Song of the Day, January 1: King Strut by Peter Blegvad

BlegvadStrutSlapToday’s song is a curious story of challenges and success. Peter Blegvad’s recording career has been sporadic, but each release is charming and unique. King Strut and Other Stories is his folkiest offering, and the title track is an epic story song, telling the life of its mysterious titular character. Dwight Strut is a poor orphan who happens upon a man about to breathe his last. The man imparts a secret to Strut, empowering him to become a force for good in the world, albeit through his particular lens.

The lyrics are classic Blegvad, filled with smart observations, clever wordplay, and elliptical references. Each verse opens with a wonderful generalization that allows him to explore Strut’s character and adventures. Two of my favorites:

  • “Imagination, like a muscle, will increase with exercise.”
  • “A man without a moral code is just an appetite.”

His brother, Kristoffer, provides an amazing guitar figure that propels the tale along. It’s a great musical package and a standout in Blegvad’s fascinating career. The message of hope and effort also seems like a perfect way to welcome in the New Year.

Happy 2017! Enjoy this delightful song today.

Song of the Day, November 9: Real Slap In the Face by Peter Blegvad

blegvadslapAfter the demise of Slapp Happy, Peter Blegvad pursued an eccentric musical path of his own. He worked on some collaborative projects and released a string of solo albums before becoming a more full-time illustrator and cartoonist and only occasional musician. One of his finest moments is King Strut and Other Stories, a mostly acoustic set of edgy stories.

A Real Slap In the Face is classic Blegvad, a series of tragedies narrated in a witty deadpan. As the action reaches its climax, Blegvad pull the rug out from under us.

The story doesn’t have a happy ending
I’ve said all I’m gonna say
The characters are begging “Don’t abandon us like this!
What did we ever do to you to be treated this way?”

Enjoy this marvelous misadventure today.

Song of the Day, December 19: Weird Monkeys by Peter Blegvad

BlegvadMonkeysToday’s song is Weird Monkeys from Peter Blegvad’s finest album, 1983’s Naked Shakespeare. It’s a nice snapshot of his work, a smart, offbeat set of observations set to avant-pop music. Blegvad neatly dissects the human condition, taking a whimsical — if somewhat dark — objective look at the creatures that rule our world. He turns in a great vocal, pacing his almost spoken observations for maximum impact.

Distracted
by trivia, trance & trauma
from a possibility
their history
consistently
betrays.

Enjoy this witty song today.

Album of the Week, October 12: The Naked Shakespeare by Peter Blegvad

BlegvadNakedPeter Blegvad was born in New York City and raised in Connecticut. When he was 14, his family moved to England, where he attended St. Christopher School. He played in a number of bands, usually alongside Anthony Moore. When Moore moved to Hamburg after their graduation, he asked Blegvad to join him there to form a new band. The pair hooked up with vocalist Dagmar Krause, forming the avant-cabaret / naive rock unit Slapp Happy. After two-and-a-half albums as a trio, they merged with art rockers Henry Cow for two discs. Blegvad and Moore felt increasingly alienated from the combo’s direction and went their own ways. His next project found him writing literate, intricate lyrics to go with music written by former Henry Cow bassist John Greaves. The resulting art-rock concept, 1977’s Kew. Rhone. was credited to the two men and vocalist Lisa Herman. Blegvad then turned focus to his successful cartooning career while occasionally appearing on other people’s recordings. Finally, in 1982, he entered the studio with friend Andy Partridge (of XTC) as producer and created his first proper solo disc, the highlight of his varied career.

Title The Naked Shakespeare
Act Peter Blegvad
Label Virgin Release Date 1983
Producer Andy Partridge (Dave Stewart, track one)
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. How Beautiful You Are
  2. Weird Monkeys
  3. Naked Shakespeare
  4. Irma
  5. Like A Baby
  6. Powers In the Air
  7. You Can’t Miss It
  8. Karen
  9. Vermont
  10. Lonely Too
  11. Blue Eyed William
  12. First Blow Struck
  13. Major Minor [bonus track]

Whether writing songs solo or collaborating with Moore or Greaves, the common thread through Blegvad’s work is a literate lyrical approach filtered through dark whimsy, paired with music either deceptively simple or directly intricate. The Naked Shakespeare distills this approach, showing off his skill for creating great pop songs with bite, smarts, and frequently a sense of fun. Rather than the simple cabaret sounds or dense art rock of his previous collaborations, this disc is based on very 1983 soundscapes, with smart guitar leads, direct rhythm sections, and evocative synth work. Besides Blegvad, Greaves and Partridge, drummer Anton Fier (Golden Palominos) and keyboard/synth wizard David Lord appear on most tracks, forming a strong in-studio band that gives a cohesive feel to the whole enterprise.

