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coverpic flag England - Full Moon 87 - 11/09/03

Robert Wyatt
Hannibal Records/Rykodisc

Cuckoo mesdames et messieurs! Robert Wyatt has only released four real albums since the mid 70s. We've had memorable years in 1986 (Old Rottenhat), 1991 (Dondestan), 1997 (Shleep) and now again with Cuckooland. Our thirst for more have been quenched in between by singles, EPs, an instrumental soundtrack-album, an instrumental mini-album, the odd track on samplers and numerous contributions to other artists' records. But still, the release of a real new Wyatt-album is a rare and awaited moment.

Cuckooland was a bit overwhelming at first with 16 new tracks and 75 minutes of music. A pause of thirty seconds halfway through for tired ears was a clever move. When he was a schoolboy, Robert - much to his father's despair - traded his violin for a trumpet. He couldn't play his newly acquired instrument, but the young bebop-head thought it was cool to carry around on a string. Well, his trumpet playing has improved during the 40-45 years since then. Shleep included the instrument on four tracks. Cuckooland has his trumpet or cornet almost all over the place. Along with saxophone, clarinet or trombone on some of the songs, it gives the album a jazzier flavour than any of Robert's other recorded output since Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard way back in 1975. Most notably "Old Europe" where our man recalls his early musical interests and dreams of jazz venues in Paris at night during the 1940s and 50s, including the romance between Juliette Greco and Miles Davies in the city (that didn't survive the new world - New York). "Brian The Fox" and the opening track "Just A Bit" are dominated by jazzy wind instruments, too, but also include another characteristic of the album: floating and swirling keyboards. The latter two songs served as sort of key-tracks for me to dig deeper into the land of cuckoos.

As with Shleep most of the album is recorded at Phil Manzanera's studio and he is helped out by him and other notabilities such as Brian Eno (singing and playing one last note of a song!), David Gilmour and Paul Weller. Contributions by three women are more important, though. Robert's wife Alfreda Benge has written several of the lyrics, one complete song and made the artwork. Annie Whitehead plays trombone on six songs and Karen Mantler (daughter of Carla Bley and Michael Mantler whom Robert has worked with on several occasions) sings and plays harmonica and keyboards on four songs, including three she's written herself. Several others have also been involved, not least engineer, bass player, vocalist and co-producer Jamie Johnson. And there is Robert, of course, playing the already mentioned trumpet and cornet as well as keyboards, percussion, Karenotron and Eno's toys in addition to his characteristic normally high-pitched voice. In an interview he recently described the latter as punk on valium!

Enough formalities, let's move on to the actual songs. They mainly deal with injustice and moods. The ex-member of the British Communist Party is still committed. "Evil lurks in all our hearts. Just beware!" He's concerned with the faith of the gypsies, now ("White wolf waits, grey wolf howls, at the girl by the river's edge") and then ("Her song rises up, from the ashes of Auschwitz, ...") in "Forest". "Lullaby For Hamza" deals with the bombing of Iraq by the Bush family & co. in 1991 (Gulf War) and earlier this year (Saddam War). It is sad, so sad, underlined by the accordion. The last track "La Ahada Yalam (No-one Knows)" a little further to the west, in a Palestine refugee camp, is even sadder. Originally sung in Arabic, here it's a slow thoughtful instrumental, a last remainder with a translation into English of the original lyrics printed in the booklet. It's the only track of the album without the Wyatt-stamp all over, and still so appropriate. The lyrics of "Foreign Accents" consists of namedropping: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Vanunu, Mossadegh. Mordechai Vanunu is an Israeli scientist who revealed that Israel had secretly produced nuclear weapons. He has been a prisoner of conscience for the last 17 years. Prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh nationalised Iranian oil industry. He was removed by the British and Americans in 1953 and spent 25 years in prison and house arrest during the Shah period. Some parallel to today's incidents? Robert knows very well his statements won't change anything, yet ....

"Raining In My Heart" is another cover of a song in instrumental costume, an American standard by Bryant and Bryant. Only Robert playing the piano. Not technical brilliant, yet perfect in a way. The last and only cover version with lyrics is "Insensatez", about an insensitive rejection of a declaration of love. Another slow and sad song. Robert sings the first two verses of the icy cold woman (I guess) who turns the adorer away without a word, Karen Mantler the last two. Still it sounds like it could have been one of Robert's self penned songs based on his own experiences. Strange! You must believe Cuckooland is filled with gushingly sentimental ballads in minor keys. Not completely! Alfreda's "Lullaloop" is a merry, silly, surrealistic something up half the hill backwards - with guitar solo and all! Apart from "Old Europe", "Trickle Down" is the most jazzy song on the album with double bass, lots of brass and cymbals all over, lively and quick. "Tom Hay's Fox" and parts of "Brian The Fox" are floating, discreet and mystic; muzak in the Eno vein at times, with only a few words shrouded in mist. Karen Mantler's songs and voice prove she is daughter of her mother and must've had a jazz-inspired upbringing. Especially "Beware" is spine chilling stuff with those swirling keyboards and dynamic drums, whereas woolly "Life Is Sheep" would've fit perfectly on Shleep if Robert had slept on a sheep on the cover instead of a dove.

Cuckooland is a most welcomed addition to the Robert Wyatt catalogue and a strong and natural continuation of Shleep. I guess in the long run I will return more often to Shleep than Cuckooland because of the latter's jazzier leanings. Yet with tracks like "Just A Bit", "Beware", "Insensatez", Lullaloop" and "La Ahada Yalam" etc. I guess we're already talking about another classic Wyatt-album. A week prior to the full moon, Norway's leading recordstore-chain ran a campaign where Cuckooland among other quality albums were offered at budget price in ads in the largest papers. And I recently saw the album on top of a list of this year's records that deserve more publicity. There must be some justice in this world, after all!

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

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