Presenting a jazzy Canterbury sound that borders on Henry Cow's later chamber-rock explorations, the album also features Blegvad and Herman indulging in wild, fanciful wordplay with the lyrics.

Apparently, some people have blamed the album's commercial failure on it coming out on the same day as the Sex Pistols' debut album, but I think that buys into the punk-vs-prog myth a little too much. The fact is that the Canterbury scene was always a bit less high profile than the likes of Genesis, Yes, Pink Floyd or ELP, so the idea that an avant-garde side project from two members of underground Canterbury/RIO bands with lyrics so complex the album art provided diagrams to aid in their interpretation might have become a serious commercial hit is rather far-fetched.

Simply put, this is Canterbury at its most complex, obscure, and inaccessible. Of course, if you're a prog fan then that's a plus - but for my part, whilst I do consider it a worthwhile accomplishment at the same time I think the album is a bit too much in love with its own cleverness to show much interest in communicating its ideas effectively and engagingly with the listener, and so doesn't quite attain the fifth star for me.

Report this review (#552133)
Posted Tuesday, October 18, 2011 | Review Permalink
Dobermensch
PROG REVIEWER
2 stars I always look forward to hearing 'Kew Rhone' and am continually underwhelmed by the time I'm half way though it. With a line up of eleven clearly talented musicians you'd think you'd be in for something special. Such a pity then that they seem to continually overlap and intrude each other in the most annoying of manners. They create a messy, sprawling sound that is at once academic, clearly being a scored soundtrack, but it is difficult to listen to. It brings very little enjoyment to my decades old poor bludgeoned ears.

Apparently this album is full of anagrams and palindromes. I've certainly not heard any. Maybe it's because my mind keeps wandering to more important things like: 'what time do I have to get up for work tomorrow'. I try so hard to like this but always find it ultimately boring and directionless. 'Allmusic' calls this a masterpiece of 70's electronic rock. God knows why. I must have listened to this around 15 times and all I can think on is of a wizard throwing a bag full of musical notes down a flight of stairs.

Lisa Herman's vocals irritate throughout the duration with her tuneless leaping from one octave to another. I can't make head nor tail of her intentions. I can't even say she has a good set of vocals. They're all too random and willy-nilly, almost an afterthought as if she's just heard the backing track for the first time and has decided to give it a go despite the consequences.

It's all too clever for its own good. Listening to 'Kew Rhone' is like tying to decipher an algebra equation. No fun at all in other words. The separation of isotopes by gaseous diffusion is easier to understand than this.

I will admit though - it does have a great sleeve by Charles Peale called 'Exhuming the First American Mastodon'. That's as high praise as you'll get from me I'm afraid.

Report this review (#1403057)
Posted Thursday, April 23, 2015 | Review Permalink
ALotOfBottle
PROG REVIEWER
5 stars In 1969, during his studies at Premboke College in Cambridge, John Greaves met members of a forward-looking outfit known as Henry Cow. The musicians, Fred Frith and Tim Hodgkinson, were looking for a bass player and persuaded Greaves to join them. In 1974, Henry Cow teamed up with a German avant-pop outfit Slapp Happy. Peter Blegvad, Slapp Happy's guitarist, and Greaves found working together extremely prolific and, in result, ended up writing some material, most notably a piece "Bad Alchemy", which appeared on Slapp Happy's album Desperate Straights. After leaving the band, Blegvad returned to his hometown, New York City, and made a living as an illustrator. John Greaves left Henry Cow in 1976, appearing on three of their studio releases. In 1977, they decided to join forces to work on Greaves' project Kew. Rhone. in New York City, with financial help from Virgin Records. Peter Blegvad was responsible for writing lyrics, while John Greaves wrote music. When the album was ready to record, the two were offered a studio by two jazz musicians, Michael Mantler and Carla Bley, who ended up playing on Kew. Rhone., alongside a vocalist Lisa Herman, a drummer Andrew Cyrille, and numerous other guests.

