You, me, the music, and me.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

FRED FRITH Cheap at Half the Price

Ralph FF 8356 (1983)

I remember reading an interview with ex-Talking Heads frontman David Byrne in which he said that, during the band's early days, a lot of his friends were a little worried about him after hearing some of the songs he was writing. Tunes like "Animals" (" I know the animals.../Are laughing at us.../They don't even know.../What a joke is!") and "I'm Not in Love" (" ...Happy! Is there time for this?/Is this responsibility?/Girl time, boy time, is that the difference between me and you?") caused some of them to be concerned for his mental health and well-being.

Friends of multi-instumentalist Fred Frith are probably accustomed to his quirky recordings by now; he began his career in the sixties as co-founder of the legendary British progressive rock band Henry Cow and has gone on to play with people like John Zorn, the Residents, and Brian Eno. Cheap at Half the Price is still a pretty unique sounding album, though, and would probably unsettle even Frith's closest associates. Frith recorded the album at his home on a four-track recorder, playing nearly all the instruments himself and using tapes of drum machine samples he had collected through the years (and which probably sounded dated even in the early eighties).

"Some Clouds Don't" opens the album; a disturbingly strained, high-pitched voice advises us, in very Byrne-like fashion, to "beware of the wise, beware of the wise/Lies! Lies! Lies!" and informs us that "some clouds don't have a silver lining". "Cap the Knife" opens with the line "one loving lick from a little dead duck could kill" and samples a speech by then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan (because no experimental album from the eighties would be complete without a Reagan sample!). "Evolution" proclaims "welcome to the insects/let's change the subject!" over a shuffling Latin rhythm before breaking into a speed-picked Mediterranean-sounding guitar solo.

The second side is made up of (mostly) instrumentals that are slightly (but not much) more conventional than the songs on side one. "Instant Party" is a driving, somewhat rock-like tune with untelligible vocals that suddenly switches gears into a fiddle-led jig. "Walking Song" sounds like Atari videogame music and features some pretty synthesizer washes and a lilting, wordless vocal melody. "Heart Bares" is a spare, minimalist ballad that leads into "Absent Friends", a rhythmically percolating arrangement of a traditional Swedish melody that layers handclapping patterns over strangulated guitar and a simple synthesizer melody, then breaks into a beautiful fiddle solo; it's the best track on the album.

For those with a taste for the eccentric, Cheap at Half the Price is a great introduction to the world of Fred Frith, and should give no one any cause for alarm with regards to his sanity; at the very least, his musical instincts are completely sound (and, after repeated listenings, his words begin to make more and more sense!).


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