Monday, 29 September 2014
Pentangle "Sweet Child" (1968)
Live Set: Market Song/No More, My Lord/Turn Your Money Green/Haitian Fight Song/A Woman Like You/Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat/Three Dances/Watch The Stars/So Early In The Spring/No Exit/The Time Has Come/Bruton Town
Studio Set: Sweet Child/I Loved A Lass/Three-Part Thing/Sovay/In Time/In Your Mind/I've Got A Feeling/The Trees They Do Grow High/Moon Dog/Hole In The Coal
'Sweet Child' opens with a song about a market barker selling fresh fruits and trying to get the listener to partake of their wares. In truth, there probably isn't a band less suited to being market sellers (now Steve Marriott, he'd have been a great fruit and veg seller!) - Pentangle would be more likely to hide round the back of the stall with their guitars, their back to the customers and not caring if anyone was watching or not and as this band's material tends to date back to Medieval days all the food is probably well past it's sell-by date anyway. However, the analogy still stands: this is Pentangle, on album number two, having realised what they can do that no one else can do, setting it all out for the listener in glorious technicolour detail. There are so many items for sale at this stall that it's enough to make your head dizzy: 22 songs in total, split evenly between a studio set and a live concert recorded at the Royal Albert Hall: all of which (the first time round at least - we'll get onto the CD re-issue later) is made up of previously unreleased material (a photograph of the band playing there will later be used on the cover of third album 'Basket Of Light'). For a band on only their second LP, that's a ridiculous display of intent: no one had even heard of Pentangle more than six months ago and yet here they are, less than a year into their career, impressing us not just with quality but quantity. If Alan's Album Archives really was a market (with The Beach Boys selling surf boards, Belle and Sebastian toy dogs on wheels, 10cc novelty jokes and The Who pinball machines) then Pentangle would be the family who started up from nothing on the dirtiest stall and then suddenly one day earned enough to buy up the entire market and suddenly moved out to pastures new, leaving it (briefly) empty again.
The obvious thing to ask is why Pentangle wanted to use up all of their material quite so quickly. As those of you who've come from my other Pentangle reviews will know, they end their career with relatively short albums that last perhaps only five or six songs, nine at most and recorded most of them in bored disarray; on 'Sweet Child', though, nothing could be further from the truth: this is a band who know that they are going places and have a sound that can spark off into so many places at once that a single album just isn't enough to contain it. After all, no other band was quite doing what Pentangle did best: taking an old song from our dim and distant past and revealing to us just how much we had in common with our great-great-great-great-grandparents, before coming up with a new song that might just as well have been written at the same time as 'Greensleeves'. After years of struggling to do variations of this in different groups or as solo artists, the members of Pentangle suddenly have bandmates who 'get' this desire to tell such a story, in a format that gives each member the chance to shine in turn. What's more, they suddenly have people listening: folk and old standards were suddenly big again after half-a-decade of seeming passé against electric rock and pop - and yet unlike some of the more mainstream, popular acts (Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, for instance) there's no 'watering down' for the consumer here: Pentangle isn't dabbling in history it's living every moment, like that History teacher who took you on that school trip because he hoped that one day it would open your eyes even though he knew you'd only be sick at the back of the bus and laugh at how much the sculptures reminded you of the headmistress. Like that teacher, though, this is a band who - from the first - seemed genuinely not to care about whether they made it or not. Instead what they hope is that somebody out there will get what they do enough to come back for a second concert or buy another LP - and that's good enough for them to carry on doing what they've always been doing. However Pentangle were genuinely big in 1968: the fact that a band so young can carry off a gig at the Royal Albert Hall (one of the biggest places in Britain to fill) shows what a pull they were. Interestingly, the generally sniffy music press seem to have 'understood' it too. Pentangle isn't an easy group to get into (though it's very rewarding when you do) so it's rather a shock to find out that the attraction was instant - a lot of the reviewers even liked the first, jazzier LP that even I didn't care for that much. There is a backlash against the band coming, in two albums and two years time (when folk isn't quite so big once again), but for now Pentangle were 'in'.
In that context, then, it's natural that Pentangle would want to throw everything at their public to see how much they could get away with and, perhaps, make hay while the sun was shining. Record label Transatlantic probably thought the same too. As a result, we get a second album that very much picks up on all the threads demonstrated in the first equally eclectic album that could have led to any direction and tries to make them into all sort of exotic cloths at once. In a way 'Sweet Child' is like what 'The White Album' could have been if The Beatles had recorded it at the beginning of their career not the end: a sprawling epic that takes in life, death, marriage, pregnancy, love, lust, fruit-selling, greed, a few ancient Haitian fight songs and whatever the hell is going on in 'Moon Dog'. (The other album it resembles, from a couple of years later, is The Byrds' 'Untitled' - another half live/half studio set that reinvents the past via re-arranged classics on the one hand and new songs that build on old sounds on the other - although in The Byrds' case they waited some six years into their career to do this, not six months). Truth be told, it's a little bit too much to take in in one go: luckily for me I've got to know this album bit by bit through Pentangle compilations (until the excellent CD re-issues in 2001 they used to be the only ways of finding copies of these albums), which has made the experience slightly less intense and less weird (you'll know the feeling if you mixed the colours of the Beatles compilations 'Red' and 'Blue' before making 'The White Album' from them). However, there's still so much to take in and it says much about Pentangle's faith (or perhaps their disregard for) their audience that they throw quite this much at them as early as album number two. Like many a double album on this site, the truth is that there's a great single album in there somewhere, but perhaps a little too much filler in here for a full double (at 80:13 this record is one of the longest in the AAA canon - and annoyingly runs some 14 seconds over the maximum length of a single CD!) Unlike a lot of doubles, though, half the fun is sifting through the dead ends that didn't quite work and the other roads that Pentangle could have gone down. This experiment pays off handsomely for the band's next and best album ('Basket Of Light', the one Pentangle album that works on most every track), but after that you can almost hear the band's frustration at having done all they can so soon, like a whizzing firework that used up most of its sparks in taking off.
