Monday, 21 October 2013
Pentangle "Reflection" (1971) (Album Review)
"Hey my little Donney girl, don't you guess better be making your wedding dress? Well it's already made, trimmed in brown, stitched around in golden crown" "Well she wouldn't say no, she wouldn't say yes, all she do is sit and sew, busy making her wedding dress" "Little Ornie, I'll tell to you my mind, my mind is to drown you and leave you behind" "There are loved ones in the glory, whose forms you often miss, when you close your earthly story, will you join them in your bliss? Will the circle be unbroken? By the by? Is a better home waiting in the sky?" "In the joyous days of childhood, oft they told of wondrous love, pointed to the dying saviour, now they dwell with him above" "I don't know what my baby's going to say when I get back home, I know I should have gone but the booze keeps a-flowing on, but by now feel like standing on my own head, let the booze flow out of my ears" "My dear old uncle Adam had it right, baby, from the start, he never did get married nor did he break a poor girl's heart, all his life he worked his fingers to the bone, but he jumped and he came home stoned, but you couldn't really call it his home" "Well I married me a wife, gave me trouble all my life, ran me out in the cold rain and snow" "You people who understand, please hold out a helping hand, to people who can't find a way" "It was in the rainy season waiting for a train, leaving in the afternoon all on your own again, do you really understand it? Can you tell me why it is this way? Sad lady, at her portmanteau, with no words left to say, saying that its only something that can happen any day" "Toulouse circus rider, turn on your childish grin, shine on through the black night, go ride the dawn again, your eyes are stars that sweetly tinkle, aureole around your head aflame, sad story that you cannot tell where nobody is to blame, and anyhow it's only something sure to come down with the rain" "I heard the guns of heaven whispering in my ears, I opened wide with my eyes and watched the whole world disappear"
Pentangle "Reflection" (1971)
Wedding Dress/Ornie Wise/Will The Circle Be Unbroken?/When I Get Home/Rain and Snow//Helping Hand/So Clear/Reflection
'Reflection' is often talked about - by the few people who talk about it at all - as a sweet little album, a sort of last gasp return to the more mainstream folk-rock of 'Basket Of Light' than the rather serious and dark albums either side of it by a band who already knew they were on their last legs. Musically, that's true - by Pentangle standards the traditional songs here are relatively known and songs like 'Wedding Dress' and 'Will The Circle Be Unbroken?' are the catchiest and most commercial Pentangle have sounded in a couple of albums; you can certainly see why 'Reflection' has become something of a retrospective hit because it's the second most 'mainstream' Pentangle album of the lot. But lyrically and thematically there are few albums more sombre than 'Reflection' in my collection. Jilted lovers, the murder of innocent peasant girls, a spiritual about death and the afterlife, a husband down the pub worried whether he'll even have a wife to back to when he sobers up and a loved one thrown cruelly out into the cold rain and snow are some of this album's themes - and that's just on the album's first side alone. This is the sound of band who know that things are changing and not necessarily for the better.
The twist is that if you were an outsider to the band, you'd probably rate 1971 as a good year for the group. The critics had been itching to take Pentangle down a peg or two after the success of 'Basket Of Light' and its attendant single 'Light Flight' - and the band had given them plenty of excuses with a double LP studio-live hybrid in 'Sweet Child' (that's brilliant at it's best but also sprawling and messy) and the solemn five-song curio 'Cruel Sister' (ditto). By contrast Pentangle's gigs in 1971 were well loved and respected and 'Reflection' was unanimously heralded as one of the band's very best by a group of critics relieved to have songs a shade closer to pop to review. A year away doing things apart had also apparently eased some of the tensions that the band had felt during 1970: solo albums, session work and the odd solo concert had helped give the band members a taste of life outside the group and a new zest for the music they could play together. Pentangle could easily have called it a day here in 1970 and no one would have been surprised - but everyone seemed to feel that there were still things to say and they ought to give the public at least one more album (in retrospect it's staggering that we got two). Add in the fact that the band's contract with Transatlantic had come to an end and a fair amount of record companies were interested in signing the band and giving them better terms should have breathed new life into the group (in the end the band sign for Warner Brothers - see news and views 166 for our take on the final album 'Solomon's Seal'; the two albums are a pair, really, in mood and circumstances).
