Curlew North America Review

BBC Review

Seminal New York art rock outfit featuring Fred Frith, reissued from a 1985 rarity.

John Eyles 2002

Readers of a certain age may recall the family trees that Pete Frame crafted for Zigzag magazine. Complete with copious notes and meticulous graphics, they charted the careers of members of a particular band, before, during and after their tenure in the band, revealing surprising links and creating an unexpected network. Curlew must have a great family tree. Through their twenty-year history, leader George Cartwright has been the only ever-present, but the band has included many illustrious members including the late Tom Cora, Nicky Skopelitis, Fred Frith, and Bill Laswell, who between them would provide a few links to elsewhere.

This CD is a reissue of Curlew's second album recorded in 1985, a period when Curlew were one of the bands helping to define the NYC "downtown scene" & "Knitting Factory Sound". The album was only ever released in Germany (in 1986), thus ensuring it both obscurity and cult status. This CD version appends half an hour of live material from 1984 to the original studio-recorded album, largely consisting of versions of the studio material.

The studio line-up here (always important to know with Curlew!) is Cartwright on alto & tenor saxes, Cora on cello, Mark Howell on guitar, Frith on bass, guitar & violin, Rick Brown and J. Pippin Barnett on drums. The album bears many of the trademarks that have remained constant in Curlew's music through the changes of personnel and instrumentation, not least a wilful eclecticism coupled with a willingness to blur boundaries, mixing elements of rock, jazz, and funk. The opener, "Ray" is typically impossible to pigeonhole, combining a syncopated rhythm and a strongly melodic violin riff with free blowing sax and rock guitar. A suitable reference point for such a combination of disparate elements is the original Mothers of Invention, but where Ian Underwood's sax leaned towards Dolphy, George Cartwright unmistakably displays the influence of Ornette Coleman.

However, from album to album, it is the differences rather than the similarities that best define Curlew. Here, the inclusion of violin (from Frith and from guest player Polly Bradfield) most colours the soundscape, notably on the two-part track "Agitar/The Victim" on which Frith lets rip. Eclecticism will always win out on a Curlew album, though; amid everything else, an atmospheric version of J. B. Lenoir's "Feelin' Good", complete with delta-swamped vocals from Cartwright, all but steals the show.

By contrast, the live versions of the material (with a different line-up - minus Frith but adding Skopelitis) are coarser, more populist and rockier. They display many of the defining characteristics of Curlew music of this period, notably a penchant for riffs. It sounds like this was a good night to see the band live. But when set alongside the more refined studio material, the live versions suffer by comparison. Curlew completists will love to have it (but how many of those do you know?) This is not the place to start exploring Curlew, but it is worth investigating if you already know what to expect.

Like This? Try These:
Fred Frith - Gravity
John Zorn - Cobra

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