Which Side Are You On?
Red Note 11

For4Ears CD 1551

Of all the weird and wonderful vocalists — note not singers — associated with Free Music, Britain’s Phil Minton, 64, probably has the most legitimacy, not to mention longevity.

Someone who started off as a trumpeter and vocalist with Mike Westbrook’s Orchestra in the mid-1960s, he’s long since abandoned the horn, along with most conventional songs. His usual output is a cornucopia of yowls, grunts, shrills, retches and gargles. Meanwhile his associations have expanded from the cream of BritImprov, including drummer Roger Turner, reedist John Butcher and — regularly since 1987 — pianist Veryan Weston, to interested players from the Continent, North America and Japan.

WHICH SIDE ARE YOU ON? and the enigmatically titled Q are equally memorable because they show two little exposed sides of Minton’s art. The former, recorded by the co-op band 4Walls — Minton, Weston, Dutch bassist Luc Ex and American drummer Michael Vatcher — is a extraordinary disc where the vocalist actually sings words — and it includes a lyrics sheet so you can follow them.

As should be obvious from the title, this is a rare piece of agit-prop from the FreeImprov world, dedicated to, and featuring on four out of the 11 tracks, musical settings of the words of the late Paul Haines. As a salute to the poet who lived near Toronto and is described by Minton as one of “the secret carnival workers” it works spectacularly well.

Single letter Q is a different matter. Recorded at a French festival, Minton’s vocal onomatopoeia is added to the cascading computer and machine manipulation of the Poire_Z quartet. Consisting of long-time electronic explorers, Günter Müller on ipod, minidisks, selected percussion and electronics and Norbert Möslang and Andy Guhl on cracked everyday-electronics — all Swiss-based — and Frenchman ErikM on 3k_pad.system, the band textures so overwhelm Minton’s contributions that he’s usually buried beneath the hardware and software.

Starting with the superior product, 4Walls adds music to an astonishing collection of lyrics. They range from the near-Dadaistic lyrics of Haines and Brit Lou Ganfield to the serious poetics of the late Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Mihn, plus songs by Jacques Brel, Robert Schumann — in German [!] — and the American folksong that gives the CD its title.

Perhaps it’s a nationalist tendency, but to be honest, Minton sounds most comfortable singing Ganfield’s “The skunk hath farted” [sic] and “Class Struggle”. Both feature a musical hall lilt, with Weston chiming in on the choruses, making the two appear like a couple of George Formby Sr. clones. The later is taken at a breakneck speed, while the former — actually an anti-Ku Klux Klan mockery — includes an outright swing section from the pianist, a walking bass line and balanced flams and bounces from the drummer.

Often sounding as if their incongruous imagery comes from an unholy collaboration between Ogden Nash and Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Haines’ four pieces can also be performed in vaudevillian fashion. His bizarre wordplay meshes with the band’s natural musical anarchism. “Not all olives have pits: An under funded sense of wonderment”, for instance, is treated as a parlor ballad with Minton whispering the lyrics, that are amplified with sympathetic vibrations from Weston. Additionally, the wordplay on “If there are individuals you can tell from a distance don’t like garlic” causes the vocalist to not only use his natural and falsetto voices, but to indulge in a few cackles and gargles at the end, as the band plays jazz-inflected accompaniment.

Even more remarkable are the Ho pieces. “On reading, ‘Anthology of 1000 poets’” features strummed bass guitar chords and flashing octaves from the piano, while Minton proves his natural tenor is quiet pleasant. On the other hand, “A milestone” almost turns into rock music complete with drum backbeat and simple strumming from the bassist, as Minton exposes his inner Ozzy Osbourne.

The other three performances are less appealing. Schumann’s “Im Rhein” features the most extensive instrumental work with thundering drums and overactive piano. A deconstructed, metallic guitar run and pumping piano cadenzas detract from the title tune and Minton’s delivery appears a bit too plumy and properly British to bring gravitates to lyrics written for the Kentucky miners’ union in 1931. Finally, when dealing with “Ces gens-la” written by an astute song genius like Brel, Minton reduces the portraits to a series of grotesques as he sing-talks the lyrics accompanied by near anthematic playing from Weston.

If WHICH SIDE has a few missteps, Q may be mistaken journey. Salvageable is “q oder z”, which at fewer than five minutes gives Minton appropriate space in which to burble, buzz and whoop vocal tones on top of textures that range from the quivering sound of cicadas to the rhythmic drone of a car motor turning over on a damp day.

Most of the time, though, it’s difficult to find Minton among the liquid swizzles, oscillating highs and fluttering lows that make up the more than 39-minute “w oder q”. Oh you can hear some dark barks, strangled, drowning cries, guttural growls, stentorian mutterings, demonic laughs and his ever-popular duck quacking from time to time. But with four electro-acoustians going full blast, his vocals are an afterthought or an add-on.

Throughout, the timbres heard include vinyl record hisses, wiggling electronic buzzes, air raid siren explosions and turntable movements. The four instrumentalists are capable of coming up with the most hushed and delicate tones that can resemble a jew’s harp being vibrated, computer and turntable surfaces being scratched and crystal glasses sliding along a shiny surface. But they can also produce intermittent rhythmic sine wave patterns and buzzing, sped-up slinky loops, not to mention whistles that are mechanized, motorized and carefully modulated.

When in the final few minutes the scraped, bell-like resonation turns louder with splayed tones and shooting star echoes, Minton’s verbal response sounds alternately like an old man muttering to himself and an infant crying. His final exhaled choke, which suggests a man being slowly squeezed within a cybernetic vise, may be as symbolic as it is metaphoric.

Poire_Z may rate an A or B+ for its work on Q, but Minton can only received a T for Trying, with cumulative realization closer to a C or D+. Meanwhile WHICH SIDE is not only a fine side of coated plastic, but a fitting vocal memorial to Haines, the lyricist of Carla Bley’s ESCALATOR OVER THE HILL among other major projects.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: q: 1. w oder q 2. q oder Z

Personnel: q: Günter Müller (ipod, minidisks, selected percussion and electronics); ErikM (3k_pad.system); Norbert Möslang and Andy Guhl (cracked everyday-electronics); Phil Minton (voice)

Track Listing: Which: 1. Airport insecurity 2. On reading, ‘Anthology of 1000 poets’ 3. Ces gens-la 4. Tales from the Hindu Tush 5. The skunk hath farted 6. If there are individuals you can tell from a distance don’t like garlic 7. 8. Class Struggle 9. Not all olives have pits: An under funded sense of wonderment 10. A milestone 11. In Rhein

Personnel: Which: Phil Minton (voice); Veryan Weston (piano and voice); Luc Ex (bass); Michael Vatcher (percussion)