WHAT TO CALL Skeleton Crew's decidedly eclectic music: avant-pop, commercial/experimental, classi- folk? No matter how you tag it, it's a wonderful sound of surprise, rhythmically quirky, melodically abstruse, lyrically expansive, imaginative kin to Laurie Anderson and Philip Glass.
Skeleton Crew is Fred Frith (guitar, bass, violin, casio, homemades), Tom Cora (cello, electric bass, contraptions) and Zeena Parkins (keyboards, accordion). All share drumming duties, usually while playing another instrument, thus investing the music with some uncommon time signatures that provide a fractured, fractious underpinning and a sweetly jagged edge.
On "Learning to Talk," its latest album, Skeleton Crew pulls out all the stops, drawing from such disparate sources as Andean folk music, free-association jazz, elegiac romanticism, audiotech malfunctions and found sound. The group even invokes a marching band recording of the "Washington Post March" and then provokes John Philip Sousa's ghost by running his melody through so many hilarious editing changes that it sounds like a giant calliope gone awry and overdosing on grease.
Most of the songs are complex, convoluted and compelling, and the rapport between Frith and Cora is intuitive, more along the lines of classical cooperation than pop conflict. Frith has marched to the beat of a different strum since his days with the avant- garde music collective Henry Cow, and his playing remains inventive, eclectic and dangerously accessible. Cora has taken the cello into new territory, working outside the standard repertoires and parameters. It's astonishing to hear the instrument recast in such a contemporary light.
On "Onwards and Upwards," Skeleton Crew use snippets of television sound, cut and recut, and there are elements of tape manipulation throughout the album. It's a process that could lose its allure very quickly in other hands. But this album is marked by a freewheeling sense of adventure and exploration that suggests "Learning to Talk" also means learning to listen.
FRED FRITH & SKELETON CREW -- "Learning to Talk" (Rift/Rec 08/05); appearing Friday at Friendship Station.