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The Muffins - Baker's Dozen CD (album) cover


The Muffins

Canterbury Scene

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kev rowland
Crossover Team
5 stars There is no doubt in my mind that one of the most fascinating and important record labels in the world is Cuneiform, and when they stopped operating some years back, I was devastated. They had just released one of the most essential boxed sets I have ever had the joy of owning, Art Zoyd's '44 ½', which is something I still return regularly to even now. But they couldn't stay away for too long and over the last few years Cuneiform have again been exciting and enthralling us with challenging music from wonderful bands. At the same time I have been listening to a great deal of music from Jerry King, who introduced me to his friend and bandmate Dave Newhouse, and I have been thoroughly enjoying their collaborations. I knew Dave is famous for being in The Muffins, but for some strange reason I had never investigated their music.

That has all changed in a very big way indeed with this release from Cuneiform which brings together 12 CDs and a DVD in one place (and the version I have actually includes a copy of their 2010 album, 'Palindrome', as well). This means my set has 147 songs with a total playing time of nearly 15 hours, nearly all previously unreleased live and studio recordings from 1975 ? 2010. They were a Washington, D.C. area band who existed from 1973-81 and then again with their best-known line-up still intact from 1993-2015. They were called, "...the finest progressive band that America produced... even at its most complicated, (they) sounded effortless & convincing" by Fred Frith. They also acted as Fred's backing band on his first post-Henry Cow solo album, 'Gravity'. This is Canterbury scene progressive rock being thrown into the avant garde with scarce a thought for the likes of Soft Machine as they shift the genre in new directions. With multi-instrumentalists within the quartet (which was their normal line-up, although this did vary a few times), they could keep changing the format so we may have a rhythm section playing against/with two woodwind players, or keyboards could have a major part or possibly guitar. Everyone was able to take a lead role, and it was not unusual for each of them to do so, often all at the same time.

The constants through the career were Dave Newhouse (electric piano, organ, keyboards, piano, woodwinds, penny whistle, harmonica, tenor recorder, percussion, toy instruments, toy xylophone, tambourine, horn, voice) and Billy Swann (electric bass, fretless bass, guitar, electric piano, organ, piano, penny whistle, drums, keyboards, plastic tube, tenor saxophone, alto recorder, whistle, percussion, radio, vocals, voice), while Tom Scott (saxophone, clarinet, flute, oboe, kalimba, melodica, soprano recorder, penny whistle, maracas, whistling, xylophone, bell tree, percussion, keyboards, programming, voice) joined the following year while for a large part of their career they were completed by Paul Sears (drums, percussion, xylophone, steel drum, gong, soprano saxophone, voice vocals), and it was this line-up which worked together from 1976 before breaking up in 1981 only to reform some dozen years later.

I have always been a big believer in playing full albums before writing reviews, although I have heard stories (surely apocryphal) of some writers only playing either bits of all tracks or just some tracks, and part of me viewed the first playthrough of this set with some horror, did I mention how long this is? However, right from the off I was entranced by what was taking place in front of my ears and knew this was going to be something very special indeed, as proved to be the case. Here are four confident musicians extended a genre and bending it to their will, refusing to follow in the footsteps of others but instead created a wide path in the wilderness. One never knows where the music will lead, as they continually challenged each other, daring to find the right ledge to jump from, but would they make it safely to the next vantage point or would they fall to their doom with notes emanating from their instruments as they crashed to the rocks with the musical thread lost forever.

This is one of those pointless reviews, as the physical version of this set (and why would you just want the digital?) is $195 USD, and you will only invest that much if you are already a fan. But take it from me, even to the newcomer, this is a superb way to discover the band and somehow, I know I am going to be listening to this for many years to come.

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Posted Wednesday, July 5, 2023 | Review Permalink

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