Monday, December 11, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #194 - Fred Frith – Gravity

When I lived in New York City, I used to hit about a dozen record stores in a ten block radius in and around Greenwich Village, all of which had their own niche focus that made it so I *had* to go to them all to make sure I had the best possible chance of finding what I wanted. One of these stores, Lunch For Your Ears, focused on avant-garde jazz and experimental music from around the world, and as my tastes expanded outward I found myself going there occasionally. The owner was Manny, a notoriously cranky record store guy. Manny was intimidating - he seemingly knew everything about the music I was just learning about, scoffed at a lot of the more mainstream stuff I enjoyed, and in classic NYC style was a pretty thorny person - on the outside. But if you got past the exterior, he was a passionate and broad-minded music lover with a deep knowledge of tons of hard to categorize music - jazz-ish improvisors, noise rock of varying stripes, art-music in all subgenres, international musicians, and so forth - lots of whom played at the (then) nearby Knitting Factory, and many of whom frequented his store and were on a first name basis with him.
One time my friend Dave and I were killing time at the store, looking at records without any specific need to buy one. Manny noticed Dave looking at a King Crimson album and asked him if he was a fan. Dave tentatively said “sure” and Manny said “You guys have some time?” and proceeded to turn off the lights, close the door to his shop, sit us down in a couple chairs, and play us an eight-minute segment of a live King Crimson video with a stunning, acoustic Robert Fripp solo. Another customer tried to come in during this and he wouldn’t let him in, telling him that he was busy with us and he could come in in a bit. Once the video had played, he simply and reverentially said (to the air more than to either of us specifically) “And they say the man is just a master of electric guitar…” turned the lights on and resumed normal business - as normal as he got anyway. That was Manny in a nutshell - so invested in the actual music that he couldn’t be bothered to let a customer in because he wanted to share the music he loved with another customer. And Dave bought Larks’ Tongues in Aspic.
Another time, based on the strength of the album Gravity, I was getting deep into the daunting catalog of Fred Frith - the English guitarist/violinist/composer who was one of the mainstays of art-rockers Henry Cow and about dozen other bands (including John Zorn’s thrash-noise-jazz outfit Naked City) that I would soon learn about - and I needed to get my hands on whatever I could afford. I went to the obvious spot to find this kind of music - Lunch For Your Ears - and was a little disappointed to find that the store wasn’t open (though I knew I had limited funds anyway) and the steel gate was most of the way down. Looking in the window and turning to leave, Manny suddenly appeared behind the metal shutter and asked me “What are you looking for? I know every record I have in here.” I was taken aback and said “Ummm… Fred Frith I guess?” He asked what my favorite album of his was, since Frith covered so much territory in his music. The instrumental album Gravity was my answer, and Manny quickly countered that he preferred the subsequent (and more challengingly spiky) album Speechless then rattled off about a dozen in-stock titles off the top of his head, including the just-released Naked City EP Torture Garden. It was the only thing under ten bucks, so I bought it. I might have bought more over time at the store, but Manny made me a little nervous. So for the time being I stuck to Gravity and (less-frequently) Speechless and the pure WTF-ness of the Naked City record.
            And there’s no question about it - whatever Frith’s reputation as experimentalist, as avant-gardist, and no matter how many different types of records he releases - Gravity is something special and very different in his catalog. Where much avant-garde is challenging, deliberately off-putting, humorless, here was a record that had hallmarks of experimental music - odd time signatures, dissonance - but was also catchy, danceable, and just plain fun to listen to. It kicks off with Frith’s high-pitched laugh at the beginning of “The Boy Beats The Rams,” as if to signal his intentional break with the seriousness and intensity of Henry Cow, then an insistent drumbeat starts to fill in the space between the ambient noises and Frith’s fiddle. This drives forward into the light, gentle “Spring Any Day Now,” which disguises its tricky bossa nova –inspired rhythms with a catchy guitar melody that sticks in the craw. The (album) side progresses through the deliberate rhythmic shifts of “Don’t Cry For Me,” the speedy tempos and gypsy violin improvisations of “Hands of the Juggler,” and the heavier guitar riffing of “Norrgården Nyvla” before closing out on the show-stopping drumming and oddball circus feel of “Year of the Monkey.” This is not the avant-garde that’s difficult and off-putting, this is the kind that welcomes you in, that invites you to enjoy song structures and melody rather than eschewing them. And even though Frith switches bands for the second half of the record, it’s still of a piece with the first, giving us some more challenging art rock in a vaguely Beefheart-ish mode a couple times, a tune that sounds like the theme for a late 60s TV cop show, and a playfully disrespectful cover of “Dancing In the Street” before taking in another fiddle tune with a heavy Scottish influence and a lovely and calming piano solo with light percussion that closes out the record on an almost lullaby-like feel.
            The whole thing is catchy, rhythmically propulsive (even when they go for more challenging meters), and very user-friendly. And if someone like Manny has intimidated you into thinking that experimental music is inaccessible or over your head, I’m here to tell you that Gravity is a key to accessing a lot of different things: art-rock, largely improvised music, international musics of varying stripes, and the variety of Fred Frith’s work as well. It did that for me, pushing me off in a dozen directions at once and opening a lot of doors for me, musically speaking. Manny’s right, Speechless is great too, but Gravity is the easier in for sure. And we can talk about Naked City’s Torture Garden another time.
(Note: Manny closed Lunch For Your Ears in the early 90s and joined up with another Lower East Side guy, Bruce Gallanter, to open the similarly-stocked Downtown Music Gallery, which still operates in Chinatown. Check ‘em out if you’re there!)

-          Patrick Brown

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