Solar flares burn for you
by Ian Simmons
[ cdreviews ]
Robert Wyatt CDs: you wait for years, then three come along at once. Well, two, anyway. First there was last year's glorious Cuckooland, with its expansive, relaxed cheerful sprawl, the work of a man at the peak of his creative powers; and hard on its heels, this archive release, Solar Flares Burn for You.
As you might imagine with something archival, it is a bit more of a curate's egg than Cuckooland, particularly as it spans a period from 1972 to the present and includes radio sessions, film soundtracks and other pieces from a variety of sources. The gems here, and easily worth the purchase price alone, are four songs from his early solo albums Rock Bottom and Ruth is Stranger Than Richard, re-recorded for a Top Gear session. Based around a muscular organ sound, these versions are much more uproarious and rocking than the rather more ethereal album versions, particularly Soup Song, while the version of Wyatt's only hit, a cover of the Neil Diamond/Monkees number I'm a Believer is far superior to the hit version, bringing an energy and immediacy lacking on the original release.
Elsewhere the offering is far more equivocal. There is the soundtrack to a 1973 experimental film collaboration with Arthur John (best known for special effects on the Superman films) that does not entirely stand up on its own. The good news is that Cuneiform have recognised this and you can find a Quicktime video of the film on the disc too. The bad news is that it is an archetypal Seventies "art" film: people roll and smoke joints; a mime artist prannets around Notting Hill annoying passers-by... Need I say more? The music does seem better in context, however. There is some more recent loop-based work collaborating with Hugh Hopper, two tracks, Blimey O'Riley and 'Twas Brillig which showcase Wyatt's splendid, wonky trumpet playing, but, when all things are considered, are minor additions to the canon. Much of the rest is a second early radio session with Curved Air keyboard player Francis Monkman, and this is largely undistinguished, with a couple of dated agit-pop political nursery rhymes (We Got an Arts Council Grant and Righteous Rumba) which are thoroughly throw-away, and the sentimental Danny Kaye (!) tribute Little Child - OK, he may have been a childhood Wyatt inspiration, but that still doesn't make him listenable, and pastiches, however successful... The splendidly sarcastic scat singing on Fol De Rol is rather fun though. The final track is a recent solo demo, The Verb, an anti-religious rumination, but not Wyatt at his best. It harks back to the right-on sentiments of some of the earliest stuff, but in truth Wyatt does not write political well - he is far too direct, earnest and doctrinaire, and it is notable that his most successful political song, Shipbuilding, was written by Elvis Costello.
So, this is a worthwhile disc that brings a few interesting Wyatt gems to light and explores some lesser-known corners of his career, but it is, in the end, a minor additon to the Wyatt oeuvre.