So how did this album end up becoming Pentangle's equivalent of 'Let It Be' (with 'Solomon's Seal' the equivalent of 'Abbey Road'), an unfortunate album surrounded by bad luck and bad blood which all but finished the group off for good? Amazingly, it was for almost the exact same reasons the Beatles experienced in early 1969: poor management deals and a last minute cancellation of a tour in America cost the band money (in the same way that 'Apple' sucked the fab four's coffers nearly dry), record company interference meant that the band were persuaded out of their normal surroundings into a newly built studio that didn't have proper facilities yet (they've cleaned it up for the CD but the reason the original vinyl edition of 'Reflection' had such low bass parts by the ever-wonderful Danny Thompson was because the monitor speakers in the studio wouldn't play the bass particularly - both band and engineers had to lie on the floor to get the best 'approximation' of how loud the bass was in the mix while the desk itself once caught fire, bringing a premature end to the day's session; very like the Twickenham studios the Beatles first rehearsed in - and even more like the unfinished Apple studios in Saville Row they ended up in) and a costly decision by manager Jo Lustig to have the band record at 'proper' hours in the Afternoons rather than through the night (having probably played a gig late into the evening the night before the band was frequently late in turning up, especially the two guitarists if the CD's illuminating sleevenotes are anything to go by; this is also like The Beatles who were sticking to a film crew's working hours for 'Let It Be' in the hope of making first a concert and then a documentary).
The result was chaos. Everything that Pentangle once stood for (freedom, democracy and an almost telepathic understanding of each other's styles and strengths) suddenly became a trap. The band had to 'turn on' their magic in unfamiliar territory during hours that to them must have seemed like the middle of a night, having barely worked together for the past few months and in the knowledge that the band probably wouldn't make any more money until their financial situation was sorted out. The freedom that Pentangle once represented now seemed like a trap, quite apart from the carefree existence most of the band had experienced for the first half of the year. All of the band quit the group during the making of this album (unlike 'Let It Be' when only George Harrison left), taking it in turns to get so frustrated with the making of this record that they'd storm off, leaving the others to hurriedly call them back to try to make this album and the group work. By all accounts most of the band turned to drink to see them through this album - that old prop for folk musicians - and Pentangle gradually swung from being about the straightest of all the AAA bands to a group that could barely play together. Unlike 'Solomon's Seal' - the all-in-this-together-Pentangle-swansong that's their equivalent of 'Abbey Road' - the band seem to have no fond memories of making this album at all.
The shock, then, is that 'Reflection isn't just one of the better Pentangle albums - it's one of the better 'group' albums, with a much more unified sound that allows each of the band their turn in the spotlight (in contrast to the previous two albums which tended to be more about Bert Jansch or John Renbourn's favourite standards). There's even a rare group jam on the title track - the first since the band's debut album 'The Pentangle' in 1968 - and 'Reflection' beats anything on that album by having Jacqui McShee add her own lyrics and soaring vocals onto the record later in the album sessions, making it a real five-way collaboration. Drummer Terry Cox gets a rare song in 'Helping Hand' too, alongside, Bert's 'When I Come Home' and John's 'So Clear', making this perhaps the most democratic Pentangle album in terms of songwriting (even if the whole band are always credited on a Pentangle original, oblivious of who did the main part of the writing). All three are valuable additions to the Pentangle archives, each quite different to anything else the three writers have come up with for the group before or since. The covers aren't bad either: while songs like 'Will The Circle Be Unbroken?' and 'Cold Rain and Snow' (also covered by the Grateful Dead on their eponymous debut album in 1967) are a tad more 'obvious' choices than most folk songs in the Pentangle, both are given a sheen and polish arrangement-wise that makes them sound both catchier and tougher than many 'traditional' Pentangle songs. Pentangle purists will still delight in 'Ornie Wise', though, a shocking tale of murder that actually only dates back to the 1920s (most Pentangle covers are at least Victorian and many are older than that) and one of their better 'oldie' covers.