Splitting this album up is going to be an ordeal, made harder by the fact that I'm going to have to 'pin down' which album we start with (it was left to the listener on the original - with no 'sides' written on the labels) - but as the CD versions tend to put the live tracks first we'll start there. Not many Pentangle live sets have survived: this was it during the band's original life-time in fact, although the band did do a gig for the BBC In Concert in 1970 and a few other bits and pieces of telly work have survived (with Jacqui McShee's later line-up of the band releasing a second live record as late as 1994). Unfortunately many of the songs that worked best in a concert setting ('People On The Highway' 'Light Flight' 'Train Song' etc) haven't been written yet and a very fair decision not to give fans anything they might have already heard on the first Pentangle LP results in a very uneven half of the album, one that features no less than two Charlie Mingus jazz improvisations, Jacqui McShee's first a capella arrangement for the band and three Medieval dances that, while spectacularly played, are a little heavy going. Thankfully the murderous 'Bruton Town', soon to become one of the band's more popular examples of traditional songs and already heard on the debut LP, sounds at its best here and stark folk song 'No More My Lord' isn't far behind, amongst the saddest of Pentangle's sad songs. Luckily the band were always brave enough to try their new material in a live setting long before they appeared on record and the band's original songs are uniformly superb: Bert's 'A Woman Like You' is one of his cleverest experiments in using unusual jazz chords in a folk setting, 'Market Song' is an evocative picture of days gone by (later re-recording by Jacqui and Bert for their first reunion album in 1985) and Bert and John's lovely 'No Exit' is the best evidence yet of the pair of guitarist's interplay with each other (something matched only by Stills and Young). Some of the more recent covers, like blues guitarist Furry Lewis' fun 'Turn Your Money Green' and sixties folk singer Anne Briggs' earnest 'The Time Has Come' are also among the most suitable 'modern' (i.e. 20th century) songs Pentangle recorded: songs that give the band a chance to improvise to their heart's content around a songs with many great 'core' ideas. Few people listening would ever have noticed that these two songs weren't home-grown, so established are they in the melting pot of the Pentangle sound. Best of all, Pentangle sound like a tight unit in a way they don't always on the record: live Danny's double bass and Terry's drum attack makes a lot more sense than on the albums (where they sometimes threaten to take over the folk spirit of the group) and John and Bert playa against each other instead of taking in turns who gets to play which part. Jacqui, meanwhile, sounds wonderful and never hits a wrong note, soaring over the top just as easily as she ever did in the studio.
For my ('green') money, though, it's the studio side that's the truly revealing half of the record. There will be other, better Pentangle records in the future but none have quite so much life and energy about them as this set - even 'Basket Of Light'. In contrast to the occasionally muddy sound of the 'live' show, each of the tracks bursts out of the speaker with gorgeous clarity - something the later Pentangle albums could have used more. Equally split between cover songs and originals, the average hit rate is rather better this time around: 'Sweet Child's title track, credited to the whole group, is born for the sort of vocal swooping and unusual sounds the band make their own; the traditional 'Sovay' gives Jacqui one of her finest 'fair maiden' parts - one where the girl gets the better of the blokes for once and her vocal clearly relishes the twist at the end; five-minute instrumental 'In Time' is the only song her that sounds remotely like the 'jazz' band of six months before and yet beats anything off that debut album; the folky 'In Your Mind' makes the most of having a band with so many different voices; fan favourite 'I've Got A Feeling' - ironically one of the band's most popular live songs but heard here in the studio - is a pot pourri of so many styles your ears hardly know where to go next, all handled with typical aplomb; even Terry Cox's tribute to Louis Hardin, a colourful character who dressed as the Norse God Odin and sang songs while out begging along New York's 6th Avenue, makes sense in the way that only a sprawling double-album collecting several styles together again. On this record only 'Three-Part Thing', another earnest instrumental, palls and even that shows off some fine band interplay.
So why isn't this album in our main 'core' review sections? Well, mainly because while 'Sweet Child' is indeed sweet, it does have a childlike tendency to go 'look at me! I'm covering a jazz song!' where other Pentangle records will take it as read that the band can go anywhere at the drop of a (pork pie) hat. Pentangle haven't quite learned to cook all their ingredients evenly yet and while the recipe is as strong and as any good as any they will concoct from hereon-in, the result is a bit uneven, with all the jazz-flavoured samplings jarring next to all-out folk, blues and psychedelia. I'm not quite sure why the band don't have this problem on later albums, but they don't - perhaps it's just practice; 'Once I Had A Sweetheart', for instance, is a traditional folk song that just happens to be rather like a blues song, so Bert tunes his guitar like a little like a blues guitar and the band stick a sitar solo in the middle, simply because it fits. There's nothing like that happening here just yet: 'Sweet Child' is one of those albums where any listener who isn't fully into any one of these styles sits anxiously waiting for the next song to come round, like a Russian Roulette game gone wrong. Individually all the elements work well - and 'Sweet Child' is still an excellent album, remarkably tight and together as double records go, with several individual highs that are as great as anything the band ever go on to do. It's just that bouncing from one extreme to another is a little tiring and Pentangle haven't quite got to grips with thinking about their audience's needs yet: they're simply too eager to use everything in their tool box at once for now.
Interestingly, this is one of those albums that makes a lot more sense now that it's out on CD. As well as taking out the need to change the live record over midway through, interrupting the seamless flow, Transatlantic have been very generous with their bonus tracks. The CD now sports 11 extra songs - another Pentangle album, more or less - with another 28 minutes from the 'Royal Albert Hall' show and alternate versions of four of the studio tracks (including the studio take of the 'Haitian Fight Song', dropped when the live version turned out so well). This turns a sprawling 80 minute epic into a ridiculously virtuoso 125-odd minutes and rather than make even more chaos out of chaos, as you might expect, it actually makes for an even more impressive listening experience - especially the chance to hear a 'full' 70-odd minute concert complete with 'intro' and 'outro' ('Smoking is not permitted in the auditorium!') Virtually all the best songs from the debut album are here ('Let No Man Steal Your Thyme' 'Hear My Call' 'Bells' 'Waltz' and 'Way Behind The Sun'), all sounding much more lively and together than they did on that LP and making it rather redundant. In addition you have the easiest way of getting hold of non-album single 'Travelling Song' , a delightful almost Merseybeat-ish Bert Jansch song, and the John Renbourn's otherwise unreleased 'John Donne Song' - not about the radio 2 DJ, by the way, but Elizabethan poet and raconteur whose comparatively risque work would make him the 16th century's equivalent of Russell Brand ('Though she was true when you met her, it only lasted till you wrote this letter'). Most of the Transatlantic CD re-issues (and the sole Pentangle album out on Warner Brothers) are good - but this one is exemplary, effectively turning a slightly inconsistent double album into an excellent triple one.