Things kick off with the haunting How Beautiful You Are, composed with Greaves. It’s a powerful postapocalyptic love song, filled with eerie background noises and dark musical spaces. It features a strong vocal from Blegvad, who up to now had seldom sung (and only occasionally spoken) his own words on record. The carefully crafted track is one of his finest and welcomes the listener to Blegvad’s curious world perfectly.

The songs vary from the dark to the cryptic to the whimsical, and the sequencing makes the most of the variety. Weird Monkeys is a darkly bemused look at the modern human race, balding primates who “squat before their boxes” to gain information and entertainment. Somehow Blegvad manages to skewer and celebrate humanity all in one witty package. The title track strikes a middle ground, and elliptical story about the creative process. Blegvad turns in another charming vocal, this time quiet and wistful. Up next is a nightmare song, the dark Irma, also composed with Greaves. The soundscapes are barren and the vocals are detached, creating a sense of menace that matches the grim tale. The fact that the song’s title character appears only as an object and victim is a dark twist that makes the inertial dream all the more gripping.

Like A Baby, the last Greaves collaboration on the disc, is sub-titled “an exploded pop song,” an apt description of much of Blegvad’s work. It’s a curious, stream-of-consciousness narrative that Blegvad intones over a brief, surprising set of musical moments, serving as a good palate cleanser after the dark Irma. On Powers In the Air, the singer returns to forces outside his control, seeming intent to challenge them despite their intensity. It harkens back to his Slapp Happy work with a nice modern pop framework. You Can’t Miss It is a charming, brief existentialist meditation, a fine moment in the grand mix.

Blegvad resurrects an old Slapp Happy demo with an updated version of Karen, a tale of doomed love. It’s the closest to Top 40 territory he ever gets, and the subversive pop works very well indeed. In a just world, this would have been a hit somewhere. Vermont is another literate meditation, exploring chance and fate. What could be ponderous is instead inspiring, brightened by the musical setting and a wonderfully inquisitive vocal tone. Blegvad flirts with classic pop again in Lonely Too, a song of romantic yearning and isolation. The fact that his loneliness is captured in a strange dream about Ezra Pound turns it on its head in a delightfully Blegvad way.

Another Slapp Happy track returns with Blue-Eyed William, originally sung by Dagmar Krause. Her vocal was eerie and detached, creating a mysterious feel. Blegvad’s intonation is more direct and heavy, creating a sense of menace rather than mystery which works to showcase the versatility of a good song. The wrap-up is a grim, ultimately optimistic epic. First Blow Struck would fit on a Henry Cow or Greaves collaboration but is more streamlined. Majestic and oddly compelling, it makes a fine wrap-up to this wonderful adventure. The CD release features a quirky coda. Major Minor was the B-side of the single from Blegvad’s next album, but it fits well on The Naked Shakespeare. A great bit of wordplay and romantic misadventure, it actually wraps up the album even better than the original closer, providing a wink and a bow as the minstrel leaves the stage.

FURTHER LISTENING: Peter Blegvad’s musical career is a set of collaborations and long breaks punctuated by a handful of solid albums. The collaborations tend toward the art/prog side of his work; they’re great for what they are and always interesting, but generally not high on my listening list. An exception is his one disc as a “member” of the Golden Palominos, Blast of Silence, in which the ever-changing lineup — including Matthew Sweet, Don Dixon, and T Bone Burnett in this case — gives him a nice backdrop for some solid songs.

After Shakespeare, he released the similar Knights Like Us, which has some great moments but is neither as adventurous nor as cohesive. Downtime is a set of experiments, demos, and oddities that has its lovely moments. From there, his occasional solo albums are more stripped-down, almost folky affairs that feature continued smart lyrics and a fun sense of melody. The highlights are the wonderful King Strut, possibly his strongest set of songs but less diverse than Shakespeare, and Just Woke Up. Always willing to reinvent his own songs, Blegvad also created a sort of unplugged greatest hits album, Choices Under Pressure, a good overview of his songs that pushes the great lyrical content to the fore.

Song of the Day, June 25: Everybody’s Slimmin’ by Slapp Happy

SlappSlimToday’s song is Everybody’s Slimmin’ by Slapp Happy. The avant-cabaret trio recorded this single in 1982 as part of a short-lived reunion and included it as a bonus track on the re-release of their original masterpiece Acnalbasac Noom. Despite the intervening decade, it’s a perfect fit for the album, showcasing the vocal versatility of Dagmar Krause and the quirky lyrical and musical genius of Peter Blegvad and Anthony Moore.