Thematically, this is another album full of songs about life's nasty 'surprises' and being trapped by fate(which nicely ties in to last week's review of "Neil Young" that did much the same) and wondering about what life might have in store during uncertain times. 'Wedding Dress' is a traditional song about a jilted lover who won't accept no for an answer and continues to sew her bridal gown long into the night because she can't accept that the marriage is off. 'Ornie Wise' is an innocent young maiden who falls in love with a rogue and is deeply shocked when he lured her out to a local waterfall and drowns her (yes her attacker is eventually brought to justice when two boys finer her body washed up on the shore - but this is still one of the darkest and nastiest songs Pentangle ever did). 'Will The Circle Be Unbroken?' has become such a popular folk standard that it's easy to forget that this easy-on-the-ear rousing hymn is actually about death and doubt, the narrator wondering whether there is a life after the next and whether he will ever be reunited with his departed loved ones. 'When I Get Home' isn't just a funny 'drunk' song about a man too scared of what his wife will say if he goes home drunk, so he drinks some more to forget it all- it begs some huge questions at the end about whether he's better off like his 'free' bachelor friends who drink all night - or whether he's the winner for actually having a decent home to go back to. 'Rain and Snow' sees a combustible marriage come to a nasty end when the man is physically thrown out during a cold Winter. 'Helping Hand' is a fascinating collage of a song, the verses 'reflecting' on opportunities lost and all the difficulties faced - presumably with the band - while the chorus pleads for those who 'know the way' to hold out a 'helping hand' to a brother (which, alongside Bert's 'People On The Highway' from the next album, really show how badly the band was being affected by all their problems in this period). 'So Clear' is a 'sad story' where 'no one is to blame' but the people in the song (who could be lovers or the band members depending on how you read it) still suffer from their problems all the same. Finally 'Reflection' itself is nothing less than the end of the world, suddenly appearing with 'evil' taking over the Earth and all humans 'taking flight', destination unknown. In all these songs, judgement day of one sort or another is upon the characters in the songs - some of them are all too aware of it, some refuse to accept it, some are oblivious to it, but life is changing for everyone in some way.
The word 'Reflection', by the way, appears in two separate songs: 'So Clear' (where the moon is 'reflected' in a lover's hair) and the title track, where the world is turned inside out as the end of the world is nigh. The band presumably named the album after their title track, but it's notable how much this record is a 'reflection' of their time spent in making it - and how much 'this' isolated, argumentative, unhappy Pentangle are now a mere 'reflection' of their earlier selves, when the world was up for grabs and all genres were open for plundering. Interestingly the phrase 'Reflection' turns up twice more in AAA circles, as the name EMI gave to a late 1960s re-issue of the third, eponymous Hollies album (what on earth was wrong with 'The Hollies'?! And why was that terrific cover - a monochrome collage of the band at work at Abbey Road - swapped for a disinterested looking tree?) and a box set of Graham Nash's work from Rhino in 2009 (which doesn't really fit the contents either!)
As you can probably tell, this is quite a fragmented album, which for once seems somehow to be less than the sum of its parts (there are several career highlights here, but they don't seem to go together - 'Reflection' often seems like a compilation of various styles than an album where everyone is headed in the same direction). This is reflected in the album sleeve (both front and back on the original vinyl), which forgoes Pentangle tradition by featuring the band's faces on the cover rather than some archaic drawing, but notably is made up of photographs of each of the band solo (the only picture of them as a 'band' is on the top left hand side - and note how they all seem to be looking in different directions to each other, the perfect shot of a band no longer in harmony). Photographer Shepperd Sherbell probably didn't know it when he got the commission, but his pictures really conjure up the feel of a band who know their days are over and they are drifting apart. It's worth nothing, too, how happy the band seem to be when on their own (example: John Renbourn taking his guitar down to a very rock-strewn waterside near his home in Petersfield in the bottom middle of the front cover, possibly their local Heath pond and Jacqui with her husband Jock on the right hand side) and how unhappy they seem to be when together (apparently the shot of Jacqui looking as if she's about to burst into tears, hidden away at the bottom of the cover, was taken backstage at a Pentangle appearance at Lincoln Festival).
