Monday, 15 October 2012
Pentangle "Solomon's Seal" (1972)
“Sally free and easy, that should be her name, she took a sailor’s loving for a nursery game, the heart she gave me is not made of stone, it was sweet and hollow like a honeycomb” “For the snows they melt the soonest when the winds begin to sing, and the bee that flew when summer shone in winter cannot sting, and I've seen a woman's anger melt between the night and morn, so it's surely not a harder thing to melt a woman's scorn” “Oh cursed be the cruel wars, that they ever began, for they have pressed my Billy and many a clever man” "It's better to be going, better to be moving than clinging to your past, Love is made from living and dreams are made of sleeping, better catch it while it lasts, Gonne move on buddy, gonna leave my troubles and worries behind, going to rest my uneasy mind” “I think I’ll try a new game, one I understand, so my life won’t be in vein” “And he's mounted her on a milk-white steed and himself on a dapple grey, he has made her the lady of as much land as she shall ride in a long summer's day” “Just like the songbird, deep in the forest I sing praises but you never hear, and deep in my body my song is silent but contented at times when you're near” “Jump Baby Jump, spread your wings out and float away” “Down in Carlisle there lived a lady, being most beautiful and gay, she was determined to stay a lady,no man on earth could her betray, unless it were a man of honour, a man of honour and high degree, and then approached two loving soldiers, this fair lady for to see”
Pentangle “Solomon’s Seal” (1972)
Sally Free and Easy/The Cherry Tree Carol/The Snows/High Germany/People On The Highway//Willy O’Winsbury/No Love Is Sorrow/Jump Baby Jump/Lady Of Carlisle
On paper things looked good for Pentangle in 1972. The band had just signed to Warner Brothers, a record label with much clout than their old partners the much-missed Transatlantic Records and after a couple of years in the wilderness seemed to be clawing their way back to their artistic and commercial peak with ‘Basket Of Light’. But as we’ve seen so often on this site, just when things seemed to be going well more tragedy struck, the album disappeared without trace and the band sadly decided to call it a day. ‘Solomon’s Seal’, the last of six the original line-up recorded, thus became so obscure that it became the band’s poorest seller and wasn’t re-issued until as late as 2003 because the master-tapes to the album had ‘gone missing’ (they later turned up in guitarist John Renbourn’s house, propping up his harmonium which had a wonky leg – a fact which tells you everything you need to know about how seriously band and management were taking this record. Surprisingly, even after a gap of some 31 years, critics still didn’t take to this record too kindly and dismissed it on its CD release as a poor album by a tired and distracted band that failed to match up to past glories. The band don’t like it much either, seeing as collectively they were still paying back the Warner Brothers advance money as late as the 1980s!
Well, as far as I’m concerned, everyone – in 1972, in 2003 and now in 2012 – are entirely comprehensively unanimously wrong. ‘Solomon’s Seal’ might not be the breath of fresh air that ‘Basket Of Light’ represented, but this record is easily my second favourite among the Pentangle LPs, with plenty of good examples of the band’s unique ten-styles-in-one sound and a real urgency and spirit that isn’t always present on the band’s other albums. The band know they’re going their separate ways – it’s the dominant theme of all the lyrics on the three original songs written for the album – but unlike most bands who split unexpectedly there’s no lack of band performances or collaboration on this album. To their dying day, it seems, Pentangle were a unique breed who really did put the music over and above everything else going on in their private lives and there are few bands who have bowed in such a graceful way as this album’s ‘goodbye’ songs ‘People On The Highway’ and ‘No Love Is Sorrow’. In fact Pentangle are almost unique in AAA bands for lasting from the beginning five whole years and six whole albums without changing a single member of personnel (The Kinks and The Hollies matched them in terms of albums but not years but actually only The Who’s eight studio album run between 1965 and 1978 beats it) and sound every bit as committed to the band as when they started.