The music on Kew. Rhone. is at times quite similar to that of Henry Cow from the Unrest period. The affinity is really a testimony for how much of the band's sound Greaves is responsible for. His distinctive compositional style, first fully displayed on "Half Asleep Half Awake" from Unrest, is now dominant on the album. The work has a unique, dark, noir-like quality, supported by influences of urban hard-bop. Jazz elements are also reflected in instrumentation, through the extensive use of Miles Davis-inspired the trumpet and rhythmic grand piano. And yet, Greaves and Blegvad manage to capture somewhat of a European spirit in their music. Flavors of avant-garde opera, in particular that of the Second Viennese School, composers such as Schoenberg and Berg, are also a considerable part of the musical extract. Small, inexplicable ingredients of so-called Canterbury sound are also present, highly likely solving the problem of classification of the album. Peter Blegvad's twisted, sophisticated, ambiguous, and most of all, highly experimental lyrics, dripping with of oxymorons, anagrams, palindromes, demand a great amount of erudition to be fully comprehended. There appears to be an invisible link between all of the songs lyrically, creating a feel of a concept album. Obviously, one is rather unlikely to notice the exceptionality of the words without actually reading them individually. However, "Is Kew. Rhone. an album to be "solved"? asks Marcus O'Dair, a journalist of a British music magazine. "It invites interpretation even as it resists it," was Blegvad's answer. "When considering the meanings of Kew. Rhone. we can only guess, we can't know ? which will put some people off. People who want definitive answers are unlikely to get whatever there is to be got from the Kew. Rhone. experience. Personally, I feel more at home with doubt than I do with certainty. What Keats called Negative Capability." Without a shade of doubt, the interplay of intricate and advanced music and elaborate and knowledgeable lyrics creates a one-of-a-kind blend - Kew. Rhone.

To ensure his musical vision is executed in the best possible manner, John Greaves invited some of the finest musicians he knew to play on the album. Himself, Greaves handles all the keyboard instruments (except for clave played by Boris Kinberg) as well as bass guitar. Peter Blegvad is responsible for guitar parts, which play an important role in the album's sound. Blegvad, Greaves, and Lisa Herman together, create a beautiful texture of three varied harmony vocals, which are probably the most characteristic element of Kew. Rhone. In addition, they get some help from the voices of Dana Johnson, April Lang, Michael Levine, and Carla Bley. The album is rich in wind instruments, which include a trumpet and trombone played by Mike Mantler, an alto saxophone and flute played by Vito Rendace, and tenor saxophones played by Rendace, Carla Bley, and Blegvad. Throughout the album, trumpet gets the most solo parts, followed by tenor saxophones. Andrew Cyrille on drums, finds himself perfectly comfortable playing complex time signatures. A classically-trained string sound is delivered by Michael Levine, who plays violin and viola, giving a slight chamber-like taste. In short: the musicianship on this release is excellent.

The album comprises eleven tracks. It opens with "Good Evening", a half-a-minute intro, which despite its short duration, successfully sets the mood for the rest of the work. "Twenty-Two Proverbs" has a bit of an unsettling sound reflected by its dissonant nature and an odd time signature, with great, varied harmony vocals. "Seven Scenes from the Painting 'Exhuming the First American Mastodon' by C.W. Peale" alludes to the album art, which portrays Peale's scientific project. The title track, "Kew. Rhone." features a motif that I'm sure I have heard on Henry Cow's debut album, LegEnd. The short theme used in this lighter piece often appears on Cow's early recordings. "Pipeline" was once described as "a phenomenological bossa nova in 7/4". And this description perfectly captures the spirit on the track. "Catalogue of Fifteen Objects and Their Titles" closes side one of the LP with well-rehearsed saxophone virtuosity and memorable harmony vocals. Side two opens with a somewhat heavy sound of " One Footnote (to Kew. Rhone.)", which features a strong syncopated rhythm with great interaction of horn instruments and, later, the band members' voices. "Three Tenses Onanism" is a much lighter piece with John Greaves' grand piano play and strange, sinister noises from Peter Blegvad's guitar. "Apricot" is built around a catchy, jazz-influenced theme with a trumpet solo and sophisticated vocals. The album closes with "Gegenstand", which starts with a melody-less, improvised passage with atonal, Fred Frith-like guitar sounds. Towards the end, one will hear a bit of silent vocal melody supported by gentle bass and organ, as if struggling to break through, but not for long, as the piece slowly descends into complete silence.

John Greaves and Peter Blegvad are responsible for one of the most detailed, difficult, multifaceted, complicated, and thought-provoking albums in the history of progressive music with very listen revealing new aspects and qualities. Kew. Rhone. demands a lot more than just many listens to be fully appreciated, it demands a careful and experienced listener. Canterbury sound had never been as complex and sophisticated before Kew. Rhone. Close to sheer perfection in almost every way, in short: a masterpiece.

Report this review (#1573737)
Posted Thursday, June 2, 2016 | Review Permalink

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