If the band were breaking up, though, they don't sound as if they are necessarily due to some clever post-production that undoubtedly makes 'Reflection' sound better and more unified than it should have done. Luckily the sound for this album is really good too. Yes despite - or perhaps because of - all the technical hitches that went together with this album, the band were determined that after going through all that aggro the album ought to at least sound good. Perhaps manager Jo Lustig had a point after all about moving the band out of their favourite record studio haunt (a dingy converted milk parlour in the backstreets of Chelsea) because no other Pentangle album sounds quite as punchy or as this album, their only one to be recorded in the more up-market 'Command' studio in Piccadilly. Engineer Nik Kinsey deserves perhaps the biggest credit for getting an unexpected breakthrough on the sound for this troubled album, working long hours to put things right in the mix that weren't always that well recorded in the studio itself (although his memory, in the CD sleevenotes for the album, was that he was struggling mixing the album until the band came in and gave their suggestions, transforming the sound of it). Unfortunately that punchy sound is probably more wasted here than on any other Pentangle album as the record is almost all ballads (even if the album's tie-in single of 'Wedding Dress' and 'Circle' have a particular punch and wallop all their other semi-uptempo songs are missing).
If there's a downside to this album it's that there's less out and out experimentation than on some of the other Pentangle albums. This is a band who can frequently turn to exotic instruments like celestes, dulcimers, concertinas and sitars, most of which are played by the ever versatile Bert; by contrast the most exotic sound here is a banjo. There's also perhaps a tad too many ballads compared to usual - I know Pentangle are a folk rock group with the emphasis firmly on 'folk' rather than 'rock' (compared to, say, The Byrds or Simon and Garfunkel where the emphasis is firmly on the 'rock' half) but there's usually something quite uptempo and fast to switch the mood around. As it is the 'rockiest' moment on this album is probably 'Will The Circle Be Unbroken?' - and something has gone very wrong when this is the song you measure other 'fast' songs by. A third problem is that the band's democracy in the songwriting stakes seems to have been shared of the vocalists, giving Bert more to than usual, Terry a lead vocal on his own song - and their de facto singer Jacqui seems to be basically left on the sidelines for much of this album, with vocals on just half of the album's eight songs. And that leads me to another problem. While eight tracks is still three longer than 'Cruel Sister' managed, it still seems to be selling the group short at just 38 minutes, with a whopping 11 of these made up of the title track which arguably could have been cut down to a quarter of a time (although I'm one of those fans who usually loves Pentangle's spacier, looser jamming sessions 'reflection' just leaves me cold compared to the delights of 'Pentangling' or 'Jack Orion').
Overall, though, 'Reflection' is another strong Pentangle album that features a little bit of everything and is more consistent than most. The strong production and the fact that the band write four originals for this album (a higher percentage than any other record, compared to total songs on the album) make it well worth seeking out by anyone whose curiosity has been piqued by either 'Basket Of Light' (which is still the best Pentangle record by some margin) or compilations (which usually tend to miss out any songs from this album for some reason). 'Wedding Dress' and 'Circle' are the catchier, poppier side of Pentangle at their best and deserved to do better in the charts, whilst 'Ornie Wise' is amongst the band's better 'traditional' sounding songs and the originals 'Helping Hand' 'So Clear' and 'When I Get Home' are all clever, fascinating ballads that are among the best ever recorded by the group. Unfortunately, though, that niggling sense of the band not being entirely as one, a rather too safe choice of cover material compared to normal and an endless jamming session that robs the album of much of its power in the last quarter prevent this album from matching the band's very best. 'Basket Of Light' is still our top AAA Pentasngle recommend and lopsided as it is, I'd still take the inconsistent but frequently brilliant finale 'Solomon's Seal' over this record. Ultimately, it's a toss up between 'Reflection' and 'Cruel Sister' as the Pentangle album in third place, but chances are even Pentangle would have been happy with a bronze medal when they were a week into these sessions with nothing recorded, band members not turning up and a mixing desk on fire. 'Reflection' may not be Pentangle at their very best but it still comes pretty darn close - and given all the problems the band encountered during these sessions the fact that they come out the otherside with anything listenable is surely a small triumph in itself.
