The second of Ivor Cutler's three mid-1970s albums for Virgin Records, 1975's Velvet Donkey is primarily known for two tracks, the epigrammatic poem "If Your Breasts" ("If your breasts are too big, you will fall over...unless you wear a rucksack") and the hauntingly strange "Go and Sit Upon the Grass," a song full of bizarre deadpan violence transformed by Cutler's flat Scottish burr and wheezing harmonium into a thing of disturbing beauty. (Longtime Cutler disciple Robert Wyatt would cover the song on his Nothing Can Stop Us six years later, but his polyrhythmic, African-influenced reading misses the original's peculiar grace.) Although those two tracks are probably the most beloved by Cutler's fans, all of Velvet Donkey is excellent, as drolly funny and surprisingly thoughtful as anything the Glasgow-born poet/musician/humorist has ever done. It's considerably more ambitious than its predecessor, 1974's Dandruff; art rock legend Fred Frith guests on five tracks, his low register viola complementing Cutler's harmonium most effectively on the delicate "Nobody Knows." It's the presence of fellow author Phyllis April King that causes the sole point of contention on Velvet Donkey. King had read several of Cutler's poems on Dandruff, often to great effect. However, her six contributions to Velvet Donkey are original poems, and while they're quite nice, particularly "Uneventful Day," King is a gentle humorist in the tradition of Wendy Cope or Stevie Smith's lighter moments; her poetry lacks the surrealism and melancholy of Cutler at his finest, and her half-dozen efforts do stick out a bit. Regardless, most will likely find her few brief pieces no more than minor flaws. Like Dandruff, Velvet Donkey contains two early versions of episodes from the semi-autobiographical Life in a Scotch Sitting Room, Volume Two, the playfully bizarre and nostalgically evocative series of monologues based on Cutler's Depression-era childhood that he would finally complete in 1978. ~ Stewart Mason
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