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Skeleton Crew - Learn to Talk CD (album) cover


Skeleton Crew



3.17 | 15 ratings

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4 stars Skeleton Crew had a line up that is probably unique in the annals of rock music - they were effectively two one man bands playing side by side, with all the instruments played in real time. In order to do this Fred Frith and Tom Cora each played different bits of the drum kit via pedals and home made contraptions, switching between instruments (principally guitar/violin and cello/bass) in mid song and singing at the same time. When playing as a duo they also used taped snippets of film and TV dialogue in the way that more contemporary bands would use samplers. Learn to Talk was recorded after over a year of playing live, and was recorded live in the studio to capture the intensity and eccentricity of their stage performances.

The result is a highly enjoyable slice of RIO fused with the ramshackle, DIY feel of the more adventurous post-punk bands who recorded for labels like Rough Trade in the early 80s. Fred Frith is the main vocalist, and while he doesn't have great range or tone his his half sung, half shouted vocals suit the music to perfection. On the couple of songs where Tom Cora adds his harmonies the vocal sound verges on professional, which was probably not the idea. The overall impression is of a couple of mad professors manically dashing from one piece of equipment to another, the whole thing permanently on the edge of breaking down altogether. On closer listening it becomes obvious that this is the work of two superb musicians; Cora's cello and Frith's violin occasionally blend to produce some gorgeous string parts, and Frith occasionally unleashes some inspired lead guitar. When Cora plays bass it's always imaginative and never obvious or predictable, the instrument having its own space independent of guitar and drums. The drumming is also remarkable; Chris Cutler drily remarked that '...this made for some fantastic, and normally unplayable, parts - most drummers only having one brain.' Stand out tracks include the lengthy opener Que Viva/Onwards and upwards, Not My Shoes, which features a gloriously off the wall lead guitar line, and the title track, an honest to goodness RIO pop song. Not everything works brilliantly; the Washington Post sees them playing along with a malfunctioning recording of Sousa's famous march, which is a joke that wears thin after a couple of listens, the use of Ronald Reagan's voice now sounds oddly dated, but it's in the nature of experiments to fail once in a while, and for the most part it's a strong album with a unique and deeply eccentric sound.

Fred Frith's work with Henry Cow and Art Bears may have given the impression of an intense, austere composer steeped in modern classical avant garde techniques, but this album (like his solo works Gravity and Speechless) shows another side to his nature: playful, good humoured and wildly inventive. In Tom Cora he found a kindred spirit and the chemistry between the two was unique and irreplaceable - it's only a pity that they didn't do more together before Cora's untimely death. Recommended to lovers of the eccentric and bizarre - if you like Robert Wyatt, Syd Barrett, Holger Czukay, Captain Beefheart or The Residents you'll probably like this, although it doesn't particularly sound like any of them.

Syzygy | 4/5 |


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