'Wedding Dress' is at the same time about the most commercial thing Pentangle ever recorded - and a single that was quite unlike anything the pop scene had ever seen. Bert's banjo and Danny's see-sawing double bass playing makes for a song that sounds at once dangerous and traditional, the bass sounding especially menacing when set against the band's keening harmonies. Unlike most of the traditional covers on pentangle albums, I can't seem to find many references to 'Wedding Dress' in my research but it appears to be another of the band's choices from the Appalachian Mountain tradition. A sad story of a girl who sits and sews her wedding dress even though she hasn't actually said 'yes' to her boyfriend yet ('She wouldn't say no, she wouldn't say yes'). The hint is that the girl of low birth (The phrase 'my little Donney girl' means she's of 'low character') just wants to get married and leave her old reputation behind - she couldn't care less who she actually gets married to. On first hearing this is a 'happy' song: full Pentangle harmonies, a heavy beat (featuring some excellent drumming from the under-rated Terry Cox) and Jacqui's soaring lead suggest this is a rare case of Pentangle being happy. But the more you hear this song, the more desperate and off-kilter this song appears: Bert's banjo gets more and more rushed, as if forced into events too quickly for his liking, the song repeats itself over and over as if there's no way out (the girl will never be married, but she'll never give up her dreams of being married and sewing her wedding dress either), Pentangle caught up in some witch-like call and answer that will never find resolution. Underneath it all sits Danny's bass, sounding as if it's scraping away at the girl's dreams and chipping away at her hopes one stitch of cloth at a time. A fascinating song, played with Pentangle's customary care which makes songs like this that are centuries old sound both contemporary and timeless, 'Wedding Dress' is one of the band's most under-rated cover songs.
'Ornie Wise' is more straightforward, a folk song that's much more in keeping with the usual pentangle fare, even though it actually dates back to only the 1920s (making it pretty 'modern' as Pentangle covers go!) The story is one of pure 19th century melodrama, however, featuring a vagabond named John Lewis who promises his undying love to the title character before revealing its all a ruse and he shamelessly murders her in 'Adam's Springs' (which puts the setting in the Cobb Mountains of California). It sounds deeply odd to hear the normally placid Bert Jansch sing such vivid lines as 'the screams of Ornie Wise went on...', but death and murder are traditional Pentangle fare and this evil corruption of the innocent is at one with such other Pentangle covers as 'Cruel Sister' and 'Jack Orion'. Musically this is Bert's hour, with his vocal and acoustic guitar dominating proceedings (John's second guitar and Danny's bass, which is barely audible, are barely heard), suggesting that this recording was made on a day when both Jacqui and Terry failed to turn up to the studio (or, more likely, they'd gone home having been sick of waiting for the always-late guitarists!) 'Ornie Wise' is well played by all, but Bert's nasal delivery sounds like he's doing a rehearsal rather than a proper recording and his detachment merely seems to make the crime seem all the worse. The song is also unusual in having no chorus or indeed any variation on its simple one-long-verse structure, which doesn't always make it the easiest to listen to, and unlike a lot of Pentangle's cover songs there's no real sense of justice in the song (John Lewis does confess and is carried to jail, but you'd expect to see him hanged for his crimes - or for Ornie Wise's ghost to rise up and haunt his future descendants or something). Still this isn't bad, just a tad bland compared to the other songs here and closer in style to Bert's solo albums than the usual Pentangle sound.
'Will The Circle Be Unbroken?' is the best band performance on the record, though, with Jacqui soaring away over Bert and John's twin guitars and one of the jazziest rhythm sections in folk-rock. The song is perhaps the most obvious choice of song in the whole of Pentangle's canon (almost every folk-rock band did this song at one time or another, alongside 'Amazing Grace' ) but Pentangle do at least give value for money by adding some clever, tricky harmonies, the groovy backing and a mesmerising solo from John Renbourn that sounds two parts 1970s to one part 1870s. I think people forget, too, just what a strange composition this is: everyone nowadays thinks of 'Circle' as a Christian call-to-arms, celebrating God's plan and the idea that we're all cogs in the same machine. In actual fact this is a song about doubt: the narrator has lost his loved ones and while he wants to believe in a 'better home awaiting' where he'll see them again, he's far from sure. Note the title, which is a question - not a statement of belief, or a slab of religious fervour, but an asking out loud what comes next in life and the last verse, which claims that the narrator is the last one of her family still alive and asks plaintively 'here the circle has been broken - will it be complete one day?' One of the catchiest and most traditional yet commercial of Pentangle songs, this one deserved to do better when released as a single. 'Circle' will never compare to the more 'out-there' Pentangle songs that break all the rules or have the same affection in fan's hearts, but it's still a clever well-crafted piece of work from a band still working well together, however temporarily. Placed here on the album it sounds like a requiem for Ornie Wise and all the others like her who died too soon, finding their way to heaven (and makes for an interesting discussion about what will happen to the less than savoury character on the next track...)