Given all of that lot going on, there simply isn't room for one theme across a whole LP. Instead we'll have to take up one of the general themes that always seem to be there in every Pentangle LP: the stranger lost in the big wide world. Sometimes it's the narrator, pining for a lost love ('So Early In The Spring'), sometimes it's the narrator trying to corrupt a new love ('A Woman Like You'), sometimes the narrator is making the world work for them and getting the better of everyone else around them (the scheming 'Sovay' and, perhaps, the mysterious 'Moon Dog', living life to his own beat). Perhaps I'm reading too much into the title (which in the song it's named after is a song about a girl's gentle nature, rather than a put-down) but 'Sweet Child' does seem to suggest an album of innocents who haven't grown up yet. All Pentangle albums are about hard life lessons, if only because that's what most old folk tunes are about anyway (well, that and love and Pentangle don't do that many straightforward love songs), but 'Sweet Child' more than most. Once that opening market cry is out the way we're immediately into the gut-wrenching drama of 'No More, My Lord' where a wronged maiden is having a break-down: this isn't just another lover she's lost, it's someone that she was determined she was going to spend the rest of her days with and only God can ever put things right again. Many songs follow on a similar level ('I Loved A Lass' is basically the same song, but it's happened to a boy this time), culminating in the huge 'learning curve' of 'The Trees They Do Grow High' where a girl of 24 is forced to marry a boy of 14 she's never even met - just as she comes round to the idea he's dead and she's a single mum (so OTT is the storyline it sounds like a plot from a Medieval Eastenders - luckily it's also a beautiful song, exquisitely sung by Jacqui at her finest). By the end of the album the only people left happy are those who are doing the scheming and conquering ('A Woman Like You' 'Bruton Town') or those who have ignored human values altogether and cut themselves off from the rules everyone else feels governed by ('Moon Dog', the last song on the album to have words, if you choose to play the studio album last). Of course, the real theme - along with every other Pentangle album - might be how close we really are to our ancestors: something especially true in the turbulent year of 1968 (with riots, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, plus Richard Nixon effectively breaking the 'hippie dream' in two). Suffering is, sadly, a human constant across time and while the ways society lets us respond to the challenges that face us may change, we're often left unable to respond. Curiously for such an outpouring of exuberance and energy - and in stark contrast to both the debut album and the all-singing all-dancing follow-up, 'Sweet Child' is a rather sad, bitter album where many things go wrong for most people a majority of the time.
Overall, though, 'Sweet Child' is still an enjoyable experience. There are better later Pentangle LPs and ones that are easier to recommend to people as the way of getting into this fine band, but 'Sweet Child' isn't really interested in being great or accessible. Instead it wants to complete, to push the boundaries of the Pentangle 'style' (ie the combination of about seven different styles) as far as they can go - to breaking point if need be. After all, while all five members of this five-star band have felt that pull individually, this is the first real time (after a tentative debut) that they can work together to fulfil this dream of making the past come alive once more. Naturally they fall on their faces a few times; there are songs here which we listeners deserve a medal for sitting through when we play this album regularly and there are more than a few occasional 'what the?' moments as Pentangle try to find out what will work and what won't. But equally this is the most rounded Pentangle experience of them all, the one record where they make the most of their complete collective pasts in folk, blues and jazz and unite them in a record as 'full' an experience as you could ever wish for. this isn't just a meal, this is a banquet and while not every course is edible there's plenty here to feast on whatever aspect of Pentangle you've come looking for.
To end, a brief word too about the cover. You'd have expected pop artist Peter Blake to have been inundated with requests to make album covers after making 'Sgt Peppers' in 1967, but from what I can tell this album cover from the following year was the first one he did after. In contrast to the 'event' feel of 'Peppers', this album cover of a five-sided 'Pentangle' star is muted and low-key (suggesting that Blake met the band at least once, as it sums up this band nicely though is way out of keeping with most manic covers of 1968). The effect is like having a record cover that looks like stained glass: apt for a band that's basically trying to do exactly that: illuminate old stories of days gone by for future generations to gaze at. While perhaps not quite as distinctive as the 'silhouette' logo on the first album, it's one of the band's better album sleeves from across their careers.
We're treating the 'live' album as the first one but there's no reason why you should - have a skip down to the title track if you want to hear it that way round! 'Market Song' is our first port of call then, introduced with a simple 'Ladies and Gentlemen...Pentangle!' by the compere. 'Market Song' is one of those band compositions that sounds like it might have existed in any era (well, any era with markets) and alternates between a laid back vocal passage and an instrumental break that by Pentangle standards is pretty close to rock: John's electric guitar really flies here in contrast to Bert's steady acoustic. The lyrics are best described as 'odd' - they literally are an invitation to purchase goods, with just one hint at some ulterior motive in the song in the second verse and that the narrator is actually here looking for love, not apples and oranges at all ('All alone I walk with no one, beside me would you not buy'?!) This reading makes the last verse rather risque for the times ('Through the forest I could see them, a-hanging there so ripe and rare, gotta buy them!') but this is Pentangle we're talking about here, not The Rolling Stones, so they probably didn't even notice. All in all this is a fine opening number, with Bert and Jacqui really bouncing off each other well in the vocals and the rest of the band really swinging into life in the middle. Only Pentangle would start with a song they hadn't even released yet in an Albert Hall setting though! The band sort-of revived it for the rockier 'Street Song', the closing number on the Jacqui-and-Bert era's first reunion album 'Open The Door' in 1985 where it's good but not as good as this.
'No More, My Lord' is another highlight of the live set: A traditional song that like the last could also have been written at any time. Jacqui is at her best here as the doom-laden voice of fate, pushing her vocal to its limits on a song that's rather more interesting and multi-layered than it first sounds. The first verse tells us that Jacqui's narrator will never 'turn back' from the love she's committed to, the second decreeing before Jesus that 'he's the one I'm looking for'. So why is this song so sad? Well, verse three reveals that this image of the perfect husband is only in her head and that none of the real men in her life can measure up, leaving Jacqui to plead 'tell me where he can be found!' Musically the band really lock into a groove on this one, with Terry adding a sprightly repetitive drum pattern that is the musical equivalent of doing heavy labour: no sooner have you moved the weight of the world than it starts all over again. Bert and John are their usual great foils to each other on acoustic guitar too, coming up with an interesting hybrid of folk and blues. All in all, one of the album's standout recordings and remarkably 'together' for a live recording.