In fact I’d go so far as to say that, with better promotion, this could have been a whole new lease of life for the band. The Warners sound is much warmer and fuller than the Transatlantic sound (although that might just be the CD re-mastering; sadly ‘Solomon’s Seal’ is the one Pentangle record I don’t own on vinyl, mainly because it costs about £50 these days) and the bass and drums of Danny Thompson and Terry Cox are much louder in the mix than before. This might be because the band were recording in London’s ‘Sound |Techniques’ studios for the first time, one that gave the band’s music a much warmer, airier quality. There’s also less ‘folk filler’ as I call it, old folk songs that haven’t been changed that much from the hundreds of years of oral history; by contrast all of the six traditional songs on the album have been carefully adapted to the electric folk-boom of the 1960s and 70s and sound much more contemporary and relevant than many of Pentangle’s records (the exquisite ‘Basket Of Light’ aside). There’s less room for jazz improvisation on this album too – not that I mind Pentangle when they’re lost in the space of a jam on other records, but it does tend to fill up 10 minutes of a record that only runs to half an hour. No, as far as consistency across an entire record goes ‘Solomon’s Seal’ is definitely the second choice for me.
Fans must have known something was up, though, from the title of the record on down. In various legends told in Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities King Solomon used his ‘seal’ to communicate with various spirits, genies and magical creatures. The most famous use is in a story told in the Arabian Nights where Aladdin’s genie has been sealed in a bottle; using this special seal and historians have sought for many centuries, unsuccessfully, to work out if there was any true ‘fact’ about the deal, particularly in alchemy. But alchemy – the art of turning ordinary objects to gold – also works the other way around, as so many people forget (many scientists sought to work using this method because they thought it would be ‘easier’ – and then work backwards to discover how to do it in reverse). The relevance of all this to Pentangle? The seal was thought to be a five-sided shape that looked not unlike the Star of David, a shape that in modern day terms would have been called a ‘pentagram’ (for those who haven’t read my review of ‘Basket Of Light’ yet a ‘pentangle’ is a ‘magical’ symbol which the band chose because they, like it, had five sides and ‘magical powers’). As the intriguing pen-and-ink cover illustration by band friend Chris Ayliffe makes clear, the ‘symbol of five’ dates back many centuries and has passed through many cultures before Pentangle used it as the source of their name. It’s still printed on coins printed in Muslim countries, for instance. And not one of these stories involving pentangles or Solomon seals or Star Of Davids come to that seem to have had a happy ending (just think of what happened to the Jews in WW2 who were forced to sew the symbols onto their clothes; And you thought Solomon just liked going to the zoo and talking to seals!)
Interestingly, given Pentangle’s raison d’aitre to update old stories and songs and make them sound brand new, ‘Solomon’s Seal’ features songs that date back much further than anything else the band were ever to record. ‘The Cherry Tree Carol’ was first recorded in the 1500s but as even that was a ‘reference’ to an older source it could easily be centuries older. It’s also, surprisingly, the only folk song Pentangle did from the much-thumbed Victorian collection of oral folklore ‘The Child Ballads’ (not a nursery book for toddlers – it’s named after the compiler). ‘Lady Of Carlisle’ probably dates back even further, to the 1200s, and may well be one of the earliest folk songs in existence anywhere (along with poxy newcomer London, Carlisle is the only town/city with a population of significance in the Medieval period) and has been re-written and re-recorded about every century or so since, so the question really is why Pentangle took so long to record it (even the Grateful Dead did their own sort-of update on it – of which more in our top five!) The other songs aren’t quite so old, but are older than your average album of 1972: ‘The Snows’ is probably the most common piece featured here and is usually given its full title ‘The Snows They Melt The Soonest’ – it dates back to the early 1800s. As for ‘High Germany’, it dates back to the 1700s and was probably written during one of many English wars with Spain (if anyone Spanish is reading this, I apologise whole-heartedly for what was done in the name of the British Empire as I do to my Australian, American, French, German and Dutch brethren; heck with it I’m just sorry to everyone).
As on other Pentangle LPs, the musicianship on this album is extraordinary. Far from sounding bored or distracted as most reviewers have it, the range of tones on this album is even wider and more far-reaching than ever. The often ugly jazz of the first two albums i long gone, to be replaced by a gorgeous mix of twin acoustic guitars, double bass and drums, plus various selective touches including a banjo, a dulcimer and a sitar. Often when bands try to ‘stretch’ their sounds the result is one daft noise, but with Pentangle this mix of sounds makes perfect sense because of the band’s ‘purpose’ of updating songs from different eras. Like every other Pentangle album, ‘Solomon’s Seal’ comes across as nothing less than a history of mankind, with the same hopes fears and dreams the same for every era, from as early as records began. However I would say that ‘Seal’ works better than most because it is so rich in textures, as if a group of passing minstrels from the Middle Ages really have fallen out of your speakers into the 1970s and started messing about with electricity. The use of sitar – sadly not used since ‘Basket Of Light’ despite the fact that Bert is one of the greatest Western players of the instrument – adds in the idea that the ideas in the Pentangle songs transcend space as well as time, with the same tangle of human emotions as real for the East as the West. I’d love to have heard where the band might have gone after this record – perhaps to all out psychedelia (the natural conclusion of the jazzy tones heard on their earlier LPs), perhaps to the heavier, more electric sounds of their contemporaries (like Steelye Span and Fairport Convention).