'When I Get Home' is a Bert Jansch song that is all about questioning what that title means. When other bands like the Beatles use this phrase (see our 'top fifteen' of AAA songs with same names also published this week) they mean they can't wait to get home. Bert's drunken narrator is actually dreading what his missus will say when he ends up back home, drunk again after promising not to and is dreaming of a future when he's free to drink in peace. However this multi-layered song doesn't end there - the narrator weakens when he thinks of life without a wife and feels only pity for the bachelors around him who have no home to go back to - the public house is in effect their home and the narrator wouldn't want to live there the whole time. Very much Bert's baby, 'When I Get Home' is another clever song that veers drunkenly from laidback serenity to sudden punctuations to sobriety and fright and there's probably more than an element of autobiography in the lyrics (this was the height of Bert's drinking days, which thankfully slowed down once Pentangle disintegrated and he wasn't under all the extra attention and stress; in fact all of Pentangle spent their downtime from this album drinking according to the CD sleevenotes for this record; Bert had married wife Heather in 1968 - they split in 1975, four years after this album). In fact, I'm surprised Bert didn't keep this song for his 1971 solo album 'Rosemary Lane', much of which is like a 'watered down' version of this album - the song 'Nobody's Bar' is a sort of prequel set in the Wild West and even ends with the line 'I'm going home, tired of being a rolling stone...' The rest of Pentangle don't really get much to do on this song, although Renbourn as ever turns in a sensitive electric guitar part that sounds like a wild embellishment of Bert's acoustic part and Terry and Danny drive the narrator urgently on, as if nagging him to get home to his wife. As intelligent as ever, 'When I Get Home' is another Jansch song that's more about what the narrator doesn't say than what he does - there's clearly something nasty in his life he's hiding from, even if he sounds calm and a tad sleepy on the surface for most of the song. One of Bert's better songs, this song still doesn't quite match his masterpiece 'People On The Highway' on next album 'Solomon's Seal' and it's a shame that Jacqui seems to be missing from yet another recording.
Side one ends with 'Rain and Snow', more frequently titled 'Cold, Rain and Snow', a traditional Appalachian Mountain song that was first adapted by Benjamin Britten as 'Lord! I married me a wife' but was probably better known by Pentangle after being brought to the world's attention by banjo player Obray Ramsey. Pentangle's version is a lot more detached and unemotional than most covers - like the Grateful Dead's for instance - perhaps because giving Jacqui the lead vocal switches the song round somewhat (is this the wife singing about why she kicked her no-good husband out in the cold rain and snow?) Bert does double duty on banjo and sitar, but unlike other Pentangle uses of the latter instrument it doesn't really fit and Bert is too clearly picking out the simple tune rather than leaping into the unknown as he does on Pentangle's masterpiece (says me, anyway) 'Once I Had A Sweetheart'. In fact the band sound a little at odds here with each other, as if none of them are quite in synch and the banjo, sitar and bass are frequently playing at cross purposes as if they're fighting each other. Jacqui sounds a tad unhappy with the song too, putting on a fake American accent for the 'I'm-a-not-a-gonna be treated this a-way' chorus that suggests to me that this recording of 'Rain and Snow' is more of a rehearsal than a proper take. Only Terry sounds at home, provided some sterling harmony vocals (strangely Bert and John stay silent) and some excellent drumming that suddenly explodes into full fire two verses before the end. A shame, because this catchy song about the husband's bluster, still deeply in love with his wife but unwilling to change his ways, should have been right down their street. Perhaps a version using just the banjo might have been a better bet?
