(All Album Reviews by Burgess Penguin)
This might seem ironic, coming from an avowed "non-completist" like myself, but I do put forth, even if you have much of the National Health canon, THIS IS AN ABSOLUTE MUST HAVE!!!
This is a remarkably cohesive assemblage of previously unheard material from its early formative period, before their first album, National Health was released. At the core were of course, keyboardists Allen Gowen and Dave Stewart, guitarist Phil Miller, bassist/French horn maestro Dirk "Mont" Campbell, and the drum stool shared by Pip Pyle and Bill Bruford, plus a bit of help from the lovely Amanda Parsons on occasional vocals, and additional guitarage from Steve Hillage and Phil Lee.
This early version of National Health was meant to be a mini-orchestra of sorts, but due to the onset of logistical and economic realities, they were forced to pare it down. Two major things stand out on Missing Pieces:
1) The band's sound and character was very fully formed already
2) The compositions of bassist Mont Campbell are featured prominently, a side that not many were able to hear previously.
Dave Stewart points out in the hilarious liner notes that Mont and him used to have contests to see who could write the most complicated pieces. The listener would be hard pressed to say who won. The songs run from the sublime to the ridiculous, often within the same song!!
Campbell's "Bourée" for instance starts off innocently as a textbook Mozartian exercise in French horn quartet writing but quickly becomes totally unhinged and begs to be used to scare away pesky lawn insurance salesmen. "Clocks and Clouds" (with Amanda Parsons' lovely soprano voice!)may well be the only song ever written about antiquated weather measuring devices. The really serious compositional highlights include "Paracelsus", "Agrippa" and "The Lethargy Shuffle/Mind Your Backs Tango". For sheer nuttiness (and it even abounds in the more "serious" pieces) there is a version of the vocalized drum solo "Phlakatoon" performed by a table of audience members at a Canadian club show (much to the band's astonishment and amusement, Pip Pyle is heard to quip, "You know, it took us 3 weeks to record that!") and a hilariously noisy all-out attack on the old R&B chestnut "Walking The Dog". How often is it that you get a group of deadly serious musicians that don't take themselves the least bit seriously? Also of note is "Starlight On Seaweed", a Mont Campbell song reworked by Dave Stewart and singer/wife Barbara Gaskin (after they heard a not-so-great sounding audience recording of the song from several years previous) to dazzling effect. The recording quality is not always consistent, but the sheer joy and complexity of these performances vastly overshadows that little flaw. And Dave Stewart's hilarious liner notes certainly don't hurt; in fact they made the package even more enjoyable for me and made me want to take up blindfolded sledgehammer tossing!
Allow yourself to fall under the spell of Missing Pieces and you too will find yourself dancing foxtrots in 17/4 and vocalizing accordion solos!!
Tea break over, back on your heads!!!