The Art Bears

Winter Songs/The World As It Is Today

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The second and third albums by the Art Bears, 1979's Winter Songs and 1981's The World As It Is Today, were originally released on the Residents' Ralph Records before Chris Cutler reissued them on a single CD in 1997 on his own Recommended imprint. Winter Songs is the odd man out of the group's three albums, a set of brief songs based on themes taken from the engravings at Amiens Cathedral. A solemn but not at all humorless record, this is actually the Art Bears' most accessible release. Unlike the group's first album, there are no outside players on Winter Songs (or for that matter, The World As It Is Today), and the relative sparseness of Cutler's drums and Fred Frith's stunning guitar and violin work sets Dagmar Krause's vocals into stark relief. The closing "Three Wheels" is a triumph of tape loops and dreamy, Satie-like piano under Krause's overdubbed harmonies, sounding rather like a far more daring and discordant version of what Kate Bush would be doing in the next decade. The album's pinnacle, however, is the clattering "Rats and Monkeys," three manic minutes of Krause's caterwauling vocals; Frith's most out-there, free-noise guitar runs; and Cutler playing as if he has six arms, each clutching a Louisville Slugger. It's the prog rock track to play for punk fans who think the style was nothing but Jon Anderson twittering about elves. 1981's The World As It Is Today returns to the explicitly political themes of the trio's days as part of Henry Cow, with that group's dry, academic qualities largely supplanted by a more urgent, insistent feel both musically and lyrically. The lyrics are despairing but defiant, looking at the world as it was in 1981, the dawn of the Reagan/Thatcher era, with a bleak sense of humor and a biting anger, most notably on the howling "Song of the Martyrs," which features the most pop-song-like chorus of the group's entire career. Simultaneously musically complex and sonically stripped down, The World As It Is Today can be a difficult record to penetrate, but it's most rewarding for those who make the attempt.

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