'Helping Hand' is a rare song by Terry, who really is enjoying an excellent album - perhaps because he was the band member most likely to come on time to all the recording sessions! Fittingly, 'Hand' is a song that seems to be at least partly about the group and the fact that they seem to be spending less and less time together and you can imagine the disgruntled drummer working alone on this song when finding he's the only member in the studio yet again . The first verse reflects that when the band started time seemed 'endless' but now 'so much time has been wasted' and the band are now in the 'evening' of their career: like 'People On The Highway' and the forthcoming 'So Clear' it's interesting to note how aware Pentangle were that their time together was running short. Less hopeful than 'Clear' and less depressing than 'Highway', Terry alternates between suggesting that the band still have life in them ('a lit candle') but that outside pressures and difficulties are splitting them apart ('...but it's blowing hard'). The chorus is interesting in context too, a very summer-of-love style urging for those in power or in control to 'help their brother' in times of need which isn't very Pentangly at all (very few Pentangle songs are about love, never mind peace!) Is this Terry urging the more 'stable' parts of the group to keep it together for the sake of the ones who aren't? This song is almost a Cox solo special, with his triangle playing and ghostly vocal centre stage, swathed in wordless harmonies from Jacqui, a Danny Thompson bass part and a guitar battle that only kicks in for the instrumental. Note how the band seem to be added section by section on this song, with the band only singing full strength when the whole band play - is Terry suggesting that Pentangle are only 'ghosts' when they play solo, or in pairs or threes? Terry ends the song hopefully, figuring that the band need either a 'revolution' or a 'solution' but that for now they should 'relax' and not worry so much about the problems they all face. A fascinating track from a composer who often got overlooked surrounded by so many talented and more prolific writers, 'Helping Hand' is Cox's finest hour and one of the album highlights, a clever song that sounds like a message to the band to give it another go. As a fan of both this album and 'Solomon's Seal', I'm grateful the other four heeded his advice.
'So Clear' is John Renbourn's song and features his dream-like, cosy voice and guitar-work centre stage on a second straight song about the band and their split. Or rather, 'So Clear' is a song about all the confusion in Renbourn's life at the time, band included, and a snapshot of his life at the time he wrote the song (if you're wondering how a 'Toulouse Circus Rider' fits into the song, there happened to be one on television while John was writing this song). The title 'So Clear' seems to be a misnomer: nothing is clear in this confusing era, when Pentangle are about to split, the band are famous and yet poverty stricken and a life on the road was beginning to take its toll on life at home. The only thing clear for John's narrator is the new love in his life whose eyes 'softly twinkle' - but even that comes at a price, the narrator having to tell a grief-stricken lady 'sat at her portmanteau' in the first verse that their relationship is over (Renbourn suggests that the pair are simply leading different lives now - he sat alone waiting for a train to a gig scrawling notes, she at home writing letters to him from her posh bureau). Note the last verse, when Renbourn questions why he still plays with the band at all when he has so little to show for it in terms of money or stardom: 'all up the coast, along the highway, nobody there will know your name', a line which I'm convinced inspired his close friend Bert to write his own similar treatise on the group for 'People On The Highway'. 'So Clear' is a lovely little song with a rare Renbourn vocal so softly sung and so buried in the mix that it sounds as if it's detached from everything around it, treading the same path in a world that seems to be crazy around it (the band cook up a real storm on the extended instrumental near the end, hitting a real peak of noise and power as they turn further and further away from the quiet opening of the song). The melody to this song is simply gorgeous, even if its understated and humble, only exploding to life near the end. John's electric playing set against Bert's acoustic is a delight too, the old friends connecting for what they clearly both fear could be the last time, new record contract or not. Another album highlight and another strong song, 'So Clear' may well be Renbourn's best song for the band and it's a shame he didn't write more for the band - his quieter, more 'reflective' songs are often the quiet heartbeat and conscience of this band.