Bert tries to introduce a 'traditional song' before someone shows him a scrap of paper and reminds him that 'there's been a bit of changing round' in the set list. Instead he introduces John and Jacqui's duet on blues guitarist Furry Lewis' fun take on 'Turn Your Money Green', his promise to treat his girl well if she agrees to go with him. Despite starting his career in the 1920s, like many of his period's bluesmen Furry was never bigger than during the 1960s 'blues' revival (partly thanks to Joni Mitchell's song 'Furry Sings The Blues', about a visit to his apartment to discuss working together) and this fun song with its witty lyrics ('Baby, if the river was a whiskey and I was a duck, I'd dive to the bottom and I would never come up!') is actually more in keeping with the 'hippie' era than the rather more authentic sound of the 1920s. The most famous and oft-quoted line, though, is 'it's been down so long it looks like up to me' - a line so well known that everybody uses it even though few people know where it came from! This is a fun song handled with aplomb by the two singers, but it lacks the direct attack of the last two songs without the full backing of a band and just John's guitar for accompaniment.
'The Haitian Fight Song' is next, one of the more overtly jazz-influenced numbers here. After a long introduction from Danny Thompson on a double-bass that almost purrs, Terry finally joins in on drums and the pair find a slightly rockier groove than most versions of Charles Mingus' well-worn classic. By this stage Mingus was in rather a bad place, hit with financial struggles and evicted along with his family in 1966 for not keeping up with the rent. The fact that there are two Mingus songs on this album suggests that Pentangle might have covered his songs as a kind-hearted gesture for him to get some easy money (the Albert Hall Gig would also have taken place right at the time the cult documentary 'Charles Mingus 1968' was screening whose most famous scene was the family being kicked out of their flat, so it's quite possible that Pentangle would have seen it). The result depends on how much you enjoy jazz instrumentals played by bass and drums - the result is typically well played (of course, it's Pentangle!) but compared to most songs on this live album falls a bit flat.
Luckily Bert's solo spot 'A Woman Like You' quickly rescues the album. Fans are today just as likely to know the song from Bert's slightly fuller reading on his best-selling and final solo album 'The Black Swan' (2006), but even back in 1968 this song was a show-stopper and evidence of a rare talent. Bert's guitar is given a wild tuning, something that's closer to what David Crosby would do than the usual pentangle style, but instead of the 'ethereal' quality of some of Cros' numbers this is hard, earthy and funky. The narrator is, to all outward appearances, a gentlemen. he says that he'd rather 'wait and die a thousand times' that take a mature worldly woman into his life. However, what's he up to with the pretty maidens in this song? He's a wizard, with control over nature, sending in 'a dove to steal your love' and 'a blackbird to steal your heart'. The mixture of naivety mixed with corruption continues in the 'Sesame Street' style chorus, which somewhere gets confused and surreal, as if the narrator is too intoxicated to think straight: 'L is for the long grass to catch you in, O for the orange that sweetens sin, V for this very moment, E for thee'. The narrator then warns that 'if I catch you sleeping unaware, I'll carry you off to my secret lair!' - even the fact that he calls it a 'lair' should be ringing alarm bells. And yet this song isn't creepy the way that other predatory songs like The Stones' tale of under-age sex 'Stray Cat Blues' is; instead it's a song that tries so hard to be innocent and tender, with a lovely flowing melody that thanks to the guitar tuning just sounds that little bit too 'wrong' to ever be a warm-hearted love song. Bert cleverly uses the fact that listener wavers between the warmth of the melody and the un-comfortableness of the setting and really makes the most of a song which rings our alarm bells without us quite knowing why. One of Bert's best songs, this was a Pentangle concert staple for many years and deservedly so - it's another of the album highlights.
The seconds Charlie Mingus cover is the even more obvious 'Goodbye Pork Pie Hat', a track which everyone has covered, written in honour of Mingus' colleague saxophone player Lester Young who always wore 'pork pie' hats and would have loved to have played on a smoky, bluesy song like this one. Some of the cover versions include Jeff Beck, Andy Summers and Joni Mitchell (who added lyrics to her 1979 version), although the best version is actually by Bert and John, years before they were in Pentangle, on their 1966 collaboration rather descriptively titled 'Bert and John'! This band re-recording benefits from Terry's extra drumming part but somehow never quite clicks - the song should rise and fall but this recording merely chugs along, a 'ta ta, see you soon' kind of goodbye rather than a eulogy for a fallen comrade.
'Three Dances' from the Middle Ages follow and like many of Pentangle's similar attempts at educating their fanbase the results are worthy, but dull. Terry introduces the songs in his best 'music tutor' voice, although the serious impact of this is rather undone by what he does next: bring out a children's glockenspiel! The first song is 'Brentzal Gay' by Claude Gervaise - no, not Ricky's brother, but a French Renaissance composer famous for his dances. I'm not quite sure what dance you could manage to this one, though, with it's tricky time signatures making it sound as if it's the sort of 'dance' one does when accidentally dropping something rather hot on your lap. Next up is the traditional 'La Rotta' , an Italian piece that dates back even further and features the kind of bluesy guitar part Bert is known for alongside yet more glockenspiel. It sounds like the sort of thing Led Zeppelin would have turned into a heavy metal thrash but sounds rather sweet here, if rather short. I still don't know how you'd dance to it though: it sounds like the kind of 'dance' you do when you trip over something and flail your arms about before coming to an undignified stop! William Byrd's 'Earle Of Salisbury' is my favourite of the three, with an earnest guitar part that's quite lovely. Byrd comes from the English side of the Renaissance, where everything was clearly taken slowly and rather more stately - this is the sort of 'dance' you do when you're shuffling back from the shops with a heavy load, pausing for breath every few metres. Or perhaps I'm just fond of Byrd because he was - allegedly born on my birthday (making him 359 years older than me, something that makes me feel rather young by comparison) and all the jokes about Byrd working with 'The Byrds' we do every year on our April Fool's Day columns. Ho ho ho, how we laugh! The overall effect of this medley is of being stuck in a music lesson that seems to be going on for an awfully long time when all you really want to do is get the instruments out and have a go yourself!
