Review Summary: A challenging, yet semi-normal debut from two greatly experimental musicians.
Skeleton Crew were doomed from the start. Fred Frith and Tom Cora both come from hugely experimental backgrounds, play classical instruments in non-classical ways, shun rock in their own efforts, and are damn near impossible to make marketable. In spite of that, the band's first album, Learn To Talk, is an absolute delight that is both challenging and rewarding. From the first half of the album (tracks 1-7), called Side Free on the vinyl, come the more experimental songs. And Side Dirt has slightly easier to access material that could fit on the radio if the radio had an open mind and freedom. Rants aside, the album serves as a slightly dated yet wholly interesting album from the '80s.
Que Viva, Onwards and Upwards, and The Way Things Fall (Back Apart) run together to create a gorgeous melange of cello, guitar, and Casio drums mixed with real drums. A suite of sorts that serves up a steaming dish of music that leaves the listener already satisfied. Not My Shoes features vocals from both members of the band in a frantic, almost screaming fashion while retaining the base of Cora's superb cello work. The Washington Post is a re-edit by Cora that uses heavy gating and grating noise to create the precursor to Too Young by Venetian Snares, We're Still Free is another vocal piece, featuring a hilarious yet dark vocal loop that repeats under the vocals in a way most Negativland-y. Closing Side Free is Victoryville, a nice laid back tune that uses a malfunctioning tape player that played both sides of a tape at once to create a sonic landscape that is both perilous and beautiful.
Los Colitos/Life at the Top opens up Side Dirt in a manner most fitting--poppier tunes that still retain nicely off-kilter instrumentation that never quite fits the mood. Quickly giving way to Learn to Talk, a song that could serve as a wonderful lead single, Life at the Top is a semi-political song that wears out its welcome a little bit. That title song is damn catchy and probably makes Side Dirt the most appealing side of the entire disc. I can't really describe the song, except to say it's feverish while capturing some early-Police-ish sounds. Factory Song is the single most challenging thing on the entire album, with a long outro of Frith screaming his lungs out over metallic sounds probably generated by Cora's intriguing methods of banging and scraping the cello. It's Fine's drums never meet up in time or unison with the guitars, and the vocals scream "white reggae from Hell" until the chorus comes in and makes some completely ***ed up surf punk song, complete with random samples near the end. The overall theme of freedom features in all samples, but the method of choosing them is never really discernible. Closer Zach's Flag is vaguely tropical as Frith and Cora interlock to create the ultimate cruise song complete with reverb-laden guitars sliding smoothly between intervals over a calypso bass. Cora's flourishes of cello are a welcome snap back to the roots of the band, that is until the old drum machine comes in with cliched rim taps and crisp cymbals. All in all, though, Zach's Flag is a fitting ending, reviving the energy of the opening triumvirate of tunes.
In an interview, Frith told why Skeleton Crew broke up: "We actually started to sound like a normal rock and roll band so it seemed kind of pointless to go on at that point." Learn To Talk steps on the border of normal rock and roll while pushing that line as far as it will go until it breaks into a million pieces. Even during normal moments like Zach's Flag and Learn to Talk, the instrumentation (especially Tom Cora's contributions) makes the music anything BUT normal. Recently, Fred Records has re-released this album in a set with Skeleton Crew's second album. However, this review was generated using my original vinyl copy.