One other point: I’ve just come to this review straight from an article about how Pentangle are ‘The English Grateful Dead’. That’s not so strange as it sounds as Dead fans will be aware; even though they’re now known as a ‘rock’ band, all amplifiers and piercing guitar solos, there’s a strong country-folk element to the Dead’s work and they, too, featured a massive 300-odd rotating list of cover songs to play (legend has it that their much-loved ‘acoustic set’ in the middle of their shows came about after touring with Pentangle in 1969). The two bands often chose songs from the same folk repertoire, although surprisingly given how large the pile of material was for both bands they only ever had one song in common (the exquisite ‘Cold Rain and Snow’ which appears on ‘Grateful Dead’ in 1967 and Pentangle’s ‘Reflection’ in 1971). Like the Dead, too, the band could play solo spots, duos (usually Bert and John) and extended instrumental pieces (Danny and Terry) – although thankfully the Dead never attempted Jacqui’s a capella singing. Above all, though, improvisation is the key to understanding and loving both bands, the thrill for the audience of never quite knowing where the band are going to go next and making these old traditional songs ‘live’ in the present much more than if they’d been played in rigid arrangements (It’s a crying shame that only one ‘proper’ live album exists compared to the Dead’s seven or eight). Anyway you’d be surprised how many fans have admitted to loving both!
If there’s a theme on this album then its one of loss and moving on. Many of the songs on ‘Solomon’s Seal’ feature a mixture of grief and joy, regret at something ending and coming to a natural course but excited for what might take its place. Opener ‘Sally Free and Easy’ might be criticised in the lyrics for being too, err, friendly to strangers but the lovely lilt of the lyrics makes it clear that freedom and being able to go where you want is to be worshipped, not scorned. ‘The Snows’ is actually a song about Spring rather than Winter, with every animal stuck in the snow looking forward to happier times. Bert Jansch’s ‘People On The Highway’ talks about escape, of ‘leaving my troubles behind’ and how its best to leave what you’re doing when you’re too busy to notice ‘sunny days’ outside your window. ‘No Love Is Sorrow’ finds a maiden scared and excited on receiving a marriage proposal, leaving her unsure whether to stick to her ‘old’ safe way of life or say ‘yes’ and enjoy a whole new world. ‘Jump Baby Jump’, written by Bert and John during a mountain climbing holiday in Ireland, seems to talk of suicide, but in such a thrilling, leave-your-troubles-behind kind of a way that’s more about the happiness on the other side of death than the misery in life. And then we’re back in the ‘lion’s den’ of ‘Lady Of Carlisle’, where a lady’s would be suitors have been set impossible tasks in which they may well lose their lives but where the prize is special – again there’s a choice between carrying on safely the way you always have or risking all for the unknown, which isn’t all that far removed from the decisions facing Pentangle when they were making this album.
So, when all the dust has settled and now that we have the seemingly doomed ‘Solomon’s Seal’ back on the shelf alongside the other Pentangle CDs is this a long lost treasure or simply a bit of flotsam best left behind? Definitely the former in my view – yes there’s nothing here quite as remarkable as ‘Once I Had A Sweetheart’ or ‘Light Flight’ but to my ear’s there’s more focus and invention here than on the previous couple of albums ‘Cruel Sister’ and ‘Reflections’ – and I say that as a fan who loves both albums; the former for its cold brilliance, all uncaring 20 minute epics and a capella songs; the latter for its decision to stick to its strengths and give us everything Pentangle stood for in short three minute bursts. For me though ‘Solomon’s Seal’ is an improvement because it manages to find the halfway house between these two very different takes on the traditional song, with three or four mini-epics treated far more seriously and piously than other bands would dare, together with some of Pentangle’s best original material, as contemporary to early 70s folk-rock as Pentangle ever came before their often misguided reunions. ‘Solomon’s Seal’ is the sound of a band who’ve finally worked out how to compromise between treating their audience as grown-ups and becoming too far detached from what everyone else is listening to in the same period.