Simultaneously celebrating and lampooning the fitness craze, the song explores our bodily obsessions. It neatly compares exercise-mania with our obsession with sex, dissecting shame, psychosis, body image, and health all as one modern package.

Listen my children and you will hear
You can shed weight and still drink beer

Oh how? Oh won’t you tell us?

It’s better with a friend but you can do it alone
Just slapp a happy platter on the gramophone
Stroke the air like you’re buttering toast
Shake you yomma yamma like you’re humping a ghost.

Enjoy this delightful treat today.

Song of the Day, January 6: Just Woke Up by Peter Blegvad

BlegvadJustWokeUpToday’s song is Just Woke Up, the title track from Peter Blegvad’s fifth solo album. Opening with a jarring chord and string of musical noises, it captures the jarring sense of awakening. Blegvad’s half-spoken lyrics are perfectly suited — you can almost hear him shaking his head to get loose from slumber. The chugging music and eerie background drones provide a nice framework for the vocals. It’s a great song of struggle and determination with typical Blegvad wit and charm (“waking up is hard to do,” for example).

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Album of the Week, September 8: Acnalbasac Noom by Slapp Happy

AcnalbasacNoomAvant-cabaret act Slapp Happy have a complicated history. British musician Anthony Moore was living in Germany when he decided to start a musical group. He recruited an old school chum, American-born Peter Blegvad. As the two began working, Moore’s girlfriend Dagmar Krause came aboard to provide vocals. They focused on wry observations and subversive pop melodies, anchored by Krause’s distinctively inflected delivery. The trio hooked up with producer Uwe Nettelbeck, who recruited krautrock pioneers Faust to be the group’s backing band. They recorded Sort Of to little attention but did secure a deal with Virgin records in the UK. They recorded a follow-up album — again with Faust — but Virgin rejected it as insufficiently marketable. The tracks were re-done without Faust and with more ornate arrangements; the title Casablanca Moon was jettisoned in favor of simply Slapp Happy. Again finding little success, they hooked up with avant-prog British rockers Henry Cow and recorded the album Desperate Straights, credited to Slapp Happy / Henry Cow. A second collaboration, Henry Cow / Slapp Happy’s In Praise of Learning, saw Moore and Blegvad grow disillusioned with the partnership and depart. Each pursued a solo career, as did Krause when Henry Cow dissolved. Henry Cow drummer Chris Cutler founded Recommended Records as a distribution arm for Ré, a label designed to release music rejected by the mainstream. In 1980, he repackaged the original, Faustian version of Slapp Happy with both sides of a single and two outtakes under the title Acnalbasac Noom. This package represents the best of the trio’s work together.

Title Acnalbasac Noom
Act Slapp Happy
Label Recommended Release Date 1980
Producer Uwe Nettelbeck
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. Casablanca Moon
  2. Me and Paravati
  3. Mr. Rainbow
  4. Michelangelo
  5. The Drum
  6. A Little Something
  7. The Secret
  8. Dawn
  9. Half-way There
  10. Charlie ‘n Charlie
  11. Slow Moon’s Rose
  12. Everybody’s Slimmin’
  13. Blue Eyed William
  14. Karen
  15. Messages

The opening (and original title) track is a perfect welcome. It’s a spy story with darker back alleys than most, featuring amazing wordplay, a quirky but compelling melody, and a welcome-to-the-cabaret delivery by Krause. It shows off the magical chemistry of the group nicely and makes for a fun listen at the same time. Me and Paravati is another twisted tale of a couple with a history so riddled it would  make the Sphinx dizzy. Krause inserts whimsical scats and la-la’s adding a joyous absurdity to the existential story. Ratcheting up the cabaret feel a few notches, Mr. Rainbow mixes Rimbaud references and French lyrics with an English-language introduction to the imposing titular figure. When we’re told “tonight he’s your host,” the reaction is intrigue mixed with dread.

Next we take a trip into history with a lovely snapshot of Michelangelo. It’s hard not to love a song that manages to rhyme Buonarroti with “a little potty” to describe the artist’s untethered state. The Drum is a wonderful marching song, inviting the listener to join in the journey. This disconnects with the narrative, as the singer herself is at home, reciting a narrative that comes to her in posted tidbits. It’s one of Slapp Happy’s most artful and effective compositions. A Little Something is quite a surprise, a fairly straightforward and touching love song. Of course the images are a bit off-kilter, but the overall effect is sweet and delightful, proving the diversity of this trio.

