Thursday, 24 April 2008

ROBERT WYATT: Team Spirit


Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard has tended to exist in the immense shadow of its immediate predecessor Rock Bottom; a less linear album although this is clearly spelt out in the title - the original vinyl issue was divided into Side Richard and Side Ruth. Though it does not hang together as "coherently" as Rock Bottom, that wasn't really the point; it is more of an impromptu mixtape of the music which was inspiring the Wyatt of 1975 - much of it is instrumental and jazz-directed while the vocal pieces divide up evenly into the "Muddy Mouth/Mouse" triptych which runs like the clearest and dankest of streams intermittently through Side Ruth and two songs which respectively see Wyatt singing from the point of view of an ingredient in a bowl of soup and a football. Aside from that there is also an amiable run through Mongezi Feza's classic tune "Sonia" - recorded when Feza had less than a year to live, and his pocket trumpet sounds as heartbreakingly vibrant as ever - and the inevitable, if belated, pop song conversion of Charlie Haden's "Song For Che" elevated into the holy by Laurie Allen's raging free drums throughout. Nonetheless it is sad to see that many commenters still don't get the record - the irony of prog-rock websites criticising the record for insufficient prog content may well be a barometer of how low standards have sunk in recent times.

"Team Spirit," though, is the clear pick; Wyatt as football, cheerily/quietly but angrily debating the merits of being kicked about by his would-be kickers, with the obvious larger sociopolitical metaphors - "Beating shit out of me takes the hell out of you" - and the less obvious smaller interpersonal ones ("I'll be stuck here forever unless you come over and kick me, Hardy"), Wyatt brilliantly moving from downbeat braggard ("I'll beat the lot/I'll take the cake") to knowingly subversive suitor ("Be masterful, be my hero") to rhetorical challenger ("I mean, if this is only a question of toughness...").

The music is furiously phased post-jazz jazz, Bill MacCormick patiently flanging away on bass, Allen's drums maintaining near-Moholoesque intensity, the saxophones of Gary Windo and George Khan solemnly hissing in the background - and also one Brian Eno, credited with "direct inject anti-jazz ray gun" which in this instance seems to consist of delayed processing of individual phrases or beats combined with his characteristic post-Roxy pocket synth as about-to-be-stirred beehive.

Eno's presence (as wild card Premier League forward?) becomes snarlingly apparent in the long instrumental break; he is discreet behind Windo's fairly conventional tenor solo (including a brief medieval roundelay deviation) but filters and flutters into overt action as Khan's tenor growls and honks its way into the picture; as Khan hits the Pharaoh Sanders overblowing button, Eno unleashes a million queen bees from his briefcase and turns the solo into a neutron explosion, abruptly reducing the intensity again as Khan returns to the tune and Wyatt's voice (and deadpan piano) re-enter the frame. Finally Windo, Khan and Eno are left to trade Cool School phrases in asymmetrical Terry Riley tandems as Allen's kit is phased and flanged so heavily it practically turns into a drum machine. There remains little doubt that Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard aimed perfectly and scored its desired modest goals.

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