Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Nature Prance: David Thomas’ solo albums 1981-1987

The Crickets in the Flats

The third song on The Sound of the Sand and as long as the first two put together (4:59 following from 1:55 and 2:13) ‘The Crickets in the Flats’ is the only song on the David Thomas solo oeuvre that I’m aware of that actually doesn’t include David Thomas. The Sound of the Sand album is credited to ‘David Thomas and The Pedestrians,’ so one might grant a concession to the possibility that this is the moment where ‘The Pedestrians’ shine. However the sleevenotes on the original vinyl album (not the CD box set) indicate that this track (and another, ‘Crush This Horn, Part Two’) is actually by The Golden Palominos (other tracks are variously by The Eggs and The Trees). The Golden Palominos is the name that Anton Fier would very soon take on for his full-time concern, a group producing a series of collaborative albums throughout the 1980s and into the 90s, to some acclaim and success (in 2012 The Village Voice described the band, on their brief return, as ‘a loose collective of A-list players who combined stunning chops with sensitive accompanist skills’ (http://www.villagevoice.com/2012-12-26/voice-choices/wild-horses/). As far as I can tell, this is the first time he used the name (although on p. 295 of Viv Albertine's memoir Albertine claims to have seen the band in 1979). The songwriting credit for ‘Crickets in the Flats’ is Fier’s alone – and it seems also to have been the first time he had a solo composition released. The Golden Palominos in this incarnation were Fier with Richard Thompson and fomer Henry Cow bassist John Greaves. Both Thomas and Allen Ravenstine are listed as a members of this band but they ‘did not play on The Crickets in the Flats’.

The scrambled nature of Sound of the Sand is evident everywhere, and the two tracks prior to this one on the album are hiding their own internal scrambledness in plain sight. ‘The Crickets in the Flats’ doesn’t belong here because it is so un-scrambled; it’s a robust, powerful rhythmic piece in which the drums and percussion alone account for most of the musical content.

In one of the few interviews with Fier I’ve been able to uncover, he says that:

before I started studying drums and percussion and rhythm, I studied piano for about five years. I mean, I'm terrible; I quit playing as soon as I was able because it's not what I do, and I knew that at a very early age as well. But I did gain a knowledge of music theory because of that, which helps me with songwriting and arranging and things of that nature. http://www.melvinmagazine.com/Issue_8/PopCulture/Features/fier_interview.html
The cymbals and bells particularly in the latter part of the track are most definitely ‘piano-like’, and it’s easy to see where Fier used this early experience. Greaves and Thompson take a textural role, and it is presumably one or both of them who contribute the animalistic noises throughout (it’s hard to tell whether these are vocal or something else).

It is also open to conjecture whether this track was offered to Thomas to add vocals, or whether indeed he attempted to do so and the experiment didn’t work (this only occurred to me this morning, having read precisely nothing about such a thing – though I do recall members of Pere Ubu suggesting in the early 80s that Thomas freely exercised his right not to sing on a track). It might be assumed that, if there was at one point a suggestion that Thomas provide a vocal here, once it was decided that the track be an instrumental then extra percussion (and perhaps the noises, perhaps even Greaves and Thompson) were dubbed on top, i.e. no-one, even David Thomas, could be heard in such dense cacophony as it stands. The vocal-attempt theory is bolstered, in my mind at least, by the similarity between this track and ‘The Rain’, on the second David Thomas and the Pedestrians album Variations on a Theme; which is to say that perhaps Thomas saw the value in a track like this one, but with more gaps. The fact that Lindsay Cooper plays a similar, if more complex, melody in ‘The Rain’ to that which Fier chimes towards the end of ‘The Cricket in the Flats’ bolsters this argument for me but it might just be me (Fier is absent from Variations on a Theme).

Fier was Pere Ubu’s drummer for one album (Song of the Bailing Man) and notoriously, and perhaps amusingly for some outsiders, the degree to which he and Mayo Thompson rubbed each other up the wrong way is plain. Ravenstine, in his interview with Perfect Sound Forever, discusses the dedication to which Fier gave to practice, and his strong belief in rehearsal; Thompson on the other hand was as resolutely uninterested in such activities. You could ask how two such strong minded and opposed characters could co-exist in one band, until you realise that the short-lived nature of that line up of Pere Ubu shows that, quite simply, they couldn’t, and indeed, Pere Ubu itself broke up for five or so years thereafter (or should I say, Thomas ceased trading under the name: could a record such as Sound of the Sand have been passed off as a Pere Ubu album? I actually suspect that the ins and outs of that reality come back to the intricacies of trading name rights, and the like. I certainly would love to know what Scott Krauss thought he was working towards when he recorded ‘Happy to See You’ with Thomas, Ralph Carney etc.) 

This, then, is ‘The Crickets in the Flats’ (if meaningless minutiae is your game, let me just add that the CD omits the ‘The’). The monster noises, the hinted-at melody and the clattering syncopation presage much of the later Thomas (and post-Fier Pere Ubu) work, as does the obtuseness.

Close reading of the line-ups on tracks on Sound of the Sand also suggest that this was an album of many jams and overdubs.. This was surely (I’ve convinced myself) the one that neither Thomas nor Ravenstine saw an opportunity to add to.

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