The Secret is another story song, in this case the challenges of the singer’s lover who is from another world — literally. The goofy but grounded delivery makes the song work and come across as oddly charming. Dawn is a fragment of a tale, a moment in time and its impact on absent lovers. Potent and alluring, it features one of Krause’s best vocals. Half-Way There is another story of love complicated by abstract circumstance. An existential exploration of all the ways we can not quite be present, it has some very lovely wordplay and a delightful, sinuous melody.

Charlie ‘n’ Charlie is a tale of conflict, identical (possibly conjoined) twins who cannot stand one another. How would that be? Slapp Happy are more than willing to tell us in their own quirky way. The original album closes with Slow Moon’s Rose, a quiet ballad filled with natural imagery. Less complicated than many of its companions, it provides a nice resting place as we leave the strange world that is Slapp Happy’s own.

A proper part of Acnalbasac Noom, although not part of the original recording, there are four bonus tracks that contribute significantly to the listening pleasure. Up first is the exercise-as-psychosis ode Everybody’s Slimmin’ a brilliant sendup of fads and crazes. The next two Blegvad compositions would turn up later on his solo albums. Blue-Eyed William is creepy song about power and oppression; Karen — the only song Krause does not sing — is a twisted tale of obsessive love. Both are wonderful. Messages is a menacing song about language — spoken and otherwise — with a jarring vocal. It provides the kind of disturbing ending that seems more apt for a Slapp Happy outing.

FURTHER LISTENING: Slapp Happy’s output is limited. Besides this great disc and its pale remade shadow, their mediocre debut, and the interesting but too-aware Henry Cow collaborations, they only made one other album. Released in 1998, Ça Va was a surprising return to form, showing that magic can be recaptured. Moore has released a number of solo discs, the finest of which is Flying Doesn’t Help. Krause continued with Henry Cow until their demise; she has released a handful of solo albums focusing on Brecht and his contemporaries and worked extensively as a vocalist for many progressive and avant-rock groups. Blegvad has had a busy career as both a musician and cartoonist. More on his solo work in a future post

Song of the Day, August 19: Karen by Peter Blegvad

BlegvadKarenToday’s song is Karen by Peter Blegvad. After his work as a member of a handful of art-rock and prog-cabaret groups in the 70s, Blegvad introduced his solo career with a seemingly straightforward pop album. The Naked Shakespeare was anything but straightforward, of course, with his usual wordplay and philosophical wonderings woven through the lyrics that accompanied the alt-pop 80s tunes.

Karen was a leftover from Blegvad’s days with Slapp Happy. He recorded a demo with the band, unusually taking the vocal lead himself. That version was a bit lugubrious but intriguing; it showed up on a reissue of the band’s Acnalbasac Noom as a bonus track. For The Naked Shakespeare, he worked it up in the vein of the rest of the album and everything clicked. It’s a song of obsession and loss that wonders if a period of lusty joy is worth the final price.

“The loser is the winner”
That was our philosophy.
I lost myself in her.
It only cost my sanity.

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Song of the Day, April 18: Scarred For Life by Slappy Happy

SlappScarredToday’s song is Scarred For Life by Slapp Happy. The avant cabaret trio — Peter Blegvad, Dagmar Krause, and Anthony Moore — split up after their 1975 collaborations with Henry Cow. Nearly a quarter century later, they reunited for the album Ça Va. It’s a delightful return. Blegvad honed his lyrical sense even further during his solo work and Krause is in fine voice. Musically, they mesh as if they had never been apart.

Blegvad wrote Scarred For Life and also recorded it on his album Hangman’s Hill. Somehow it aches for Krause’s vocals however, and her delicate delivery is perfect for the yearning despair of the lyrics.

Leave me something to remember you by,
more than a lock of your hair.
Leave me scarred for life,
show you really care.

Enjoy this lovely but dark obsession today.

Song of the Day, October 31: Special Delivery by Peter Blegvad

Today’s song is Special Delivery by Peter Blegvad. It’s hard to resist a song that opens

Everyone’s been nice to me
The way Vincent Price would be
With midnight coming on.

as the Halloween song. It’s a flawless opening line, setting the listener up for a wonderful journey of musical wit. Blegvad describes the song as “an exercise in rhyming. I had no idea what I wanted to say before I lost myself in the process of composition.” Despite its ominous opening, it is fundamentally optimistic, with our journey through life leading toward something better.

Oh, but soon it will come!
Sight to the blind, conversation to the dumb.
Courage for the cowardly, sensation to the numb.

Enjoy this delightful romp of wordplay and hope today.

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