Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Slapp Happy "Ca Va" and Pidgin "Let There Be Work"

By Stewart Mason

APRIL 26, 1999: 

Slapp Happy Ça Va (V2)

Of all the '70s bands tarred with the brush that said "Experimental, Forbidding, Difficult Music," none deserved it less than Slapp Happy. The German/American/British trio (Dagmar Krause, Peter Blegvad and Anthony Moore, respectively) got this rep from hanging with genuinely EFD art-rockers like their early mentors Faust and Henry Cow (Slapp Happy and Henry Cow actually merged into one band for a pair of albums). The few who actually heard their albums, like 1972's Sort Of and 1974's Casablanca Moon, quickly realized that Slapp Happy weren't kidding with their smart-assed self-description, "Naive Rock, the Douannier Rousseau sound." Imagine Jonathan Richman jamming with Can.

The band split after the Henry Cow experiment, with all three going on to rewarding (artistically, that is) solo careers. Ça Va, their first album together in more than 22 years, makes the always-present pop elements of Slapp Happy's sound even more obvious than before. Perhaps it's due to the album's collaborators--XTC's Andy Partridge, folk-pop songwriter Clive Gregson and producer Laurie Latham, fondly recalled by '80s pop fans for his florid, gimmicky Paul Young singles and a totally over the top Squeeze LP. But it's more likely that pop music as a whole has caught up to where Slapp Happy was a quarter-century ago. In light of current indie pop, Ça Va simply doesn't sound very odd at all.

Well, maybe a little. Blegvad's "The Unborn Byron" gives new meaning to the term interior monologue (the fetal poet announces his impending birth in florid metaphor), but the hysterical lyrics intentionally clash with the lovely, haunting music. Here as elsewhere, Krause's Teutonic voice, regularly derided back in the '70s, sounds much less stark. Now her torchy Marlene Dietrich-meets-Nico voice recalls no one quite so much as Portishead's Beth Gibbons, especially on tracks like the ultra-tuneful "King of Straw" and "Scarred For Life." Blegvad and Moore's vocals, especially on Moore's "Coralie" (this song could be huge), are even more accessible. Prog-rock purists may blanch at the description, but screw 'em: Ça Va is a pop album, pure and, luckily, not very simple. ¡¡¡¡

Pidgin Let There Be Work (Hoopdog)

Remember that dazzling era 15 to 20 years ago when new wave was still new, bands wore leopard skin jackets, goofy neon sunglasses, spiked hair and skinny ties, and the most overused adjective in record reviews was "quirky"? Mike Tittel and Pat O'Callaghan sure do. As Pidgin, the Cincinnati, Ohio, duo have come up with Let There Be Work, a new wave album two decades late.

The opening track sets the pace: the manic, helium-filled "New York Is Heaven" sounds even more like Go 2-era XTC than the Sugarplastic do, mixed with bits of Residents-esque tape-splice loopiness. Over the course of the next 14 songs, strong echoes of parrot-hair-and-makeup-era Split Enz ("Gravity"), Whomp That Sucker-vintage Sparks ("The Underachiever's Club"), Texas loonies The Judy's ("Dirty Reptiles"), Madness' post-ska period ("Money For Love") and Oingo Boingo (the brass-inflected, reggae-tinged "The Ambassadors") prevail.

O'Callaghan's prolix lyrics tumble out quickly even on relatively slow tracks like the organ-inflected "New Shoes." This song and the next, "El Camino," are smart-assed character studies of urban hipsters and mulleted heshers, but there's never anything particularly mean-spirited about them. Tittel's three songs, especially the downright sweet and incredibly catchy "Gravity," are more pure pop than O'Callaghan's dizzying twists. Even after the weird electronic intro, his "Napoleon's Pigeon" is jangly, acoustic-guitar-based pop. To return to the XTC comparison, Tittel is Colin Moulding to O'Callaghan's Andy Partridge. The album's sole co-composition, "You're Probably Sleeping," illustrates their eclecticism, switching sounds and styles every 30 seconds or so as O'Callaghan spits out lines like "soul-searching is no way to meet females" between the sweetly-harmonized choruses.

Between them, O'Callaghan and Tittel play nearly every instrument on Let There Be Work, save only some bass work by southern Ohio power pop legend Bob Nyswonger and a track's worth of horns. Amazingly, the album doesn't have the hermetic, stuffy sound you might expect from a studio-based duo. The album does sound artificial, but then, it's supposed to. This is new wave, after all. If you still have fond memories of the first days of MTV--even if you only admit it to yourself--you're gonna love this. ¡¡¡ ¡

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