Sunday, 13 January 2019

The Strawbs



From The Witchwood (1971)


A Glimpse Of Heaven/Witchwood/Thirty Days/Flight/The Hangman And The Papist/Sheep/Cannondale/The Shepherd's Song/In Amongst The Roses/I'll Carry On Beside You        

This was considered to be the transitional album between The Strawbs being a folk band and a progressive rock one. I know which side of them I prefer - this one. There are some delightful folk-rock moments on here. Folky, laid-back vocals backed by a muscular, solid bass sound and some rock guitar interjections. Add to that some powerful rock drumming and you have quite a captivating mix. The Strawbs weren’t electric folk in the way Steeleye Span or early seventies Fairport Convention, or even Fotheringay and Pentangle were from this period. They did not go down the traditional folk ballads route. They were almost country rock in places, and even their folky songs are quite rock influenced.

A Glimpse Of Heaven is a nice, acoustic, bucolic-style folky number, while Witchwood is perfect, bassy folk rock. Acoustic guitars and harmonious vocals augmented by buzzy electric guitar and that rumbling, infectious bass sound. Thirty Days has some delicious Eastern-style guitar parts. It is almost CSNY-influenced in that sort of sleepy country rock style, with hints of Pink Floyd in its lyrical delivery.  Even more in that vein is the wistful, Beatles-esque Flight. The bass is beautiful on this one. It is all very dreamy and trippy but then half way through a huge rock drum, bass and guitar passage bursts into life. Great stuff. Rick Wakeman’s Deep Purple-esque organ introduces The Hangman And The Papist, which is the most narratively folky of the tracks. When I was a glam rock loving schoolboy in the early seventies I hated groups like this and the boys who liked them. Time has changed my attitude, however, and there is a lot in this song that is similar to David Bowie’s Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud, which I liked at the time.

  

Sheep is a madcap piece of Jethro Tull-esque rock with a Doors-like swirling organ solo. I am never going to seriously love this material, but neither will I condemn it. It definitely has an appeal which merits an occasional play for me. Cannondale features some more beguiling, George Harrison-influenced Eastern-sounding hippy guitar parts. The Shepherd's Song has some Hunky Dory acoustic guitars and a very David Bowie atmosphere to it which was maybe unsurprising as Tony Visconti produced this album and Rick Wakeman plays on it (he played on Hunky Dory too). Visconti did not produce Hunky Dory which was released in December of 1971 (this was released in July of that year) however, but I am sure there was some crossover somewhere. Singer Dave Cousins also hung around in Bowie's circle in the late sixties Beckenham Arts Lab days.

In Amongst The Roses is an acoustic, trippy, pastoral song the like of which Nick Drake put out a few years later, and many others now attempt to emulate. The acoustic guitar is crystal clear on this song. Excellent. I'll Carry On Beside You is a solid, rock ballad with some powerhouse drumming accompanied by some alehouse-style folky vocals. It has a killer guitar solo half way through and a glam-rock style guitar intro.

The remastering has apparently improved the sound quite considerably. It still has a few rough and ready edges, even now, however. Overall, as I said earlier, I will never fully love this album, but it most definitely has its good points and is certainly worth the odd listen, every now and again.



Grave New World (1972)


Benedictus/Hey Little Man... Thursday's Child/Queen Of Dreams/Heavy Disguise/New World/Hey Little Man...Wednesday's Child/The Flower And The Young Man/Tomorrow/On Growing Older/Ah Me, Ah My/Is It Today, Lord?/Journey's End            

As a glam-rock loving schoolboy in the seventies I hated The Strawbs and the boys who liked them. Their hippy/trippy/prog rock folky material was anathema to the glam majesty of Mott The Hoople, Roxy Music, T. Rex and David Bowie that floated my young boat. I was intrigued as to why these boys liked them, though, and now, all these years later, I find I can fully appreciate this inventive and appealing group. Their early material was in the folk vein, their post 1972 stuff crossing over into “prog rock”. That crossover in full began with this album. They were actually quite unique in many ways
                             
Benedictus was very much a folk rock singalong number with airs of Steeleye Span in its chorus and a killer guitar solo. Hey Little Man...Thursday's Child is a brief, rather perplexing vocal number. Who is the "little man" singer Dave Cousins is singing to? His son who he doesn't get to see much? Maybe. Queen Of Dreams is an intoxicating, beautifully psychedelic piece of pretentiousness, with lyrics about Queens, forests, mountains and pine needles. More Beatles sound effects abound and some great guitar too. In true "prog rock" style, the track undergoes a complete change of mood and pace half way through. This is what I hated at the time. Now, I have to say that I quite like it. It ends with heavy rock riffs and Deep Purple-style organ. It all sounds most spectacular. The latest remastering of the album is truly outstanding. The bass is warm and infectious, the acoustic guitar crystal clear, the drums full and resonant.

 

Heavy Disguise has crystal clear acoustic guitar, some appealing brass soloing (French horn? or trumpet). It also sees the group getting political in their lyrics in a way they had not really done before. New World has a huge, slightly over-the-top orchestration over its acoustic and vocal foundation. The sound is slightly muffled on this song’s production. There are some more Beatles hints in the wild Walrus strings and the Starr-esque drumming.

Hey Little Man...Wednesday's Child is more quiet addressing of the unknown young child. It was this whole vague "concept" thing that irritated me at the time. It even did so with Ziggy Stardust's supposed "concept". Anyway, on with the show - The Flower And The Young Man shows that the group have not completely eschewed their folk beginnings, with a Steeleye Span-style intro. This quickly morphs into a powerful, majestic piece of rock, however, with a sumptuous With A Little Help From My Friends style bass line. Tomorrow is the heaviest number on the album, with some huge electric guitar and thumping drums but it is let down somewhat by some awful vocals from Dave Cousins. The band go full on Deep Purple, complete with madcap organ fills at the end of the track.

