Peter Blegvad’s work contains some of the most oblique and poetic wordplay ever to make its way to song. An affecting singer and a fine guitarist, Blegvad has an uncanny knack for creating literate lyrics — a golden triangle of emotion, intellect and humor — and combining them with enduring melodies. A restless spirit that displays no patience for cliché runs through all of his work. And while Blegvad has hiked with many stellar companions, he has always blazed an utterly personal trail. It’s a testament to his hard work and clear vision that, though his references can sometimes be too arcane, literary or personal to be widely recognized, his work is generally friendly and inviting. This is in no small part due to a dry wit and a voice which can bring forth everything from anger to vulnerability with a folkish naturalism. Which is not to say that Blegvad’s a folksinger, just that folk music’s dictum of celebrating the natural, honest resonance of everyman’s voice is the path he follows. Further testimony comes by way of his songs having been covered by, among others, Fairport Convention, Leo Sayer and Bongwater.
Born in Connecticut but living in England, Blegvad started Slapp Happy around 1971 with Anthony Moore, whom he’d met at boarding school, and singer Dagmar Krause, Moore’s wife. On the liner notes to the trio’s first album, Sort Of, Blegvad wittily tags the band as “champions of Naïve Rock, the Douannier-Rousseau sound,” which pegged them perfectly — sort of. With its slightly discordant guitars, deliberately simple lyrics and Dagmar’s naturally doomy voice trying to come off winsome or chipper as the song may demand, Sort Of is willfully naïve and, at its worst, a bit affected.
At its best, though, the band was refreshing, diverting and sometimes moving. Nearly a decade after the release of Slapp Happy’s eponymous second album — which contains the song “Casablanca Moon” but does not bear that title — the band issued its original demos as Acnalbasac Noom. It’s a gem from start to finish. Blegvad crafts some wonderful, offhandedly literary lyrics while Moore provides sophisticated tunes to match. (As the group didn’t contain a drummer or bassist, the group employed the rhythm section from Faust, not that you’d ever guess.) Although there are some songs in common, this is an entirely different album from Slapp Happy, which was recorded using anonymous studio musicians and features some ambitious (but odd) string arrangements. In 1993, British Virgin confusingly reissued Slapp Happy and Desperate Straights on a single CD as Casablanca Moon/Desperate Straights, omitting Henry Cow’s name — which had appeared on the latter’s original cover.
Following those three records, Slapp Happy and labelmates Henry Cow — a symbiotic blend of art and politics united by equally offbeat sensibilities about musicmaking — joined forces to produced a pair of highly rated albums. It was a confederation from which Blegvad was ejected for not fitting in. (Slapp Happy had a reunion of sorts in 1991 when British television commissioned an hour-long opera, Camera, which had music by Moore, a libretto by Blegvad and was performed by Krause. It aired in 1993, but was not issued on either album or video.)
Back in the UK, Blegvad pursued a solo career. Andy Partridge’s production of The Naked Shakespeare is entirely too slick and busy. Only the songs given relatively simple arrangements are delightful, particularly “You Can’t Miss It,” “Vermont” and the pensive title track. Also noteworthy is the chilling rape-nightmare of “Irma,” a mostly spoken piece set to Eno-ish ambient synth.
Engaged by Virgin in an unabashed effort to sell Blegvad to UK pop radio, David Lord (Peter Gabriel, etc.) did a spectacular misproduction job on Knights Like This. (Shades of Phil Spector’s off-base pairing with Leonard Cohen.) Like Cohen, Blegvad is an idiosyncratic writer whose songs work best in uncomplicated settings. Here, most of his luminous lyrics are lost amid the overwrought pop arrangements, full of strings, backup choruses and synthesized percussion.
Resident in New York in the ’80s, Blegvad hooked up with various musicians working the downtown scene that eventually coalesced around the Knitting Factory. As a member of Anton Fier’s floating Golden Palominos, Blegvad’s songs helped shape the identity of 1986’s Blast of Silence album. Blegvad also contributed to Syd Straw’s 1989 solo album, long after they’d both flown the Palominos stable.
In comparison to Blegvad’s first solo efforts, the folky and countryish rock settings (there’s even a Louvin Brothers cover) of Downtime are much more apt for the intimacy of his music. Chris Cutler (ex-Henry Cow/Pere Ubu), Tony Maimone (Pere Ubu) and members of the Lodge (which includes former Henry Cow bassist John Greaves, Blegvad’s brother Kristoffer), provide warm backing to a set of powerful songs, including the hilarious “Card to Bernard” and improved readings of two songs from the Palominos’ Blast of Silence. This splendid album closes with the whimsical bossa nova of “Crumb de la Crumb,” a self-deprecating poke at Blegvad’s own obscurity.
King Strut puts it all together for Blegvad, combining the warmth of Downtime with the pop smarts of his first two LPs. Partridge produced three tracks (not two, as indicated on the label), including the unfortunate closer, an irritating reprise of the title track. The rest of the album receives sympathetic treatment from Chris Stamey (with whom he’d worked in the Golden Palominos), who brought in ex-partner Peter Holsapple, rekindling a collaboration that led to their 1991 album. The treasures of King Strut are five mostly acoustic pearls on Side Two, particularly the deeply romantic “Northern Lights” and “Shirt & Comb.” (As part of its promotional effort, Silvertone issued Peter Who? , a disc of live and demo versions as well as an infuriatingly catchy jingle, sung and played by Andy Partridge, which teaches the correct pronunciation of the singer’s name: “Peter Blegvad, rhymes with egg-bad.”)
Performed as a trio with Greaves and Cutler (with notable help from Peter’s guitarist brother Kristoffer and pedal steel player B.J. Cole), Just Woke Up is the first proper American release of Blegvad’s solo career. A masterpiece of confident simplicity, produced with rhythmic intricacy but exquisite clarity and nuance, the album is a perfect introduction to Blegvad’s work, rescuing three Knights Like This songs from under the layers of production that originally buried them and including a remake of the Golden Palominos’ “(Something Else Is) Working Harder.” Blegvad’s easygoing delivery — now in line with thoughtful semi-acoustic artists like Simon Bonney, Leonard Cohen, Daniel Lanois and Peter Case, but with a bit of recent XTC around the edges — smoothly paves his reflective, philosophical musings. “It’s a full- time occupation leaving well-enough alone” begins “You & Me,” and what follows suggests Blegvad’s incapacity for that intellectual job. In “Bee Dream,” which ends in a shattering feedback freakout, he observes, “Each of us has in our soul / A portion of eagle, a portion of mole,” while “Driver’s Seat” asks “There are two kinds of people / Ask anyone you meet / Would you prefer to be a passenger / Or in the driver’s seat?”
Blegvad has worked in Greaves’ Lodge, with whom he recorded Smell of a Friend; the two also collaborated on Kew.Rhone, a dense song cycle, and Unearthed, a set of Blegvad’s stories (many of them already published in a 1994 book, Headcheese) told over a variety of musical backdrops. In London, where he currently lives, Blegvad is less widely known for his music than for Leviathan, a weekly cartoon he draws for The Independent.