The traditional 'Watch The Stars' is up next and it's a lovely folkie number, the closest here to what Pentangle's contemporaries on the folks scene would have been doing. John and Jacqui sing together and do a good job as the two love-struck lovers staring up at the stars and the moon and the, err, wind (how do you 'see' a wind, exactly? You can only see the effects it causes!) The song is perhaps a little bit on the repetitive side, but there's a lovely flowing melody at its heart and the band turn in another fine atmospheric performance, with Danny's bass playing subtly driving the song along. The Alan's Album Archives folk elves we have working for us tell me that this song probably started life as Negro spiritual before being adapted by the folk movement, which figures in as much as the song is about the freedom the night skies have all the time but humans only fleetingly. Sadly not many people ever revived this song - the only other version I can find is on a various artists album titled 'American Folk Songs For Christmas' even though a) it probably isn't American and b) certainly isn't Christmassey! John Renbourn cut the song first on a 1967 album of duets he made with singer Dorris Henderson - this band version is slightly the better, however.
'So Early In The Spring' is another folk song, one that I've always loved (it was Jacqui McShee's Pentangle version of the song in 1989 was the first Pentangle song I ever heard - bless you 'The Very Best Of British Folk Rock' - it was where I discovered Lindisfarne too). This early version is a little, umm, weirder than the later, fuller band version: this is just Jacqui singing alone for three-and-a-half minutes. Bert jokingly introduces it as 'our star turn' and he's not far off: Jacqui's warm gorgeous voice is perfect for the song, even though ostensibly it's about a young boy who sails to sea and pines for his dearest love back on shore (Pentangle never did care much for genders - it's one of their strengths in their mission to make old songs live for all of us). Returning to port years later, he looks up his lost love and is heartbroken to hear she is 'a rich man's wife', something that causes him to 'return to the seas till the day I die'. However even Jacqui is struggling to keep our interest after six straight verses with the same melody and no variation in them: perhaps the original line-up of Pentangle should have performed it as a band number back in 1968? Interestingly the audience seem to know exactly when to clap: did Jacqui give a non-audible sign that she's finished? Or were audiences just cleverer back in 1968?!
'No Exit' is the turn of Bert and John to strut their stuff and while this two-minute improvisation really deserves to be longer it's a good showcase for just how attune to each other the two guitarists were. My guess is that it's Bert playing the moodier, bluesy parts in the left channel and John slashing his guitar like a folk version of Pete Townshend on the right. Like many instrumentals, it's hard to get a handle on what the band were 'after' on this song without any words to go by, but the title 'No Exit' is interesting: were the band meant to be conjuring up the idea of blockades (this song does sound like an argument between two people, played out on guitars rather than voices). Or were Bert and John simply playing in front of a 'no exit' sign?!
Moving on, Anne Briggs' 'The Time Has Come' is perhaps the most 'obviously' Pentangle song on the album and is in many ways the template for much of their future sound (along with 'Let No Man Steal Your Thyme' from the first album). Jacqui soars above a backing that veers from folky loveliness to Terrys' rhythmic jazz shuffle while Bert sticks in a solo best described as folk-blues. This is another song about loss, with Jacqui the one doing the moving on this time, warning her partner that they've been together so long they know each other too well; that 'tomorrow comes like yesterday and the autumn fades our love away'. To make sure that the move is permanent and he won't be followed, Jacqui's narrator even emigrates, putting an ocean between her and her former lover. However nowhere is there any trace of resentment, bitterness or even much sadness in the song - instead it's all done calmly, in a matter that suggests that this is the only logical solution for both halves of the marriage, considered only after every other option has been exhausted. Pentangle very clever maintain the illusion of a duck swimming gracefully on top of the water but thanks to chaos underneath: Terry's rattling drum breaks and Bert's fierce solo points at the real heartbreak in the song that the rest of the lovely peaceful song is doing its best to ignore. All in all, one of Pentangle's better cover songs and the best of their handful of Anne Briggs numbers (which include 'The Snows They Melt The Soonest' and 'Sally Go Round The Roses' - Bert in particular was a fan of her work).
The live show then ends with 'Bruton Town', the one song here that fans would have known from the first album but already one of the band's more famous show-stoppers. Personally I find this live version rather rough and ready compared to the album which has more difficulty navigating the many tricky sections of the song. Basically it's a soap opera, Medieval style: the daughter of a farming family is planning to run off with a servant, but her brothers hear about it and plot to kill him after an invite to go 'hunting' with them (would a servant have been allowed to go?) The lads pretend that the servant ran off and that they couldn't find him but his ghost returns to the daughter and tells what they did to him. She finds the ditch where they threw him and weeps disconsolately for three days and nights. However it's the final line of the song that is the real killer blow of the song: that after this 'Home she was obliged to go'. Did she never love him anyway? Does her loyalty to her brothers run deeper than that to her beloved? Is he going to be forgotten when she moves on to the next suitor? Pentangle's arrangement cleverly leaves the question hanging before they suddenly start singing upwards the musical equivalent of a twist of the knife. The message: stay away from Burton Town: it's brutal!
Onto the studio album now and away from the echoey acoustics of the Albert Hall. That's especially good news for the title track of 'Sweet Child' which is another prime candidate for Pentangle template. 'Sweet Child' sounds sweet but actually it's a tough little song, mordbidly debating whether the narrator is still in love or not. Jacqui and Bert's vocals wrap around each other to great effect, John and Bert's guitars bounce off each other (and pan around the left and right speakers to great effect), while Danny and Terry add a neat little rock kick in the middle section. The song, like most Pentangle originals, is credited to the whole group and is a slightly regretful love song taken from a stance of a partnership that's been together a long time. The narrator's lover (who could be of either sex - especially with Jansch and McShee singing at once) is working hard to keep a relationship together and is clearly still in love, but the narrator himself is alternating between bouts of 'drinking hard' because he/she's not in love and 'floating high' because he/she is still in love with him/her. The narrator reaches out for the hand of his/her 'sweet child', but he still isn't sure whether he's in love after all these years- 'I do not know you well yet I tried through four and twenty years'. Looking for an answers, the narrator turns to great thinkers of previous eras, the 'great men who could save our souls with kind and gentle hearts', but doesn't know who they are and fails to be like them. The song ends as ambiguously as it started, with the narrator and his lover cuddling up together but with the stark final line 'I may not be here for long, I got a feeling to be gone!' The result is one of Pentangle's better thought out group songs, one that is driven ahead by Terry's drums but every so often tries to put the brakes on thanks to the fiery guitar outbursts after every verse. This track, not often performed by the band live, deserves to be better known.
