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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Robert Wyatt

Rock Bottom

Review by Steve Alspach

On June 1, 1973, Robert Wyatt discovered the near-fatal combination of alcohol, an open window, and gravity. Being confined to a wheelchair (to this day), Wyatt scrapped plans for his Matching Mole project and developed his songs with a wider set of musicians. With names like Mike Oldfield, Richard Sinclair, Fred Frith and Ivor Cutler, and with Pink Floyd's Nick Mason at the producer's helm, Wyatt recorded his first post-accident album, Rock Bottom. Beautiful in places, startling in others, this is not an album for easy listening. It is dark, dense, emotional, and challenging, but the fact that Wyatt made the darn thing at all says something.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2006 Volume 5 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Sea Song
This is a bit of a slow tune, the hand drum giving a slow tick-tock rhythm. Enjoy the opening - it's about as accessible a melody as you're going to get on this album. After the second verse, the song goes into a tense minor mode over a Wyatt piano solo. The last three minutes or so have a nice tone to them, a Genesis-like progression with synthesizers to play against Wyatt's "ah-ah-ah-ah-ahh" impromptu vocal lines.
A Last Straw
Former Soft Machine member Hugh Hopper joins in this piece that has a light jazz feel to it, primarily due to Laurie Allan's drum work and the swinging piano, but Wyatt's sense of composition is askew enough to make things really interesting. He also adds his trademark vocalese in the middle and even a simplistic guitar solo at the end.
Little Red Riding Hood Hit The Road
If this song doesn't send a shiver up your spine you're not listening close enough. Mongezi Feza's layered trumpet, with its droning held notes and Miles Davis-like runs, serve as the focus of this arrangement, and the song flits back and forth - literally. Notes and instruments are backwards-tracked to add a nightmarish sense of disorientation while Wyatt's hand percussion (a hand drum, a tray, and a small battery) keep things at a heady gallop. Wyatt's lyrics add a sense of panic and remorse over his predicament. "Don't say, oh God, don't tell me / Stop please / Oh deary me / O blimey / Mercy me / Woe are we." The ruminations of someone who had to lie flat on his back for six months recovering from a fourth-floor drop? The macabre sense of humor in the title doesn't help soothe things down any, either.
Alifib
This is a duet with Wyatt and Hopper. Hopper's extended solo, high up on the neck, sounds a bit like an open-bodied jazz guitar in its subtlety. Wyatt addresses Alife (in reality, his wife Alfreda Benge). Much of the words have a Lewis Carroll-like playfulness to them. All in all, though, the song is a bit of a dirge in its slow, plodding solemnity.
Alife
Gary Windo's tenor saxophone work on this is very visceral - phrases are atonal, short, squeaky, much like Ornette Coleman's early free jazz explorations. Wyatt plays the hand drum as well as the keyboards, and there are moments where his piano playing feeds off of the sax lines. Wyatt repeats the lyrics from "Alifib" but is speaking them, sounding as though he is proofreading the whole lyric sheet. Windo's sax for a bit is more subdued, a la Van der Graaf's David Jackson, but he then cranks up the Ornette-ometer for more free phrasing and the piano picks up a swing tempo - all over the same dirge-like chords that were played in "Alifib." The end, though, is a kick - Alfreda takes the lyrics as a rebuttal - "I'm not your larder / I'm Alife, your guarder." A declaration of love and devotion if there ever was one.
Little Red Riding Hood Hit The Road
A bit of a who's who on this - Mike Oldfield's guitar solo is easily recognizable, Laurie Allan is on drums, and Richard Sinclair plays bass. The first part is a bit symphonic with Allan keeping a march tempo. The second part is a repeated refrain where the music loses much of its structure. The final part is Wyatt in penmanship only. Fred Frith plays viola as Ivor Cutler plays a baritone harmonium and adds vocals. This whole part sounds a bit like the Chieftains on acid - a puzzling end to album that may not make too much sense to begin with.
 
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