This long forgotten Chicago band was formed in mid-1970s as a quartet of Christine Baczewska, Sher Doruff, Victor Sanders and Kevin Clark. The first three survived long enough to leave this highly original item to posterity.
The band relied largely on the combination of Baczewska’s vocal talents and Sanders’s imaginative engineering, with more than a dollop of Doruff’s compositional and multi-instrumentalist skills. Relying on vocal polyphonies and very transparent instrumentation, the band’s relationship with melody often seemed entirely accidental.
Baczewska’s and Doruff’s voices are the leading instruments here, benefiting from ingenious multi-tracking. The vocalscapes accelerate and decelerate at will, confronting the listener with dizzying transformations of pitch, volume and energy. This is achieved without abrupt cut-ups, which would have probably dominated had this recording been made in the sampling era…
Breezy female vocal polyphonies sometimes brought comparisons with more widely known Raincoats, but even at “Odyshape” the London girls were more straightforwardly ‘rock’.
Care of the Cow folded in 1983, and the artists’ recording activity has been rather sparse since then.
We first hear a tape recording of a child singing the 1957 evergreen “Just Walking in the Rain”. From a swirling electronic loop gradually surfaces a vocal part, instantly subjected to dynamic swells and accelerations. Doubled up by a second alto and a breezy guitar, the feeling is almost Lusitanian, but suffused with faulty intonation, split notes and recurrent hysteresis. The moods, the scales and the volumes keep sliding, exposing sudden pitch changes. The melody will advance only when the rhythm guitar and bells steady its progression, prefiguring Seattle’s Tone Dogs by several years. Sher Doruff’s rustling twelve-string guitar is resplendescent here. After another taped intermission (a children’s party) the voice-as-instrument treatments return. The ascensions are portamento, but the gear shifts are so prevalent that you can’t help checking if the speedometer on your turntable does not reveal any problems with the equipment. It is remarkable how polyrhythmic the band can get with only Victor Sanders’s acoustic guitar as the only explicitly rhythm instrument.
Eternally at Work
An a capella intro is delivered in Anglo-Celtic style. Witty multi-tracking superimposes lyrical polyphony. Still, the disturbed hierarchy between the first and second voice destroys any tonal expectations. The chest voice belches out: “And after all these years – I Still Don’t Your Style”. Despite all the obsessive pitch manipulation, the logocentric structure avoids melismas. The instruments struggle with this unusual velocity distribution: a naïve, belated clarinet, bass clarinet, pennywhistle and tattered percussion are never on time. The fractured melodism of polyphonic vocals dominates and more organized drums and guitar passages do not make this venture any more style-bound.
Christine Baczewska’s solo recording for multiple vocal strata. The smooth overlapping of frequencies yields a quasi-electronic, spacious feel. The range is somewhat compressed, yet legible: the higher notes are shorter, the lower melismas are longer. Between them, the notes circulate, rotate. It ends naturally, projecting an elegant, stylistic challis that would define Mauve Sideshow’s sound several years later.
Qué sera, Sarah
So here we go – Ray Evans and Jay Livingston’s 1956 pop classic mangled and regurgitated in a completely disfigured fashion, with droning guitar and female yodeling immersed in spacey echoes. The drumming is isometric, crisp and elastic, the electric guitar flourishings are distinct but mellow. Neither the waves of vocalizing, nor the space jam – style drumming prepare us for the familiar lines: “Will I be pretty, will I be rich?”, only to be blotted out by ponderous guitar thunders. Credible space whisper and the lengthy drone, not Doris Day’s caprices, determine the plasticity of this track.
The Slope of her Nose
The pivotal track on the record mixes the avant-garde structuring with satiny pop vocal mannerism. It opens with chatting, laughter and a metallic voice reciting a poem: “I’d love to ski sometime – I’d never been skiing”, we hear. Volume swells on the vocal parts are extreme but come in discrete packets, isorhythmically (pitch and rhythm patterns do not coincide). Then we move into a waltz, with some electronics, bells and slide whistle, close to Klimperei’s domain. The second voice is fine-grained and more rational. They eventually take off – in unison first, and then burst into a totally abstract section teeming with unstable chordal textures, percussion and bells. When it turns into a guitar hymn, harp-like articulation filters through the steel guitar’s frets. The band’s melodic indifference is remarkable. The continued parity violation raises a question if they had not recorded the input material first and then manipulated it by slowing and speeding the tape at will… However, the avoidance of vibrato and the softening presence of angelic chorus mask this quasiperiodic operation.
A slow-decay tam-tam brings us into a Harry Partchian idiophonic intro, which is instantly discontinued. Baczewska’s voice is produced in an echo-pop fashion, but the bizarrely tuned, energetic xylophones overreact to the melancholic vocal line. It requires considerable ambiguity tolerance: the twain shall not meet. Dry recitation of Bertold Brecht’s text, tepid, consolatory guitar and bass are purely contiguous with the angularity of the percussive assaults. The twin vocals go polyphonic without any pretense of melodic goal-seeking, leaving two guitars to build a crescendo. The inconsequential rhythm acoustic guitar operates in close-ups. The distorted electric guitar is more distant, but too evocative of the conventional rock idiom.
C.W.Vrtacek-styled guitar handled by Victor Sanders takes us back to the deceptively “Brazilian” mood of the first piece, undercut pitch jumps and vocal manipulation. The guitars accentuate the building drama in the narrative. The hesitating melodic line seems to be determined by, rather than accommodate, the syllabic count in the lyrics – the more vowels are there, the longer the passage. The heaviest moment on this record follows – with chopped rhythms and punchy guitar riffs.
Music boxes bring a variety of associations. Plush shops facing Lake Geneva. Cute little dolls dancing. Hat Shoes’ memorable “Saddest Train Ride”… Care of the Cow expose us to articulatory suppression and subsequent retrieval: a whispering voice, lap steel guitar in lieu of a piano in low register and electric guitar in high register. Delicately undulating multi-vocal texture gets some percussive help, but unobtrusive echo treatment ensures a relative immobility of the piece.
I have vicarious knowledge of only one more recording by the band. Apparently several years ago they taped several pieces, none of which has been published as yet.
CARE OF THE COW: “I Still Don’t Know Your Style” (1981)
CARE OF THE COW: “Dogs Ears Are Stupid” MC (1983)
Christine Baczewska has continued to record occasionally, and I am yet to hear the music.
Christine BACZEWSKA: “Tribe of One” (1993)
Christine BACZEWSKA: “X Factor” (2001)