The traditional Scottish song 'I Loved A Lass' continues the theme of lost love and features Bert at his folkiest, with lots of lovely guitar-work and some rattled drums by Terry. Bert's narrator is doubly hurt when his love betrays him and 'becomes wed to another' because he didn't see it coming - he'd even spent most of their courtship defending her honour to friends who turned out to be right. In a bizarre development, Bert even gets invited to the wedding and sits there 'pouring the wine' and proposing a toast to his beloved even though his heart is breaking (this must be a very tight-knit community where his absence would have gone noticed). The poor narrator then pines away from loneliness and heartbreak, 'turned in a grave for to take a long sleep', hoping that 'maybe in time I'll forget her'. The result is one of the band's better readings of traditional songs of loss and love, with the performance by just Bert, John, Danny and Terry deeply intimate. Bert especially excels on the ends of each verse which unexpectedly shifts to a minor key after 4/5ths of each verse are in the major - the equivalent of letting the narrator's real feelings peek through the stone-cold emotionless state he allows others to see. Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeger will later both record better known versions of this song, but it's Pentangle's take that's easily the best, with a musical equivalent of a walk to the cells or off a cliff, made against the narrator's own will.
Alas 'Three-Part Thing' is less exciting: a band improvisation credited to Bert, John and Danny (the only three who play on it), it's a sound-alike of Medieval tunes dominated by Danny's scratchy double pass part (which sounds rather like skinning a very large cat). However as the title 'thing' implies, this song doesn't fit into any traditional Medieval structures or any 1960s musical structures come to that. Like the improvisations that dominated Pentangle's debut, the effect is of being taught something rather than being caught up in it - it's as if the band sat there saying 'how can we educate our audiences?' instead of entertaining them. John and Bert's interplay is always good to hear, of course, and Danny is a fine player - but somehow that isn't enough for one of the longest 150 seconds in Pentangle's back catalogue. Despite the title there aren't really that many 'parts' or changes in this instrumental to keep it interesting, with a brief guitar flurry from Jo0hn at the minute mark the only really part of this 'Thing' that holds the interest. Not one of the band's better ideas.
At last Jacqui is back and 'Sovay' is one of her greatest showcases, with McShee really getting into the role as a scheming lover determined to make sure her true love stays true. 'Sovay' is perhaps best known for being the theme tune to 1980s children's TV series 'The Song and the Story' but it actually dates back several centuries (the name 'Sovay' is an early form of the name 'Sophie', a moniker that a lot of other versions of this folk song have used over the years, although Pentangle, typically, stay traditional). One day Sovay dresses up as a highway robber and holds her fiancé up as he was 'riding over the plain'. Sensibly he gives up all his gold to her but refuses to pass on his diamond engagement ring. A good move as it turns out, for 'the token from my sweetheart' was of course given to him by Sovay. She rides off, delighted with her suitor none the wiser. He meets up with Sovay the next morning to tell her the tale of how he was robbed, but recognises his watch 'a hanging by her clothes' and asks her what's going on - delighted Sovay tells him he passed her 'test' and returns his gold to him. This traditional tale doesn't quite stand and deliver the way it should: even by pentangle standards this so g is taken at a fast lick without any real pause for breath between verses. However, Jacqui is in her element with a tough female part to play and once again the guitar sparring between Bert and John is very special.
'In Time' is the best of the Pentangle improvised instrumentals on this album - but that's a qualitative measure: there are few songs in the world that wouldn't benefit from lyrics and this is another of them. Still, the song (dedicated to all the band except Jacqui, who again does not appear) does show off just how well Pentangle can play and does their usual trick of bouncing from folk-rock to pure jazz and back again, with a bit of blues thrown in thanks to Bert's distinctive guitar cries. Bert and John really are on good form here, finishing off each other's guitar lines and making the most of their five years of friendship here. Danny finally gets the space he needs for a 'proper' jazz bass part too and nails the song's tricky groove very well. However it's Terry who is the star on this track, riding the cymbals before shaking up the tempo every-time the song gets too stuck in place with a quick rattle that forces the band onto something new. 'In Time' isn't the greatest thing on 'Sweet Child' by any means, but it's a big improvement on the many similar instrumentals on the debut album and the others heard so far on this record.
The delightful ballad 'In Your Mind' is another album highlight and once more is credited to the whole band although I have a sneaking suspicion that lead singer Bert had rather a lot to do with it. Jacqui and Terry both add delightful harmony parts on this delightful tale of being at one with nature. Like many pentangle originals it could have been written in any century, un-encumbered by images of towns and industries, with the narrator spending a night out in the fields and woods and watching the world awake along with him. There's a hint, though, that a more industrial way of life is happening just round the corner, that 'over there you could be mad, like a fool searching for the true and why', when you all have to do to find the 'why' is commune with nature (or you could, as Terry keeps chirping in, simply go there 'in your mind'). In truth this song needs a little something else to make it truly special: a fiery guitar outburst or a middle eight about having to return to the 'real' world would have helped this song no end. But no matter: even though what we have here is just a two-minute fragment, it's a very lovely and enticing two minute fragment.
The whole band are also credited with the bluesy 'I've Got A Feeling', another fan favourite that Pentangle have often played in concert in all eras. Like The Beatles song from the following year (with which it shares a lot, especially it's bluesy feel) the 'feeling' is love: the narrator quite comes out and says it and is apparently taken by surprise with the idea, but what else can Jacqui's narrator have 'concerning the things we're gonna do'? There isn't much to this song either (three brief verses of four lines each), but the song is surrounded by a lot of classic Pentangle solo-ing: this time by Danny who is at his best here on his increasingly eccentric part that makes the song positively glow by the end. Jacqui is perfect as always too, purring her way through a song that must have been hard to sing (it's a song that has a jazz swing but given very much a folk setting). The result is one of the better Pentangle compositions on the album and one that very successfully combines two styles together.