‘Sally Free and Easy’ pretty much sets the tone for this moody album, with Cyril Tawney’s song/sea shanty (Tawney was a sailor with the Royal Navy before becoming a folksinger in the 1950s) about freedom pretty much the theme for the album. Like many a Pentangle cover song, the words and music are telling us two very different things: Sally is ‘free and easy’, loving life and spending it with every man she chooses and, for the first verse at least, sounds more like a celebration of life. But the music is ponderous and bottom-heavy, thanks to Danny Thompson’s sawing double bass being mixed higher than usual and a curiously unlike Pentangle electric backing with John Renbourn’s work closer to Cream or Jimi Hendrix than folk. Together with the blurry production that makes everything gloriously murky and fog-like and the slower than average tempo, it makes the whole piece sound like a nightmare, slowly catching up with the poor scorned lover watching his beloved cavorting with others. Interestingly Bert gets to take the lead vocal, with Jacqui’s vocal reduced to a delightful wordless harmony part in the background, adding to the sweet-and-sourness of the track (which had it been given to Jacqui would have brought out the purity and innocence more). The four short verses (there is no chorus) pack an awful lot into their short lines, with the narrator’s curse ‘When my body’s landed, think she’ll die of shame’ showing just how deeply the jealousy and bitterness rages. An intriguing start to the album, with a much more melancholy sound than usual from Pentangle and evidence that to the very end they were looking for new varieties on their old sound.
‘The Cherry Tree Carol’ is much more traditional fare, with Jacqui’s wonderfully sweet vocal back in the lead on a 15th century piece about Joseph’s first inklings that his newborn son Jesus might indeed be special when the baby gets a cherry tree to lean down to them when Mary is about to collapse with hunger on the family’s travels out of Bethlehem. This is, strangely enough, the only Christmas carol the original Pentangle ever recorded (despite the fact that carols are, generally, among the oldest traditional music in existence in the Western world), although typically for the band their choice isn’t exactly common. The original (or the closest to the original we know of) ran to 12 verses and has Jesus still in his mother’s womb and an extended ending where an angel comes to Joseph in a dream and tells him that he is about to have the saviour of mankind for a son. The song features a lovely sing-songy melody closest in style in modern times to an advert (carols were in fact the adverts of Christianity in the centuries when most mass communications took place in churches and cathedrals) and features some of the best evidence on record of how closely attuned Pentagle guitarists Bert Jansch and John Renbourn were with each other (the Rolling Stones often talk about their work as ‘the ancient art of weaving using guitars’ but its a line that suits Pentangle better still). Unfortunately there’s not much variety in this song – as there isn’t in most carols – which makes it somewhat difficult to digest for modern ears. Jacqui’s vocal is also strained to breaking point at times – perhaps the band might have done better to transpose it down a key or so? That said, there are some lovely – and completely unexpected – chord changes throughout this song that means ‘The Cherry Tree Carol’ doesn’t go entirely where you expect it to.
‘The Snows’ sees the welcome return of the sitar to the Pentangle sound for the first time since ‘The House Carpenter’ in 1969. That’s the highlight of a gentle song about the optimistic idea that winter is only passing, even if the snows often seem to be around forever. Bert gets to sing this again which brings out the melancholy rather than the joy in the song (as would have happened had Jacqui sang it, for instance) and in fact this is probably the only non-instrumental song by the original Pentangle on which Jacqui does not appear at all. She’s badly missed on another traditional song that never quite takes off (and it is a traditional song despite the original album label credit to Pentangle, dating back to the early 19th century) and rather slides by without really catching the ear. Interestingly, the Pentangle version of this carol differs quite a bit form the more common versions of this song (for example the second verse should end: ‘But when spring goes and winter blows my love she will be fain, for all her pride to follow me across the stormy main’ instead of which it runs ‘But when spring blows and winter goes my love then you'll be free, with all your pride and to follow me where it crossed the stormy sea’ while the third verse is entirely different and should run ‘And I've seen a woman's anger melt between the night and morn, so it's surely not a harder thing to melt a woman's scorn’ rather than the ‘Pentangle’ variation ‘And all the flowers in all the land so brightly they may be, And the snow it melts the soonest when my true love's for me’. It’s unknown why the band changed these lines and whether it was them who changed it or whether there might be an alternate translation of these lines. Either way, the melody of the song can also be heard with completely different lyrics as the even older Northumbrian folk song ‘My Love Is Newly Listed’. One of the weaker songs on the record, it is at least nice to hear the band stretching their musical palette so much here, with Renbourn stealing the show with his twin sitar and recorder playing.
