Love At First Listen: Art Bears

If I may, I’d like to speak to the ladies a moment. The women, the females, the girls; there’s something I think you’ll find very interesting. I’m so sure of this, that I’m just gonna hit you with it cold; straight, no chaser. Afterwards, I’ll reveal why.

The following YouTube link should be cued up to the correct spot, but on the off chance it isn’t, you’re looking for the 9:04 mark: “The Slave”, from Art Bears’ 1979 album Winter Songs. The lyrics are under the link in case you’d like to read them. The words are so clearly sung, you probably won’t even need to.

Once as the sun was setting
A slave came to the gate
Day dying. 

On its fiery tongue
An opal lay
Of copper spun.

Then did we dream?
Or were our houses
Lambent gold?

In Winter’s pool
Did glory pass
And hold us speechless
In its spell?

Where he had fallen,
Used and cast aside,
All he had touched
Was trembling and alive

Each life is present
In this way;
Each fashioned thing
Speaks of its change.

Okay, take a moment, let that marinate, allow the goosebumps to subside-

Did you even know a female voice could do that?!?

Any voice, for that matter? Because I didn’t, until recently.

That’s the voice of German singer Dagmar Krause, overdubbed so it sounds like two women (I thought it was at first, so don’t feel bad if you did too). Krause, Chris Cutler and Fred Frith were members of the avant-rock collective Henry Cow, until they split in 1978, becoming Art Bears. The name comes from Ancient Art and Ritual (1913) by Jane Ellen Harrison:

“Even to-day, when individualism is rampant, art bears traces of its collective, social origin.”

[Percussionist and lyricist Chris Cutler explains] that it was a deliberate out-of-context quote, but that “not too much should be read into this; it just sounds intriguing, has an animal in it, plays with ambiguity and is mildly ridiculous”. [Wikipedia]

Art Bears in 1978. (l.-r.) Chris Cutler, Fred Frith, Dagmar Krause.

Dagmar Krause’s work with Henry Cow was almost as challenging; if (by chance) you’re familiar with Frank Zappa works like “Time Is Money” and “Spider Of Destiny”, you’re already warmed up for its style. Here’s an example, just in case you’re intrigued.

Even if you aren’t into avant-garde music, this is pretty impressive stuff, no?

Art Bears recorded three studio albums; Hopes and Fears (1978, originally a Henry Cow effort), Winter Songs (1979, posted above), and The World as It Is Today (1981, screamier than the previous album). All of it is uniquely, terrifically dark and vivid. Fred Frith is one of my favorite musicians, from his work solo and with John Zorn’s Naked City. I’ve never heard anyone sing like Dagmar Krause. It was like when I first heard Kaki King play guitar. I loved it immediately. That’s why I made you listen to that specific song first; I wanted you to feel the same rush of discovery I felt, hearing those indelible, affecting lines. I had to push you into the deep end to show you how great the water feels.

Pretty great, huh? You should listen to the rest of the album. “The Hermit”, which follows “The Slave”, is quite lovely. “Rats and Monkeys” gets a little intense, but you can handle it. We can let the guys in now. It’s not that I don’t think dudes would appreciate Art Bears, it’s that I feel the ladies might benefit more from some musical enlightenment, to which they can honestly relate. It’s a shame that there aren’t more musicians like this around today, isn’t it?

Frankly, my dear, I sure as hell think so.

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Filed under Faint Signals, Girls of BIUL, Late To The Party, Thousand Listen Club