My favourite song from this 'studio' side, though, is not a Pentangle song at all but the doom-laden traditional tragic folk song 'The Trees They Do Grow High', thought to be written down first in 1600-and-something-or-other. Jacqui's latest narrator is 'twice twelve', her betrothed 'just 14' and against her wishes and without even seeing each other the pair are married. In the course of the song the narrator finally gets her father to agree to send him to college 'for one year yet', with 'blue ribbons' tied around his head 'to let the maidens know that he's married'. Finally they meet and are instantly attracted to each other ('My own true love was the flower of them all') and have a son. However before he can become a parent the lad dies, ending a loving relationship that was slow to spark but seemed to be destiny calling out across the years. A real morality tale about being careful what you wish for because your needs can change, it puts you right at the heart of the contrast between 'then' and 'now, when the maidens have no rights of their own, when love counts for nothing and where human beings die young all the time. Each verse ends with some variation on the line 'he's young but he's daily growing' - the last verse somewhat ironically as now only the 'grass around his grave' is growing: the boy will never get taller, lost before his time. Jacqui is perfect here, singing the song in distant, almost cold tones as if she's unable to admit to any emotion while all her sorrows are exhibited instead by the band, in terry's 'death rattle' on the drums, Danny's slow head-shaking bass parts and Bert and John's guitar strumming. The melody is a hauntingly beautiful one too, one that sighs and at times almost drops to its knees in agonies, but still picks itself up at the end of each verse, making do with a sad situation because there is nothing else to do. Most Pentangle songs work by showing us that the past is simply a different cloak thrown around each generation's shoulders - that although the times that surround the people may change the people within them do not. 'The Trees They Do Grow High', however, is a rare case of Pentangle doing the opposite, emphasising just how much 'freedom' someone in 1968 had compared to five-hundred-odd years earlier. The result is one of their more poignant revivals of an ancient folk tune, one that's heartbroken and heartbreaking but far from making the most of that drama almost tries to hide it. One of the very greatest pentangle recordings.
After the past brought to life the unusual 'Moon Dog' seems to talk about the 'freedoms' we now have - or at least that the title track does. Moon Dog, a song by Terry who sings alone to his own drum accompaniment, is almost certainly named after the blind street musician born Louis Thomad Hardin who was a familiar figure on New York's 6th avenue ('He's a beggar on a street corner...to passers by that's all he is'). Most people see 'Moon Dog' as nothing more than another of society's drop-outs, but Terry recognises a 'genius', a 'son of rhythm' wired slightly differently to most people. As a musician struggling to make a living to a bigger audience, Terry admires the beggar whose audience is only the people who walk past and yet who thanks to his years of practice is a remarkable drummer, honourably shunning creature comforts to make his art. The song might have been better had 'Moon Dog' himself been playing (although you sense he'd have said 'no') or if the band had made more play of Moondog's conviction that he was a re-incarnation of the God Odin. An actual melody would have been nice too! But even though 'Moon Dog' is almost wilfully odd in construction and recording that perfectly fits this little tribute to life's eccentrics who, while despised by most of society, actually have much to teach the world. As for the name 'moon dog'. it's actually taken from an unusual astronomical development where ice crystals in the air cause the moon to look like it has a 'halo'. The phrase appears again and again in musical circles though: as one of the many nicknames of UK DJ Alan 'Fluff' Freeman, a 1970s punk-rock band and, of course, one of the many early names for The Beatles when in the style of most 19650s bands they were christened 'Johnny and the Moondogs'.
A sprawling double album needs a strong song to tie things altogether, but sadly 'Sweet Child' ducks the responsibility and ends with another instrumental - this time a cover of Ewan McColl's 'Hole In The Coal'. The version that made the album is a five minute epic that possibly goes on a bit too long - I actually prefer the 'alternate version' from the CD's many bonus tracks that's only about half the length and taken slightly faster (with most of what's missing coming from the middle of the song). Once again Bert, John, Danny and Terry are on great form and show real telepathic ability, especially John's soaring lead (the acoustic guitar's equivalent of Eric Clapton!) Once again, though an instrumental just sounds like it's taking up space on an album that would benefit from more lyrics and from Jacqui singing and, hard as Pentangle try, they don't quite match up to Ewan McColl's original. He also wrote many better songs that might have been more suitable for the band to cover: 'Dirty Town' or the gorgeous 'The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face', for instance, back in the days before everyone had recorded it. The piece certainly doesn't belong here where it seems almost thrown away at the end of an album that has taken in life, death and everything in between.
'Sweet Child' isn't perfect, then. Few Double albums are: with that much space to fill bands often struggle to keep to just their very best songs and often get self-indulgent in an effort to get an album up to length. Pentangle suffer from that more than most, with at least five instrumentals too many for a record to comfortably handle. However they also benefit more than most from the 'upside' of making a double album and from the chance for the listener to know the band that little bit better. Even if half of it probably shouldn't be here, the other half of 'Sweet Child' is highly important and sets out more than any other Pentangle LP just how many directions this band can go in - often at the same time. The band will learn that less is more and harness the very best of what they learn here for the delightful 'Basket Of Light' coming up next - still one of my favourite albums by anybody - but I know a lot of fans love this album even more, simply because its' so Pentangle: no other band would include a concert performed at the Albert Hall and not play their hits, revive centuries-long-forgotten dance songs for glockenspiel from the Renaissance or dedicate songs to street beggars that are near a capella. There's no other album in my collection quite like 'Sweet Child' and that's a sad thought: sprawling maybe, confused a little and heavy going sometimes, 'Sweet Child' is still a remarkable achievement for a remarkable band who still get things 'right' much more often than they get them 'wrong'. If this really was an AAA street market then I would be walking out with as many handfuls of Pentangle produce as I can carry.
Other Pentangle reviews from this site you might be interested in:
The Alan's Album Archives Guide To Belle and Sebastian 'Rollercoaster Ride' Is Available Now By Clicking Here
Dear all , welcome to the second in our series of 'non-album' round-ups, this time for 1990s' finest Belle and Sebastian. As those of you who've read our similar project on The Beach Boys will know, we're hoping to slowly collect ourt articles into books somewhere around 2017 so here's another major piece of the puzzle not covered in any of our 'main album' articles (although we've added a few songs here originally dealt with on the 'Push Barman To Heal Old Wounds' compilation). You can see a collection of live/solo/compilation albums for Belle and Sebastian next week!Oh and sorry for the colour code - for some reason half the text has copied over successfully from 'Word' but the rest hasn't - hopefully it's still readable!