‘High Germany’ is another first for Pentangle, a genuine battle song that was probably written during the ‘Seven Year War’ of 1756-63, a skirmish that should by rights be called ‘World War One’; although the casualties were fewer and was more about Empirical expansion than European treaties and alliances. Despite the longstanding skirmishes between England and Germany, here Germany are not the ‘enemy’ (as seen by the English writer’s eyes) but the backdrop for a war fought between the English and Dutch on the one hand and the French and Spanish on the other. The band do well with this perky little song, especially Terry Cox’s superb military drumming and the twin use of Bert on banjo and John on recorder to give this song an old-fashioned, military feel (Bert brought the song to the band after having played a solo banjo version of the song in his youth). Jacqui’s vocal is hard to hear (she’s not been treated well by whoever mixed this album) but she copes well with the short, snappy vocal that must have been a pain to sing (the song is heard at breakneck speed here). Interestingly Jacqui sings the song all the way through, despite the fact that it’s actually a question-and-answer song of the type the band usually spread between Jacqui and Bert (its basically the story of a 15th century Eastenders when ‘Billy’ has to leave ‘Polly’ to fight and then when he’s walking out the door – dum dum dum dum – she reveals that she’s pregnant and will have a baby waiting for him on his return). Not the best song on the album either, but it’s nice to hear Pentangle having a go at a traditional song that’s such a long way out of their usual comfort zone.
‘People On The Highway’ is one of only two original songs on this album but its easily up there with the best of Pentangle’s work, sounding completely at home with the textures and styles of the rest of the album. Mainly written by Bert, despite being credited to all five Pentangle members, it’s basically his ‘goodbye’ song to the band and how ‘it’s better to be moving than clinging to your past’. Despite a couple of verses making out that this is a romance that the narrator is walking out on, it’s clear that Bert is really talking about the band here, admitting that he’s ‘moving on’ not because he hates his past or has fallen out with the others but because he hears the call of something else pulling him on and that ‘if I stay, I’ll lose out’. The band were struggling by 1972, after three years’ worth of declining sales, some fairly scathing album reviews and a changing musical climate that had turned a semi-circle from the deep and intelligent folk of the late 60s to the electric empty pop of glam, so in context its hard not to sympathise with Bert’s views that the band had run its course. The last verse, about how ‘sunny days pass by and roll on un-noticed’ may well be a reference to Pentangle’s recording studios, where the band would work for several hours straight, unsure if it was day or night outside (although of course it’s also a metaphor for the better times Bert might have been having without the band). The irony, of course, is that songs like this one brought out the best in the band, accentuating all their musical strengths and in Bert and Jacqui’s shared sweet-and-sour vocals everything that made Pentangle special and unique. Bert was never a natural ‘star’ (have a look at our Bert Jansch tribute special for more) and hid from fame as much as he could, something that might explain the paranoia of the first couple of verses where ‘you just can’t get away’ and his desire to escape ‘to the mountains, going by the sea’. The best lines however are the wonderful philosophy of the second verse: ‘Life is made of living and dreams are made of sleeping’ i.e. I’ve been working too hard and have lost sight of what is real and important. Together with a catchy chorus (‘Got to move on, got to leave my troubles and worries behind, find a new home to rest my uneasy mind’) Bert comes up with one the band’s last great classic songs and signs off his association with the band for some 15 odd years with one of his greatest ever songs and one of Pentangle’s best group performances to boot.
