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French, Frith, Kaiser, Thompson

Invisible Means

(Fledg'ling Records; US: Available as import; UK: 1 Sep 2008)

Loud, Crunchy, Strange, Discordant, and Fun

French, Frith, Kaiser, Thompson are: John French (drummer in Captain Beefheart’s band), Fred Frith (of the experimental ensemble Henry Cow), free jazz player Henry Kaiser, and the pioneering folk rock combo’s Fairport Convention co-founder and instrumental virtuoso, Richard Thompson.  To call this album chock full of self-indulgent wanking is just another way of saying, “Hey! It’s prog rock!” What the heck would one expect of a supergroup of three avant-garde, electric guitar players with Captain Beefheart’s drummer—chopped liver?


Originally released in 1990, Invisible Means was the group’s second album and originally appeared on the New Age label, Windham Hill. But this record is as far from New Age music as one can imagine. It’s by turns loud, crunchy, strange, and discordant. The songs border from bizarre parodies of pop styles (like Thompson’s “Peppermint Rock”) to straight ahead improvisational jams (such as French’s “Hunting Sunsets”).The disc is more of a hodge podge of songs than a thematic unit, but there is one unifying element. There’s a streak of mad humor that binds the disparate elements into a whole.


Take for example, Thompson’s sardonic four-part operetta, “March of the Cosmetic Surgeons” that begins with and a chorus of “We nip and tuck / We nip and tuck / We nip and tuck / We nip and tuck all day” over the beat of snare drums. From there things only get weirder and more musically adventurous with solo arias, spoken word soliloquies, and the sound of electric saws and drills. Traditional instruments create sonic effects never considered by ordinary players, but these musicians are far from ordinary.


Or there’s the quartet’s version of the traditional Scottish tune, “Loch Lomond”. The musicians start with the original melody and then quickly shift into the rockabilly rhythms of “I Fought the Law” without changing the lyrics from the Celtic song. One can mentally visualize the kilts flying as the feet beat out a rockin’ two-step. 


And there’s French’s mordant “Now That I am Dead” that tells of a musician’s final success. All he had to do was fail at life! Now he rules the charts, makes tons of royalties, and has become a critics’ darling. “Now that I’ve been boxed / They say my music rocks” the singer creepily wails.


The reissue does come with one bonus track, a ten-minute live version of the Rolling Stones classic “Play With Fire”, whose spacey instrumentals seem reminiscent of a Grateful Dead track circa Live/Dead. The players jam on top of and along side each other to create peculiar tempos and harmonies. It comes as a surprise when they come back together after more than six minutes of chaos and get back to the melody and finish.


While the Stones’ song seems a little out of place here, especially as it comes in the middle of the disc rather than at the end, it’s incongruity paradoxically makes it fit. This is a record of startling music that goes all over the place in astonishing ways. What’s one more detour on the road to who knows where?

Rating:

Steven Horowitz has a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Iowa, where he continues to teach a three-credit online course on "Rock and Roll in America". He has written for many different popular and academic publications including American Music, Paste and the Icon. Horowitz is a firm believer in Paul Goodman's neofunctional perspective on culture and that Sam Cooke was right, a change is gonna come.


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