SLAPP HAPPY / HENRY COW – Desperate Straights (1975)

Review by: Mark Maria Ahsmann
Album assigned by: Andreas Georgi


Tracks: Some Questions About Hats, The Owl, A Worm Is At Work, Bad Alchemy, Europa, Desperate Straights, Riding Tigers, Apes in Capes, Strayed, Giants, Excerpt From The Messiah, In The Sickbay, Caucasian Lullaby

A merger. Two bands made this album together, Henry Cow and Slapp Happy. And they were so happy with the results that they decided to merge after that. Maybe more bands should do so. The remnants of the Beatles and the Stones. A recipe for disastrous success.  I think not. It might solve a bass problem though.

Bands as corporations with a lifespan of centuries.

Prog pop. That’s the genre here, I just found out. I just found out this genre existed. So far I only knew of prog rock.

Indeed, do not expect “rock”. Slapp Happy will not “rock you” on this album. A comforting thought when it comes to prog.

The general mood on this album is reflective and cerebral. And it is very artsy.

The first song “Some questions about hats” took me to Weimar. Kurtweilland. Hanns Eislerland. German Expressionism. That sets the tone for most of the songs on this album. The music is largely staccato, with intricate signatures and unexpected melodic twists. The instruments used on these tracks are for the most part acoustic; piano, bass guitar and drums are the main instruments. The arrangements then are filled out with violins, woodwinds, trumpets and the occasional electric guitar and Wurlitzer. Dagmar Krause uses her plainsong voice in a high register and the supposedly poetic lyrics are provided by Peter Blegvad. By the way, to simply state Weimar would be incorrect as I hear different influences in these songs as well, like Canterbury style prog, (free)jazz and John Cage’ compositions for piano, prepared or raw.

I’ll categorize these tracks as avant-garde Weimar chamber pop. In them on first hearing everything sounded a bit askew but once I got used to the sound I found these generally short pieces quite beautiful in an offbeat way. Slapp Happy / Henry Cow obviously knew what they were doing without the apparent urge to impress with prowess. In fact, overall the record sounds quite lean. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was an influence on the more melodic post-punk experimentalists like Tuxedomoon and Minimal Compact and even nineties alternative rock acts like dEUS and Tindersticks. It must be my imagination but sometimes the violin parts even remind me of those in “Different Trains” by Steve Reich.

All the non-instrumental tracks, bar one, are sung by Dagmar Krause. Her voice took me some time to get used to. It is more in the European classical / cabaret style than pop/rock. She has a funny german accent and I can easily imagine her singing the “Dreigrosschenoper”. At times though she sounds shrill and quivering, especially in the high register. Witchy and childish at times. On first hearing “Some questions about hats” I thought: “well, surely this must be the wicked witch from the East”. However for the most part she sounds quite pleasant even if she’s no Lotte Lenya. On the contrary in  “Excerpt From The Messiah” she even sounds like Yoko Ono, complete with Onowarblings. Not that I mind one bit, of course.

Not all songs live in Weimar however and there are four that sound quite differently. The title track is a beautiful piano dominated instrumental that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a late sixties Beach Boys album. “Strayed” is a poppy, clean guitar driven song, sung by Peter Blegvad, that on first hearing sounds quite conventional until you realize it is actually a bossa nova and could well have been produced in the nineties by let’s say Cake. The aforementioned “Excerpt From The Messiah” (a Händel cover, no less) is the most rockist track complete with distorted electric guitars. Still this is no shit that stinks. It has a great line though: “He hid not his face from shame and spitting”. I suppose that’s about Jesus Christ. Finally the last track consists almost entirely  of slowly ascending lonely notes on the piano and woodwinds without reaching a conclusion. This is music of lonesome foghorns that blow, solitary walks through deserted industrial wastelands and fortified coastal regions or as in my case bicycle rides in the rain through the polder with windmills and pumping stations at night. It works. Spooky.

Do I know some people who would hate this album? Yes I do. Those who do not like art in their music and they are legion. In fact, I intend to use this album to evacuate my birthday party  in December.

It’s a good album though and quite unlike any other I heard so far. If you are exhausted by Zarah Leander, Suzi Quatro, Li’l Kim and Amanda Lear you need this album. Even if it might take you some effort. That’s okay. I do not approve of laziness.

Oh, so  do I like it? I do, even if at times it’s a bit too cerebral to actually love. It is good. This is paletti. Pico bello. Sombrero!

Favorite tracks: “The Owl”, “A Worm Is At Work”, “Desperate Straights”, “Strayed” and “Caucasian Lullaby”.
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Author: tomymostalas

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