If Fred Frith were remembered only for being the guitarist in Henry Cow he would be just another shadowy figure in the history of art-rock. Instead he pursued a unique and influential solo career in the ’80s that made its mark on leading avant-gardists worldwide. Frith’s sessioneering and collaborative work has figured prominently on records by Material, the Golden Palominos, Brian Eno, John Zorn and others. Massacre, his trio with the Material rhythm section, produced an unforgettably powerful record. His duo, Skeleton Crew, beguiled audiences all over the world. He has played and recorded effectively with Voice of America, compiled three early records of avant-guitar playing (Guitar Solos 1, 2 and 3; Complete consists of 1 plus the Frith contributions to 2 and 3) and recorded duet LPs and live tapes of varying quality with Cow drummer Chris Cutler, saxophonist Lol Coxhill, guitarists Henry Kaiser and Rene Lussier and others.
But Frith’s most engaging work was for Ralph, the Residents’ label. Structurally, the records resemble Henry Cow’s early album in that they, like Frith himself, tend not to stay in one place long enough to try the attention span of neophytes. As such they are perfect vehicles for corrupting straitlaced rock’n’rollers into this world of joyful noise, which can include anything from polytonal polyrhytherama to Eastern European folk tunes to a taped snippet by New York’s 13th Street Puerto Rico Summertime Band.
Gravity was recorded with members of several bands, the most substantial contributions coming from Sweden’s Zamla and the Maryland-based Muffins (not Martha’s). Frith’s bass, guitar and violin are prominent, yet merged into a whole that is stronger than its dovetailed parts, all held together by ingenuity and force of will. Yes, “Dancing in the Streets” is a cover of you-know-what.
Speechless continues the process with a greater emphasis on reeds that should give Henry Cow fans a strong sense of déj… vu — yet Cow never did anything this strong. Many of Frith’s melodies are influenced by the same strain of European folk music that inspired Béla Bart¢k. Helping out are Etron Fou Leloublan on one side and Massacre on the other. (Some of the latter’s material has turned up, rearranged, on Massacre’s album and during Skeleton Crew gigs.) Endlessly fascinating, this is Frith’s best solo record.
Cheap at Half the Price marks not one departure but several. For the first time on a solo album, Frith sings. The songs are edgy whimsy squeezed out in a weird high-pitched tone, except “Same Old Me,” whose rough lyrics emerge in a tape-slowed drawl over angry riffing. Much of the record, especially instrumental tracks, suffers from an experiment in recording “at home on a 4-track.”
For those ready to graduate from the prog-rock safety of the Ralph platters to something harder and weirder, there’s Live in Japan, which captures Frith’s “guitars on the table” approach, concentrating not on standard instruments but on homemade ones that are plucked, raked, abraded and assaulted with a variety of objects. The two discs can be bought separately or together in a black corrugated box containing booklets in English and Japanese. A must for noise fans.
Much of Frith’s work in the late ’80s was oriented towards film and theater scores. The Technology of Tears offers not one but three of Frith’s dance-company commissions. Two sides of the double album contain the titular piece, created in 1986 with John Zorn, an occasional scat vocalist and fake-art turntable manipulator Christian Marclay. Although largely a flighty and disjointedly arhythmic effort, parts do coalesce with the arcane logic of Frith’s structuralism. The high-strung and disturbing “Jigsaw” (also from ’86, with trombonist Jim Staley) and the enticingly diverse episodes of “Propaganda” (’87) each fill a side.
Assembled from enormously varying sources, Step Across the Border is a very bizarre version of a film soundtrack. Besides previously unissued live and studio recordings covering a decade, three continents and countless musical variations, the 26 selections include items from Massacre, Skeleton Crew and Cheap at Half the Price. As such, this is as much a Frith retrospective as it is a new work. But without the movie to connect the dots, it’s impossible to discern what internal logic makes these individually intriguing snippets fit together.
Its three-man lineup quickly trimmed to a less-extravagant two, Skeleton Crew regaled audiences in America, Europe and Japan with a unique and functional mix of rhythmically twisted rock, electric and acoustic noise, wittily interpolated taped voice fragments and “fake folk music.” Most of the latter had a distinctly East European flavor, though one New York gig consisted entirely of folk music from around the world. Frith alternated conventional and homemade guitars, six-string bass, violin and keyboards while occasionally singing in a high-pitched voice. Tom Cora busied himself on cello as well as four-string bass and devices; both worked kickdrums with their feet as their fingers flew. They had enough material for maybe three good albums, but the fine Learn to Talk and Country of Blinds (on which the Crew expanded to include singer/keyboardist/harpist Zeena Parkins) will serve for posterity. Both albums are available on a single CD.