Friday, February 25, 2011

Hugh Cornwell & Robert Williams - Nosferatu

Nosferatu (1979) **1/2

This is either a 0 or 5 star album depending upon the listener's proloctivities, and thus the average mean of 2.5 is mathematically derived.  Actually, it's not that extreme: pairing with then-Magic Band drummer Robert Williams, Cornwell's first solo effort not so unexpectedly sounds like a self-consciously bizarre cross of the Stranglers and Captain Beefheart.  It's as much Williams' showcase as Cornwell's - though they are Hugh's songs, his rhythmic clatterings help give the album quirky sonic flavoring.  Forget my first sentence - it's pretty accessible compared to most of Beefheart's music.  But what isn't?  This is dark, challenging, and unaccessible music by almost anyone else's standards.  Combining goth atmosopherics and tunecraft (just look at the cover and title - Nosferatu was the name of a silent vampire film classic) with the angular discordance of Beefheart is an ambitious move - and while this album can be an interesting listen, it's not always an enjoyable listen.  This challenging music too often demands more from the listener than repeated listens eventually deliver.

The problem is not so much the sound - which is, after all, what's intriguing here - but the songs, which seem too self-consciously quirky and offbeat (in both the weird and rhythmic sense) to fully work.  On first listen, the only track that stood out in memory was a fair cover of Cream's "White Room,"; but that's because it's the only song here that's even remotely commercial, and was likely thrown on the LP simply to ensure at least some airplay & sales.  Not that there aren't some poppy moments - the closer, "Puppets," is pure electropop, and "Wrong Way Round," is nice'n'sleazy Stranglified pub rock anchored in choppily angular Beefheartesque guitar squiggle.  So you can see how even the poppier numbers have too many discordant edges to go down smoothly; every time you latch onto what resembles a danceable beat, Williams deliberately throws the rhythm off-kilter, and every time Cornwell delivers a smart hook, the hook gets too smart for itself and twists in a contrary direction.  The title track that opens the longplayer may get its hooks jammed too fast but at least it's fast and barely over a minute & a half long, and has the distinction of being perhaps the first (only?) example of Goth No Wave.  "Wired," is even more No Wave-ish with its honkingly atonal saxes and crosswire rhythms, and abjurance of melody - Cornwell plays his vocals for odd rhythms rather than melodics.  The approach isn't so effective on creepy crawlers like "Losers in a Lost Land," and "Big Bug," which seem to stretch on endlessly at their respective 4 1/2 and 5 1/2 minutes.  "Irate Caterpillar," is perhaps the emblematic track, in that there's nice psychedelic pop number inside, if you squint at it hard enough, but so doused up in quirkily discordant Beefheart-isms that you wouldn't notice at first.

Verdict: frustrating.  After repeated listens I've grown to sort of like this album, but I can't in good conscience really recommend it for the average listener.  Certainly not an unsuspecting Stranglers fan, as aside from Cornwell's trademark vocal mannerisms, there's little here resembling his band's more polished and commercial material.  Perhaps some of the weirder tunes on Black and White - imagine an entire album of tracks like "Do You Wanna?" and "Rise of the Robots".  If that prospect sounds appealing, then indulge in this indulgence.  It's easy to see why Cornwell felt that he had to do this album outside of the Stranglers, as the music herein is considerably removed from that band's sound.  An interesting experimental sidetrack to footnote the Stranglers' ouvre.     

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