‘Willy O’Winsbury’ is another traditional song, probably Scottish and dating from around 1775, although there’s dozens of differing versions of it doing the rounds by different bands that all seem to be different (it’s kind of the folk song equivalent of a 12” re-mix). Naturally being Pentangle the band don’t go for the obvious translation but a more obscure English version that is recorded at a languid, almost wistful pace that focuses more on the happy ending than the jealous skirmishes early in the song. The origin is a bit obscure, but may well be about Scottish King James V and his unusual courtship of French princess Madeliene de Valois, who he was betrothed to unseen but fell in love with anyway after spying on her to see what she looked like (although the stories differ; the folk song ends with the King annoyed at his daughter falling pregnant with a local man while he was off crusading). Interestingly most versions of this song have the local man named ‘Thomas O’Winsbury’ rather than Willy/Willie. By the way, this is the one song that close rivals Pentangle and Fairport Convention have in common, although Pentangle use this song’s traditional tune and Fairport recorded their song using the more modern (and common) version known as ‘Fause Foodrage’ (although guitarist Richard Thompson has recorded a solo version more like Pentangle’s as well). The result is lovely, with one of the slower tracks on the album given time to grow via a sensitive acoustic arrangement that gives Jacqui the chance to really shine amongst the twin acoustic guitars and Renbourn’s recorder (drummer Terry is missing from the line-up). However, this song does outstay it’s welcome a little bit: at nearly seven minutes it’s by far the longest song on the album and it’s a surprise that the band didn’t simply cut out a few verses as they do with most of the traditional songs on the record.
‘No Love Is Sorrow’ is my other favourite song on the record and while simpler than most of the other songs on the record is a prime example of how Pentangle can simply do this stuff better than anyone else. The song is one of only a handful that bassist Danny Thompson brought to the band (although like most Pentangle originals its credited to all five members) and makes the most out of the band’s qualities: a spooky, almost atonal opening from Thompson on double bass, crystal clear guitar work and Bert’s angular discordant vocal offset by the sheer prettiness of Jacqui’s part. The tension on this song is almost unbearable at times as this piece about a loved one who never notices the fact the narrator is in love with them seems to be rolling round the narrator’s head and trying to find a solution, hence the rolling, almost sea shanty style of the rhythm. The lyrics to this pretty song are very much in keeping with the traditional songs Pentangle more usually sing (‘I dearly love thee and not one another will know sweetness that lies in my breast’) and seem like a cry that could have come from any period and indeed has happened across centuries. What makes this arrangement work so well, though, is that Bert and Jacqui sing this song about a lack of communication more as a duel than a conversation, always at a tangent to each other and never in true harmony, really building the tension in the song. Together with the angular melody, that keeps plunging the song downwards as if the narrator is looking at his shoes, this is a remarkably apt and poignant recreation of grief and is given a truly chilling performance where every note seems to add to the atmosphere. Danny really should have written more songs for the band as, even more than Bert (who helped out a lot with the arrangement of the song) he really knew how to write to Pentangle’s strengths.
‘Jump Baby Jump’ is the third and final original song on the album, mainly written by Bert and John together, although again it sounds like it could date from any era. Again, the words and melody seem to be telling us different things, with a bright and breezy tune accompanying words that seem to be describing a suicide victim leaping from a great height. Things become clearer when you learn that the song was written by a drunken holiday the guitarists took to the Moher mountains in Ireland, where they looked down on the beauty of the view and wished they could fly down from their mountain top and see it at first hand. Like Bert’s other song on the album, ‘People On The Highway’, it also very much works as a ‘goodbye’ to the band, describing the exhilarating feeling of taking off and trying to ‘fly’ without any idea where your destination will be (‘Spread your wings out and float away’). The third verse develops the theme with the narrator holding his breath underwater and trying to swim like the fishes, desperate to join their world too. For all the song’s breezy confidence and (unusually for this album) upbeat major keys, there’s still plenty of warnings here, with the verses ending respectively ‘beware now of falling babe’ and ‘beware of drowning babe’. It’s as if Bert is trying to encourage his friends in the band to go out and explore new things without diving into them head first and losing all the advice and ideas they’ve learnt during their time in the band. Most fans regard this song as the low point on the album, but while far from the best song here I find the quiet acoustic guitar strumming and the gentle rolling melody of this song a delight and a welcome addition to an album noticeably low on group originals.
