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coverpic flag England - Luna Kafé - Full Moon 13 - 11/14/97

Robert Wyatt
Shleep
Hannibal Records

Little Red Robin is back! Shleep is his 6th ordinary solo album in 27 years. Though we've been blessed with his participation on Soft Machine and Matching Mole albums, a soundtrack album, several extraordinary singles, compilations and guest appearances in addition. Since his last album Dondestan in 1991, Virgin and Rough Trade have put together one interesting compilation album each in connection with the release of the highly recommended Wyatt biography Wrong Movements. Robert also lent his voice to Ultramarine's hip (at the time) ambient house album United Kingdoms (1993) and John Greaves' beautiful Songs (1995). Get'em while you can! There's a brief introduction to Robert's early career with the Soft Machine in Luna Kafé's June edition (soup section).

Since his fatal fall in 1973 which put him in a wheelchair, the voice has been the musical focal point of the former drummer and singer. And a mournful, melancholy, nasal and beautiful voice it is. I guess Robert could sing almost any song and make it sound unique and highly personal. Rumours said Shleep was to be closer to Robert's masterpiece Rock Bottom (1974) than any of his other albums. Indeed it is! Old Rotten Hat (1985) and Dondestan (1991) were very much solo efforts. On Shleep he is helped out by old and new friends and admirers such as Brian Eno, Phil Manzanera, Philip Catherine, Evan Parker and Paul Weller. Manzanera generously lent Robert his studio for the recording of the album. Robert didn't have to worry about studio time, which seems to have influenced the recordings. The songs are mostly very relaxed - and slow. Though the sublime presence of the helpers are audible throughout, it is very much a Robert Wyatt album. His voice, percussion, cheap keyboard and melodies see to that. He even demonstrates his talents as a bass player now and again. Only the opening track Heaps Of Sheeps seems to share influences from someone else: from the arranger and producer of the song; Eno of course. It almost sounds as if it could have been included on one of Eno's merry vocal-dominated albums of the mid 70's.

The lyrics - by Robert and his wife Alfreda (Alfie) Benge - deal with everyday life. The earlier convinced Euro-commie is not preaching the gospel anymore. He has even left the Communist Party, I've heard. Now he's more concerned with lack of sleep. Most of Robert's lyrics were written during endless weeks of fevered insomnia. Shleep is a combination of 'sleep' and 'sheep'. You count sheep when you can't sleep. Clever, isn't it? I have used some of Robert's songs on a couple of earlier occasions to relax when I was unable to sleep. And most of the songs on Shleep - naturally - can be used the same way. They are not sleeping pills, only slow, calm and beautiful songs to put your mind and soul at ease. Free Will And Testament (with great and gentle guitar treatment by Weller), Alien (ditto by Manzanera), September The Ninth and Out Of Season are classy Wyatt-offerings of this category. The latter two have lyrics by Alfie dealing with birds which seem to dominate the Benge/Wyatt neighbourhood. They live close to recreational areas for human beings and birds. Was A Friend was written with former Soft Machine colleague Hugh Hopper and has some tense undercurrents. I'm not sure if it's only about a bad dream or also has to do with Robert's last days with the Machine. The real gem of the album is Maryan, made in collaboration with Belgian guitarist Philip Catherine. The blend of guitar, double bass, violin and Robins trumpet(!) is superb throughout. And the song is one of those classic Wyatt-ballads along with Soft Machine's She's Gone (the Joe Boyd produced version) and Dedicated To You But You Weren't Listening, Matching Mole's O Caroline, Robert's own Sea Song and War Without Blood and his versions of Memories, Strange Fruit, Shipbuilding, Around Midnight etc.

If I have to mention any negative aspects of the album, it has to be A Sunday In Madrid with lots words by Alfie and a rather dull melody. I much prefer Blues In Bob Minor with even more words. It's filled with funny and playful word association and reminds me of some early Bob Dylan song. God (and Bob) only knows if the Bob of the title is Bob Wyatt or Zimmerman.

Robert Wyatt was far ahead of his time with Rock Bottom 23 years ago. Shleep is not pushing any boundaries. The Duchess is the only track with traces of a will to experiment. (Robert is playing a Polish fiddle!) To me he is one of the very few artists that doesn't need to change and might repeat himself over and over again without losing any interest. As long as his voice remains the same and he writes half as lovely songs as the ones on Shleep, I'll be satisfied. Shleep is his best album of new songs in a very long time.

Copyright © 1997 JP e-mail address

You may also want to check out our Robert Wyatt articles/reviews: '68, Comicopera, Cuckooland, Different Every Time, Rock Bottom.

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