On Growing Older is catchy and melodious, but Cousins' voice, not for the first time, grates for me. Did you think The Beatles did twee whimsy? You ain't heard nothing yet. Ah Me, Ah My is positively awful, unlistenable. The album, by now has lost it for me. The old "side one" is definitely far superior. Some George Harrison-esque Eastern instrumentation redeems things on Is It Today, Lord? The instrumental bit at the end is pure Within You Without You, however, five years later. The Journey's End  is a plaintive vocal and piano farewell to this "concept" album, which was both impressive and indulgent at the same time. Founder member Tony Hooper left after the recording of the album, unhappy that the group were veering away from their folk roots. I can see how he felt. Personally, I much prefer their folk material.

 

Incidentally, the bonus tracks Here It Comes and the wonderfully riffy rock of I'm Going Home would have been far better on the album than some of the material, or even just added to it. The latter is one of the group's best tracks, in my opinion.



Witchwood: The Best Of The Strawbs 


As a glam-rock loving schoolboy in the seventies I hated The Strawbs and the boys who liked them. Their hippy/trippy/prog rock folky material was anathema to the glam majesty of Mott The Hoople, Roxy Music, T.Rex and David Bowie that floated my young boat. I was intrigued as to why these boys liked them, though, and now, all these years later, I find I can fully appreciate this inventive and appealing group. Their early material was in the folk vein, their post 1972 stuff crossing over into “prog rock”. They were actually quite unique in many ways.

Where Is The Dream Of Your Youth is a vibrant piece of hippy folkiness, with airs of The Beatles and Pink Floyd with some groovy bongos, man, and rocking bluesy piano. It is strangely enjoyable, despite sounding pretty dated. Oh How She Changed begins peacefully, plaintive and acoustic, but then breaks out into a muscular piece of rock, with more Beatles-style drums and dramatic string orchestration. As with the previous track, the songs are of their time, but they are still enjoyable, and the sound quality is excellent. Witchwood is a sumptuous piece of country/folk/rock, with some delicious Eastern-style guitar parts.

Benedictus was very much a folk rock singalong number with airs of Steeleye Span in its chorus and a killer guitar solo. Heavy Disguises has crystal clear acoustic guitar, some appealing brass soloing (French horn? or trumpet). It also sees the group getting political in their lyrics in a way they had not really done before. New World has a huge, slightly over-the-top orchestration over its acoustic and vocal foundation. The sound is slightly muffled on this song’s production. There are some more Beatles hints in the wild Walrus strings and the Starr-esque drumming. Queen Of Dreams is an intoxicating, beautifully psychedelic piece of pretentiousness, with lyrics about Queens, forests, mountains and pine needles. More Beatles sound effects abound and some great guitar too. In true prog rock style, the track undergoes a complete change of mood and pace half way through. This is what I hated at the time. Now, I have to say that I quite like it. It ends with heavy rock riffs and Deep Purple-style organ. It all sounds most spectacular.

Lay Down was a hit single and has considerable Lindisfarne influences in its upbeat country-ish rock melody and vocal delivery. The delightful, melodic The Winter And The Summer, with its Led Zeppelin III hints is one of my favourites. The Strawbs specialised in going full on rock half way through an acoustic number, and they do that here, most effectively. The River is a short, slightly overblown acoustic/strings number, enhanced by a great bass. The vocal is somewhat melodramatic in places, Pink Floyd Dark Side Of The Moon style. Just as it has got going it ends. Down By The Sea is a six-minute, riffy, solid rock piece that exemplifies the best of this often hard to categorise genre/period of music. It has some distinct pace/mood changes, of course.

Part Of The Union was actually The Strawbs' biggest hit and, to be honest, it is utterly incongruous and unrepresentative of the rest of their material. It is a political song about seventies trade union activity, sung from the point of view of a worker. I have never quite known whether it was sincere or a piss-take. Either way, despite my left-leaning personal politics, I have always hated it.

Shine On Silver Sun is another with Pink Floyd aspirations, for me, anyway. It was a minor hit as a follow up to Part Of The Union. It has a singalong chorus, but otherwise it is totally different to its predecessor and must have confused the singles buying market. Round And Round is a big, powerful rock number. I have to say, though, singer Dave Cousins’ nasal, slightly posh voice (his ‘o’ enunciations) have always irritated me slightly. These songs may have been better served by another singer (just wondering out loud). The spoken part in the middle is pretty pretentious. Hero And Heroine is pretty unlistenable, with another semi-spoken railing part. Grace Darling is a strange song from Cousins to his wife/lover, presumably called Grace, comparing her to Northumbrian heroine of the seas Grace Darling in being his saviour from the storm. A nice juxtaposition, but it doesn’t quite work for me. It has echoes of Ian Hunter in there somewhere.

The seven minute Medley is typical prog-rock indulgence and by the mid-seventies, from which it dates, it was starting to sound a bit out of time. As always, there are good points in it but this song cofirms that the best part of this album was definitely up to Shine On Silver Sun. The early seventies pastoralism of Golden Salamander and the Supertramp-ish A Mind Of My Own, from 1976 are ok in their own right but very behind the times at their point of release. Punk was here. That was effectively that for The Strawbs. They kept going, however, and are still realeasing albums, but the late sixties to 1973 were definitely their best years.



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