The album then closes with ‘Lady Of Carlisle’, surely one of the oldest folk songs that is known to exist and an obvious choice for the band to cover at some point (Jacqui had been trying to get the band to record this for some time after hearing Peggy Seeger play this on the banjo). The lady in the song is quite a nasty piece of work, demanding that her two suitors prove themselves to her by retrieving the fan she carelessly drops into a lion’s den (a curious idea, that, given that Carlisle would have been over-run with wolves rather than lions at the time of writing - perhaps they escaped from a nearby circus?! – although the ‘lion’s den’ is probably meant metaphorically). As a former resident of Carlisle myself (again see below) I can certainly vouch for the ‘nine impossible tasks set before breakfast’ aspect of this song! The band turn in a rather odd arrangement on this song, which is one of their barest with just a banjo, some electric guitar colour washes, an eccentric harmonica part from Bert and a single sawed note from Danny on double bass (plus Terry’s drums which finally kick in just before the end). Jacqui’s vocal is delicious and properly mixed for the first time on the record, although it still sits uncomfortably with this almost unplugged line-up of the band. Naturally given its long-standing credentials with the folk communities everyone has done this song at some point – including the Grateful Dead, as you’ll see below in this week’s top five – and Pentangle’s version isn’t one of the best, turning the song into something of a messy singalong rather than the epic majesty others have given it. I wish the band had slowed down the tempo a little and added more of their usual atmosphere to this song, which does deserve rather better from the band and is something of a disspointment when heard as the last track recorded by the original line-up. That said, ‘Lady Of Carlisle’is still a pretty good take on adding to the band’s palette of sounds even at this late stage and its intriguing to heart the harmonica slotting in so well to the band’s sound, which is unusually American and more like bluegrass than the folk the very English Pentangle usually recorded and might have paved the way for a whole new era for the band had they continued longer into the decade.
Overall, then, ‘Solomon’s Seal’ suffers from a lack of consistency, to be honest like all of Pentangle’s efforts apart from the excellent career high of ‘Basket Of Light’. But inconsistency is always easier to take from a band who are trying to do something different with every song and who, despite mainly recording traditional songs, teach us something new about the band with every arrangement by the band. Despite the fact that ‘Solomon’s Seal’ was received in 1972 as the last dying gasp of a tiring band I think ‘Seal’ is actually the best example of how many different directions Pentangle could travel in at once under the banner of ‘updating’ traditional folk sounds. Good as many albums by Pentangle’s contemporaries are (including those by Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention and The Strawbs) only Pentangle succeeds in my eyes (and ears) in making the 1960s sound like the natural evolution of a traditional folk form that goes back several centuries and truly sounds ‘timeless’, as enjoyable today as it would have sounded at the time. Recorded for a new label, with lots of new sounds, ‘Solomon’s Seal’ could have been the start of a whole new chapter for the band – and it’s not the album’s fault that it ends up simply being a cul-de-sac before the band reunite (with mixed success) fifteen or so years down the line.
It’s kind of the ‘Let It Be’ of the folk world this album – it could have really been something, representing a whole new beginning, but because of circumstances it ended up becoming an ‘ending’ and inevitably isn’t regarded as fondly by fans who never wanted their beloved band to end. It wasn’t much better regarded by the band either who watched this album flop spectacularly, had their contract with Warner Brothers quietly terminated (although it was more of a mutual decision with the band not to carry on) and then spent the next twenty years paying back the Warner advance their management had accidentally spent. In short there’s lots of reasons not to like this album (lack of original material, the traditional songs date back further, most collectors in years gone by probably paid a fortune for it or spent decades waiting to hear it, its a ‘farewell’), but if you come to it without any of that baggage what impresses you is how hard the band are trying to update their sound and how, for the most part, successful they are in that. Heard in context, with Bert’s passing last year sadly ending Pentangle’s fascinating journey so that we know it really is an ‘end’ in terms of all five original members together, then it sounds like a fine LP with traditional and contemporary sounds merging together to sound like a whole new future. In his hilarious sleevenotes, John Renbourn talks about finding the master-tapes for this album propping up his harmonium and admitting in typical understated humour that even though his instrument now leads to one side the sacrifice is ‘probably’ worth it on balance. To fans who spent years trying to track this holy grail of a record down, to those who thought they’d never get a complete picture of the band’s releases and those who, like me, think this album represents this band close to their peak then we are grateful indeed and think the sacrifice was most definitely ‘worth it’. Overall rating: ♫♫♫♫♫♫ (6/10).
Other Pentangle articles on this site you might be interested in reading:
'Basket Of Light' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-31-pentangle-basket-of-light.html
Bert Jansch Obituary and Tribute: http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/bert-jansch-obituary-news-views-and.html