Non-Album Recordings Part #1: 1995:
A) The earliest Belle and Sebastian recordings weren't actually the first to be released. In fact the very first recordings have never been released: a series of demos recorded while the band were still students, which impressed college professor Alan Rankine enough to see the band chosen as that year's 'student release' on Glasgow University's Electric Honey label (see our entry on 'unreleased Belle and Sebastian recordings' for more). The second batch were released but not until May 1997 - a full two years after being recorded as a sort of 'warm-up exercise for the 'Tigermilk' album and at this stage only featured the two Stuarts and drummer Richard Colburn (as a result there are no harmony vocals, only Stuart Murdoch double-tracked, no strings or trumpet and the bare basics of synthesisers and guitars. That said it's amazing in retrospect just how close this first EP is to the 'later' sound - many fans and critics lapped these recordings up quite happily without realising they were 'old' recordings). Of the four songs only an earlier demo recording of 'The State I Am In' was ever re-recorded - the rest simply sat in the vaults until the 'Dog On Wheels' EP, which was released as a kind of 'stop-gap' release between the second and third albums. The cover again features model Joanne Kenney (the star of 'Tigermilk'), this time with her top on and clutching a toy dog on wheels.
The first track on it is Dog On Wheels itself and it's a terrific place to start, being at once deeply heartfelt and downright bizarre. The narrator sounds, to all intents and purposes, as if he’s singing about his childhood sweetheart – he started off feeling ‘confounded’, then felt ‘indebted’ and seemingly is so affected by the object of his affections that ‘every song I sang is written for you’. The likes of Lionel Richie would then have got busy putting this sort of song into orchestral piano ballad-come-lift music territory, but Murdoch chooses to record his song as an edgy, restless rocker that turns into something akin to a Spanish bullfight thanks to the trumpet solo in the middle. The second verse, with the narrator reaching out to the beautiful mountains he can see outside his window that represent his escape from mundanity, is a classic set of lyrics– with the poor harassed friend there to ‘save’ him, not only when he finds his dreams aren’t real but when he falls out of the window trying literally to reach for the stars! B and S love pulling the floor from underneath you just when you think you’ve got things sorted out and in case you’re wondering where the dogs on wheels in the title has come from, the narrator reveals at the end that he’s actually been singing about his favourite childhood toy, the only person to whom he feels secure enough to tell his secrets. That revelation comes dangerously close to making this a quirky novelty record, but the band delay the punch-line for so long and give such a dark and brooding performance with everyone taking the song absolutely seriously they just about pull it off. The result is a tense, punchy rocker punctuated by shrill outbursts on the trumpet, the only true licks of colour in this very dark and shadowy song. Find it on: the EP 'Dog On Wheels' (1997) and the EP compilation 'Push Barman To Heal Old Wounds' (2005)
B) From the same EP comes one of the band's earliest recordings, the demo for The State I Am In, the band’s first major song and a landmark in 1990s songwriting, even if very few people heard it on first release. The final version of this song ended up on Tigermilk and while this early version isn't quite there yet compared to the better known, slightly later version (Colburn's drumming is a little heavy handed, the backing a little tentative and Murdoch noisily clears his throat during the line about 'She was not impressed') the magic is still audibly in the room. For a bunch of guys who hadn't met until a few months (maybe weeks) they've clearly 'got' the song and it's fragility and the way it so slowly slides out of control by the end of the song. Yes the guitars and vocals slide around, the drumming is hesitant and Murdoch's double-tracking awkward but it doesn’t matter – such is the thrilling atmosphere when the band suddenly realise for pretty much the first time that actually, yes, they can pull this sort of thing off and that by doing so they've come up with a unique sound that no one else was making. If I'd have been at Glasgow University with access to a record label I'd have signed Belle and Sebastian up for a multi-album deal then and there so strong is this track and so good the recording, when circumstances are taken into consideration. All in all this first version of one of Belle and Sebastian's greatest songs is in a mighty fine 'state' indeed. Find it on: the EP 'Dog On Wheels' (1997) and the EP compilation 'Push Barman To Heal Old Wounds' (2005)
C) String Bean Jean is one of the band’s largely unique ‘social observation’ songs of the 1990s, a gentle rocker with a gorgeous melody line which seems to add grandeur to the character’s often boring daily lives and make them sound like the soundtrack of some epic film. The title character is another of the narrator’s many friends, whose demeanour is as open as her house, so carefree and easy-going its ‘like your holidays whenever you go around’. However, the character’s ‘real’ inner personality isn’t what she displays on the outside at all, full of hidden neuroses and jealousies that cause her to compete with her friends and seek to be dangerously thin (hence her nickname, taken from the fact that her jeans size reads ‘7-8 years old’). Small of body but big of heart seems to be the theme of the song, with Murdoch keen to point out that the character’s personality means that all her friends love her far too much to care what she looks like. Jean is another of Belle and Sebastian’s early period character songs, one that’s actually quite depressing and troubling when you analyse it, but is dressed up in such pretty bright colours and zest for life that it just sounds like a strong pop tune with a neat hook the first few times you hear it. Find it on: the EP 'Dog On Wheels' (1997) and the EP compilation 'Push Barman To Heal Old Wounds' (2005)
D) The last track on the Dog On Wheels EP is Belle and Sebastian’s own song called, erm, Belle and Sebastian would you believe. It’s nothing like the true tale of how B and S got their name by the way (the band really ‘borrowed’ it from the children’s books by Mmle Cecile Aubrey because they thought it sounded interesting – the author is credited under the ‘thankyou’ list of most of the band’s CDs from this point onwards for granting her permission for them to use it) and seems to be a deliberate attempt to ‘dress up’ the myth of the band with a nice-sounding rock and roll story, creating a myth that isn’t there so openly that it seems like a spoof of all the bad rock and roll mythologies that have sprung up over the years. There’s still plenty of sweet and very B and S moments in the song, however, with Sebastian - a troubled soul weighed down by all the innocuous mistakes he makes but he worries are of world-shattering importance - one of the band’s most believable and likable characters. He’s also a great contrast with the worldly wise Belle who seems to be take life in her stride and helps takes him under her wing. Murdoch’s singing gets a bit off-key in places and the band haven’t quite got to grips with the song to the same extent as most of their other early material yet, but frankly with all the production layers that usually go on in B and S’ work in a few years’ time it’s a joy to hear this recording with the rough edges left in. Find it on: the EP 'Dog On Wheels' (1997) and the EP compilation 'Push Barman To Heal Old Wounds' (2005)