Frogg Cafe - Bateless Edge

From the state of New York come the marvellously diverse Frogg Cafe. Formerly a Zappa cover band, they released their eponymous debut in 2002. Bateless Edge released last month is their 4th studio album proper, and easily their most ambitious effort to date. Here's the line up for this album:

- Bill Ayasse / violin, viola, mandolin, hand percussion, vocals
- Frank Camiola / electric guitar, banjo, string bass
- James Guarnieri / drums, glockenspiel, orchestral percussion
- John Lieto / trombone and bass trombone
- Nick Lieto / lead vocals, piano, keyboards, trumpet, flugelhorn
- Andrew Sussman / electric bass, cello, acoustic guitar

Guest musicians

- Sharon Ayasse / flute (3, 4, 5, 6, 8)
- Dennis Lippe / electric guitar (1, 7)
- Dee Harris / indian slide guitar, tambora (1)
- Nitim Mohan / tabla (1)
- Vessela Stoyanova / marimba (1, 4, 5, 6)
- Michael Kollmer / marimba, xylophone (3, 8)
- Jon Preddice / cello (3, 8)
- Steven Sussman / clarinet, bass clarinet (4, 5, 6, 8)
- Steve Kastikas / keyboards (4)
- Mike Kauffman / alto and tenor saxophones (8)

You may expect from that that a complex sound will evolve, and you would not be disappointed! 
 
The album consists of eight tracks spanning 77 minutes, so there are no off the cuff pop tunes here matey! The highly personal lyrical themes touch on child adoption and the 9/11 tragedy, the latter is also apparent from the artwork. This is done sensitively where it could so easily have been seen as mawkish to those of us detached by thousands of miles, not to mention our countrymen regularly returning home in boxes from Afghanistan as a consequence - anyhow, that's not a debate for these pages.
 
The first track Terra Sancta deals directly with 9/11 and is lyrically very moving. Musically it's a great piece of orchestral ensemble playing, which at times in the main theme if comparisons have to be made reminds me of Kashmir, in that it carries a similar sense of foreboding. There's a great guitar break about 8 minutes in backed by scat piano, the main theme returning at the end but in a more optimistic vein. A great arrangement and an awesome start to the album.

Following this is an instrumental Move Over I'm Driving, which after the intense first track calms things down a little. there appear to be no added musicians on this track, but the group themselves give another fine show of ensemble playing. Some nice time signature shifts and arpeggio violin work flows smoothly into subtle jazz guitar noodling and trumpet blowin'and is a fine piece of work. There sure are some highly competent musos in this band....

Next up is Pasta Fazeuhl. Fans will know that a lot of the band's more improvised work ends up being named after types of pasta, and this one invents a new Teutonic strain. Get your local Italian restaurant to patent it lads! This one apparently started life way back in 2003 after seeing Magma play live and is described as "not in the style of Magma....(but) in the spirit (of).." The band stamp their own jazz-classical style on this "tribute", if that's the right word. Less angular than Magma, who I have always struggled with to be honest, this excursion into weirdness has a touch of Sun Ra in there somewhere too, which is no bad thing. Around 5 minutes in the cacophony halts abruptly, and a cyclical bass riff is slowly built on by violin, guitar, drums and gradually builds into a very strange sometimes almost Crimsoid section, in who knows what time signature! Weird but good.
On first hearing I found this one hard work, but repeated listens have made me appreciate just what great players FC are.

Now we have the centre piece of the album - Under Wuhu Sun - a 20 minute epic split into 3 parts. Another highly personal lyric from Andrew Sussman based on "Wuhu Diary: On Taking My Daughter Back To Her Home Town In China" by Emily Prager, and on his own family's experiences in their trials and tribulations adopting their daughter from China.
Starting with a slow theme, the sad emotive song of the first part is followed by a nice guitar break that lifts the mood while still remaining introspective. The instrumental second part opens with a chugging riff, followed by a slower quieter but still intricate piece of ensemble playing and forms a bridge to the concluding third part. The opening of the final section is the most Zappaesque instrumentally, but still retains the by now recognisable Frogg Cafe style. A nice clarinet followed by trombone (I think) solo comes in at around the 3 minute mark leading to a nice bubblingly fluid guitar noodle - mmmmm, nice!
I've only had the opportunity to listen to this track a few times but it's already in danger of becoming my favourite piece by the band.

Following this is From The Fence, the only track with lyrics not by Andrew Sussman. This time writing duties are taken by Nick Leito, and they are more ambiguous than his band mate's. The song could be interpreted in a number of ways, suffice to say the protagonist seems to be unable to make up his mind which way to turn. Whether personally, politically, emotionally I can't say, I'll leave that up to you. This is also the straightest "song" on the album, not that it suffers in any way for it. Quite uplifting, it must be in a major key (don't hold me to that)!

The final track Belgian Boogie Board was originally written for 2 clarinets and 2 electric basses and has now had all manner of extraneous instrumentation added and fair belts along with joyous mischief for its 10 minutes.

All in all this is a highly ambitious work and is deserving of far more attention than it will inevitably receive. How on earth the band find time to write the songs and complex orchestral arrangements, and oversee the recording in tandem with their day jobs and the usual stuff of daily life, families etc, is beyond me. If their was any justice they should be able to at least make a living from this astounding music.



Amazingly unavailable on Amazon.com!!

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A very rare 5 out of 5 ********************************
#16

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