Friday, August 20, 2010

Curlew, "A Beautiful Western Saddle" plus Live DVD

Curlew was one of those genre-defying bands that epitomized the progressive downtown movement in Manhattan in the later '80s-early '90s. They were a big hit at the Knitting Factory and such.

I'll admit I missed most of their output. Had Bee. Liked it well enough. . . . Trouble was I was on a work treadmill that either left me with no time or, alternatively, all-time and no money. I'm not complaining. The go-go eighties made lots of money for a select few. The rest of us worked to death only to find ourselves periodically out on the street, looking for "another situation," as Bartleby the Scrivener might have put it. It got to the point when the talk of the "retirement package" at some of these institutions was a joke. You looked around, you were the oldest person working there and you were 35. Guess what, eventually you were finding yourself seeking more of the same. So perhaps when I hear Curlew, it reminds me of a lot of wasted time. I'm not angry. But I look back and see what the pattern was about, and it had nothing to do with me and whether I worked hard, was great, or mediocre, which I wasn't. It was a game you could not win, no matter what you did. So Curlew is the music of an era that I'd like to forget.

Pardon the digression. A Beautiful Western Saddle, their fifth album from 1993, was the only one that featured songs, with lyrics by Paul Haines (associated with Carla Bley) and vocals admirably handled by Amy Denio. Saddle has been reissued, coupled with a live DVD from 1991. Can't tell you about the DVD because it wasn't part of my promo download.

So Curlew, especially on this album, had a kind of genre niche all its own. Avant, electric, there were elements of the prog fringe, free jazzish moments, and, well, songs. Now I hate to say this but Saddle is an album, heard from this distance, that I appreciate more than I like. I don't like it. The songs have the earmarks of the era, and they are art songs certainly. The era saw this sort of thing done by Michael Mantler (especially his albums based on Gorey texts), Carla Bley of course and her various song-oriented works, Zappa in a certain mode, King Crimson, the Golden Palominos, and so forth. Though Curlew have their own take on it all, that take doesn't come through all the time to me as built up from within. More often it sounds imposed from without, a hip veneer that is put on but without a whole lot of conviction. This may be reading too much into it, but that's the vibe I get listening now.

Saddle comes out of that. The songs don't especially ring true to me, sorry to say. Maybe that's why this is the only album they did of this sort. The lyrics are interesting. Some of the songs really work. Some just don't exactly pull together. It's not the vocalist. It's not the group. It's the songs. Now I can imagine there are people out there who have loved this album over the years and welcome its re-release. I'm glad for them. I am also glad to hear it. I think it's quite well crafted. I think its very cool and interesting. But I don't like it. Sorry.

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