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Robert Wyatt - Rock Bottom CD (album) cover


Robert Wyatt


Canterbury Scene

4.28 | 903 ratings

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3 stars Although the relatively light Rock Bottom is considered to be a 'Canterbury Scene' album, I associate it more strongly with Van der Graaf Generator and with the Krautrock style than with, for example, In the Land of Grey and Pink (though bassist Richard Sinclair appears on both albums).

At least here on Rock Bottom, Wyatt's lyrics are reminiscent of Peter Hammill's insofar as they combine the literal and the impressionistic. Both writers imply that their antagonist is not fully sane, or perhaps not fully lucid; the listener seems to be eavesdropping on the private thoughts of the singer. But whereas Hammill's musings (or ravings) tend toward the nightmarish - - and occasionally homicidal - - Wyatt's are more sentimental. Although some of the lyrics on Rock Bottom are a bit dark, especially in the context of the eerie music of songs like 'Alifib' and 'Alife,' they are just as often childlike or doddering (e.g., from 'Little Red Riding Hood Hit the Road,' 'You've been so kind / I know, I know / So why did I hurt you? / I didn't mean to hurt you').

As a musician, singer, and composer, Wyatt defies the stereotype of the rock drummer. Tom Barnes expresses the cliché on 'According to rock mythology, drummers are the Neanderthals on the scale of musical evolution. They don't understand melody or composition. They're only good for two things tops: keeping the tempo steady and coming down hard on the one.' Of course, the prejudgment is faulty and unfair, and et cetera, but the stereotype seems to be based on some shred of reality. At a minimum, many musicians self-select into their roles in a band, and there are characteristics many drummers seem to share that set them apart, say, from pianists or lead singers.

Anyway, the stereotype exists, and it couldn't be more alien to the Robert Wyatt of Rock Bottom. He's introspective, delicate, and as a vocalist, he even seems to overlook the rhythm in places.

The standout track here is 'Little Red Riding Hood Hit the Road,' a near-perfect melding of accessible pop and high-minded art. As this song is as much a studio creation as a traditional composition, producer Nick Mason probably deserves much of the kudos. 'Little Red Riding Hood' is built on a wall of trumpets,* percussion, bass guitar - - but most notably trumpets. At some point the various tracks begin to run backwards, although we're not just hearing the whole song in reverse; the vocals, for example, are still phrased as per the usual. Eventually forward-running instruments and vocals join back in. As impressive as the production technique is, it never casts a shadow over the music itself. In this sense, Wyatt - - and Mason - - defy another stereotype: the drummer as technician rather than artist.

The other tracks on the forty-minute Rock Bottom are also solid, if bewildering upon the first listen. In a lot of respects, this LP is like an earlier-1970s 'Krautrock' album, sharing a general ambivalence toward convention with that German style: parts of 'Sea Song' and 'A Last Straw' border on the accessible, while 'Little Red Riding Hood Hit the Road' and its companion piece 'Little Red Robin Hood Hit the Road' are far more experimental. There are also hints of Floydian psychedelia, perhaps thanks to Mason, and there are echoes of folk-prog throughout.

My main gripe with the album is Wyatt's off-kilter, and sometimes off-key, warbling. It's grown on me a bit, partly because it's a bit endearing, and also because I can't really separate his vocal performance from his lyrics, which (at least to me) are essential to the album.

In short, Rock Bottom is well-composed and well-performed. Other than 'Little Red Riding Hood,' I don't find it to be as innovative as many other reviewers do, but it certainly doesn't seem derivative.

*courtesy Mongezi Feza, who died just a little more than year after the album was (famously) played at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane in September 1974.

patrickq | 3/5 |


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