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Rose McDowall – Cut With The Cake Knife

Night School (Europe) / Sacred Bones (Americas)

Rose McDowall - Cut With The Cake KnifeToday we’re here to talk about the idea of perfect pop music, and in the ’80s, that decade where pop ruled the world, there was no band more perfect than Strawberry Switchblade, who burned ridiculously brightly for one lone album and then dissolved in acrimony.

See, the thing that made this Scottish two-piece so wonderful was that they fully grasped the concept that all truly great pop music has a core of sorrow, as I believe I may have mentioned once or twice before, it being my theory which belongs to me (as Anne Elk would say). If you plot a line from the cry-yourself-to-sleep break-up songs of The Ronettes and The Shangri-Las through the Nordic melancholy of Abba to the smoky, brutalised intimate epics of Lana Del Rey, Strawberry Switchblade would fit perfectly on that line. (Somewhere roughly 14% of the distance between Abba and Lana, if you want to get specific. There was a bit of a gap after that. A gap where my theory falls down, because it’s when the OTHER perfect pop band, Shonen Knife, show up, and they’re the happiest band in the world. Maybe the rules are different in Japan, I don’t know). Their very name was a pretty accurate summation of what they were about — beautiful sweetness that could just as easily cut your heart out. Or, technically, stab you in the kidneys, but that doesn’t work as well, metaphorically speaking.

Rose McDowall‘s solo album Cut With The Cake Knife, recorded immediately after Strawberry Switchblade’s break-up and consisting largely of songs written and demoed for their never-to-exist second album, follows the same naming convention. And the title track is as quintessential an illustration of that aesthetic as you could ask for, all jangly Duran Duran-style guitar, bouncy drum machine and bubbly synthpop underpinning a wonderfully dark yet jaunty lyric: “And I will take you by the hand and lead you to my sunny side / And I will cut you with the cake knife, right between the eyes”, sings Rose, and I’m pretty sure it’s no idle threat.

It’s followed by the cheerier “Crystal Days”, which I first heard when it surfaced as a collaboration with Iceland’s master pagan musician Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson as “Crystal Nights”, which also appears as an extra track here. The HÖH reference is important, because if my maths is correct, it was about the time this album would have been being recorded that Rose was starting to work with Psychic TV, Current 93 and various other of their associates, some more dubious than others. “Soldier” is slightly more representative of the music she came to make during and following this period, appearing here in a sparser version than was to appear on Sorrow‘s (also great) album Sleep Now Forever, but no less affecting for all that, and if you wanted to trace ANOTHER line starting with “Since Yesterday” and going through “Soldier”, at some point you would hit Sorrow’s majestic “Let There Be Thorns”, which you should probably also go out and buy. Or possibly stay in and buy. I think that’s how it’s done these days, isn’t it?

Back to Cut With The Cake Knife, though, and my current favourite track and the one that’s getting the most airplay in my house, later addition “Don’t Fear The Reaper”, a wonderfully inappropriate, though infuriatingly short, flamenco-pop take on the Blue Öyster Cult classic, replacing the legendary cowbell with castanets in possibly the most genius musical move since a very young Blixa Bargeld first ran a stick along a fence.

It’s kind of de rigueur to say with these type of releases that they’re a wonderful snapshot of the past, or a fascinating look at an artist’s progression, and yeah, Cut With The Cake Knife is both of these things, especially when you take into account the fact that it’s being re-released as part of a project to bring back all her stuff. But to me that kind of thing always suggests the word “curio” and the phrase “for collectors only”, when neither of those are really appropriate for something as vibrant and lush as this. So I’ll just go back to the beginning and call it “perfect pop” instead.

-Justin Farrington-

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