The title track 'Reflection' is often heralded by Pentangle fans as one of the greatest things they ever did and they certainly put a lot of work into this magnum opus, clearly intending this 11-minute-jam-session-with-overdubbed-words as their 'follow-up' to the 20 minute 'Jack Orion' from 'Cruel Sister'. However, this song has always sounded slightly artificial to me and it's perhaps a little too clear that Pentangle aren't that sure where they're going for much of the song. The opening scary riff from Danny's double bass is atmospheric, but the song itself is simply a bluesy soft shoe shuffle of the sort that a band of Pentangle's level could probably play in their sleep and the only interest comes from Renbourn's guitar solos and Jansch's harmonica playing, which force the band to pick up the pace and play a little more rockily. Jacqui's lyrics are clever and fully in keeping with Pentangle tradition, imagining a judgement day that sees a fight between good and evil ending ambiguously, with all the wronged humans on Earth still unsure what's in store for them and whether the 'circle' will be 'unbroken' when the fight is all over. The verse about 'seeing your own reflection on the other side' - ie in the afterlife, when you know what the purpose of life was all about and whether you lived it 'right' is a particularly clever one, although I could have done without the generic lines about seeing 'the devil's face' that sound like an outtake from a bad blues song. Unfortunately, it doesn't really suit this song, which sounds like it should have sunnier, more carefree lyrics than this for its finger-snapping riff and the lurches between Jacqui's more intense passages and the more laidback jamming of the solos aren't always that easy to listen to. Jacqui's also triple-tracked her vocal, which seems to bring out the worst in her singing - instead of that crystal-clear note perfect sound we're used to she sounds shrill and slightly off-note when singing three times over. Terry's drum solo in the middle isn't one of his better ideas, either, seemingly slowing the song down before Jansch lets fly a solo and gets the song going again. You can see why the band were pleased with this song when they jammed on it: 'Reflection' somehow conjures up both a moody, sinister atmosphere and laidback cool, with some tremendous solos going on about a third of the way into the song. Jacqui, too, doesn't get enough credit for her writing and her lyrics would be up to standard on any other Pentangle song. But the two don't mix well here and we've heard Pentangle play much more extended chord sequences much more successfully than this: 'Jack Orion' may not always be the most suitable or interesting song either, but the band's playing on that song is nothing short of miraculous and that piece runs double the length of this one. On 'Reflection' 'Reflection' simply tries too hard to be an epic grand finale to an album and for all the band knew at the time their career and perhaps too much attention has been paid - treat it as a jam session from a band who hadn't had the chance to play together like this for an awful long time and weren't as telepathically linked as they once were, with words added long afterwards, though, and 'Reflection' doesn't sound as bad. It's still the weakest track on the album, though, and arguably is the song here least suited to being stretched out to eleven minutes.
Overall, though, 'Reflection' is a strong album that gets much more right than it gets wrong. It certainly deserved to revive the band's waning commercial appeal and you can see why so many critics were relieved to hear this much more traditional album after a couple of more ambitious, less easy-on-the-ear records. For my money, though, it's a toss up whether 'Reflection', with its three original classics, two well-made but more mainstream covers, two relatively average covers and a peculiar jam session is better than 'Cruel Sister', an album with a great but ultimately too-long jam session, three fascinatingly ambitious covers and one lone strong original song. 'Reflection' is less of a band record than any Pentangle album (even 'Solomon's Seal' to come, made in equally trying but slightly happier circumstances) and that fragemented-ness gets in the way: too often these are Bert's songs, or Jacqui's songs, or Terry's songs, or John's songs rather than before, when the band pulled together the best of their resources to 'Pentangle' each and every song. That said, though, there are still wonderful moments on which the band clearly love a song and run with it and they were refreshingly honest about their circumstances, with three out of four of the original songs touching on the difficulties they were facing. In fact four original songs makes this one of the more interesting Pentangle albums, with a higher percentage of 'new' songs rather than age-old cover material dressed up to sound like new and three of them are easily amongst the best things the band ever did. If only Pentangle had come up with a couple more classics then 'Reflection' could have approached 'Basket Of Light' as the greatest ever Pentangle LP; as it is, this is a mixed bunch of songs that, on reflection, is neither their best nor their worst work. Overall rating - 6/10
Other Pentangle articles from this site you might be interested in reading:
'Basket Of Light' (1969) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-31-pentangle-basket-of-light.html
‘Solomon’s Seal’ (1972) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/pentangle-solomons-seal-1972.html?utm_source=BP_recent
Bert Jansch Obituary and Tribute: http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/bert-jansch-obituary-news-views-and.html