Slapp Happy

Ça Va

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Released in 1998, Slapp Happy's Ça Va was the first album issued by the trio of Dagmar Krause, Peter Blegvad, and Anthony Moore since the mid-'70s collaboration with Henry Cow, Desperate Straights. The arty instrumentation and arrangements of the early days -- which ranged from a rather twisted version of British folk-pop to avant cabaret to (in collaboration with Henry Cow) confrontational art rock and even pure sonic experimentation -- are gone, replaced by a more commercial blend of pop music sounds, including looped samples. Nearly everything is played by Blegvad and Moore, whose vocals sound as engaging as they ever have, with Blegvad the literate and somewhat eccentric transatlantic singer/songwriter and Moore mining moodier John Cale-styled pop/rock territory. Dagmar, however, has nearly abandoned the more boldly uncompromising and theatrical features of her earlier singing with both Slapp Happy and the Art Bears; she retains aspects of her highly original and idiosyncratic vocal style while sounding much more straightforward and at times even romantic. So has Slapp Happy sold out? If you equate broadly appealing music with selling out, perhaps, but because Ça Va is probably Slapp Happy's most accessible effort does not detract from the album's artistry. In fact, the threesome has rarely sounded better. From the first words of "Scarred for Life," as Dagmar sings "Leave me something to remember you by, more than a lock of your hair/Leave me scarred for life, show you really care," it is clear that this is not pop lite. The track features the layered sounds of tremolo guitar, harpsichord, other ethereal keyboards, and deep bass and percussion, with Dagmar intimately forward in the mix. The sound of backward guitar at the song's fade brings in elements of psychedelic pop that also surface elsewhere on the album -- always employed as a bit of sonic flavor and never overindulgent. (The work of producer Laurie Latham -- contemporary yet seemingly geared to listeners attuned to the most creative pop/rock work of Brian Eno, Roxy Music, Talking Heads, and even late-'60s Beatles -- immediately impresses.) In an era when post-rock experimentalism is most likely to garner a band critical favor and cult status, Ça Va seems almost defiantly catchy in its infectious dance-flavored material, including "Moon Lovers" and "Working at the Ministry." In fact, nearly everything on Ça Va is a fine example of pop songcraft -- intelligent, literate, and wry as one would expect from Slapp Happy and with a sense of maturity that casts earlier days in a reflective light. "I was a child then/But I would do the same again," Dagmar sings on "Child Then," adding, "My counsel is my own to keep, and yes my conscience lets me sleep." Krause, Blegvad, and Moore performed some lasting, quirky, yet serious pop music back in the days when they were comparative children, but Ça Va might be the best place to begin investigating them, seasoned by the years yet still retaining a sense of adventure.

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