Monday 30 November 2015

"The Pentangle" (1968)

You can now buy 'Watch The Stars - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of Pentangle' in e-book form by clicking here!

"The Pentangle" (1968)

Let No Man Steal Your Thyme/Bells/Hear My Call/Pentangling// Mirage/Way Behind The Sun/Burton Town/Waltz

The only album to list the band as 'The Pentangle' will, as it turns out, be not 'the' Pentangle at all but 'a' Pentangle, one of many variants fans will get to hear over the years. Not yet the all-singing all-dancing jazz/folk/blues/rock/psychedelia amalgam the band will be in two albums' time and not yet the folk purists the band will transform into, this is instead Pentangle the jazz band, albeit a jazz band who have only folk songs in their repertoire. In another 'clue' to their not-quite formed identity, there isn't a single picture of Pentangle anywhere on the original cover, which instead features the band in a distinctive silhouette image that will go on to become their most familiar logo, used on pretty much every other compilation in the CD age.  Not only is it completely unlike any other record ever made in the era, it's not that much like the other Pentangle records either (ask a Pentangle fan from 1967, 1969 or 1972 about what the band's signature sound was and I'm willing to bet you'd get at least three different answers).  Though Pentangle wouldn't tour as the Grateful Dead's support act for another year or two, this is the record fans have in mind when they talk about Pentangle being the 'English' Dead or the 'folk' Dead (and the 'inspiration for the Dead's first 'acoustic' sets in fact): the album contains four short folk standards played with a jazzy edge and four epic improvisations that are far edgier than anything the band will go on to play in later years. All of it, even the shorter songs in the set, comes with solos - usually on the double bass.

Though similar things had been done solo in folk circles - including albums by guitarists Bert Jansch and John Renbourn - no other 'band' had ever quite pulled off such a feat. 'The Pentangle' was new and exciting - and impossible to repeat, so the band simply didn't bother, choosing instead to explore their varied record collections on later albums and, bit by bit, lose the jazz sound that dominates this record. In a way that's how it should be: Pentangle are so new at this time that every move they make seems like a surprise to everyone in the room, every note played inventive simply because it's being played by five such different musicians with such different backgrounds and tastes at once. This sound  is an exotic wild animal that's only just been discovered and is still so new the band don't want to tame it and bring it to heel yet either, so for now they let it roam free as much as 'it' wants in its natural habitat, which happens to be jazz, the 'loosest' of all genres. Future Pentangle albums will attempt to collar this animal, translate it's barks and squeals and work out what it has in common with other genres to better understand it, with even the sequel (the sprawling double record set 'Sweet Child') interested in exploring all the different features under a microscope in turn rather than all at once in one long breathless rush.  But for now this is a wild beast with too much spring in its step to ever be caged, with this debut album by far the 'purest' essence of what that mysterious Pentangle actually is: played by folk and occasionally rock and psychedelic instruments, with bluesy moods and a jazzy after-taste. Though almost half of the album is impressively old (the Middle Ages) the sound is cutting edge contemporary and could only have been made in the freer second half of the 1960s (even though 'The Pentangle', with its monochrome cover and traditional songs about yesteryear , is hardly your typical summer of love album either). No wonder onlookers then and now feel confused by it: not only does this beast look like it has several body parts from other animals stuck together (Pentangle are the tapir of all bands), musical historians can't even date it properly: is this band a new branch of evolution, given how little it shares with the year of 1967? If not is it a band that dates back to the dawning of civilisation and folk songs (as per much of the material, surely sung as oral traditions many centuries before the 'official' dates given in this book, which simply happens to be when they were written down)? Or is it a 'bandanimal' from our future, sent back after a hideous genetic mutation?

I'm still in two minds what I think of this wild animal in its natural habitat, which is a far wilder wide than any of the other Pentangle albums. Much as I long to see musical animals roam free in their natural habitat, this one is a little too - well - frisky at times, sticking it's claws deep into the listener's skin and squawking with such wild abandon and noise that you wonder whether you read the record label right and this isn't actually an album by some avant garde heavy metal band instead. There's nothing 'easy listening' about this record - even the four shorter songs feature the same intensity and madness, just in a more compact way than the elongated jazz improvs: 'Let No One Steal Your Thyme' for instance may well be the maddest, saddest, baddest start to any AAA debut LP: a feminist anthem from the seventeenth century no less, sung almost a capella on the first half apart from some see-sawing double bass riffs from Danny Thomson that are quite unlike any other sound around (in folk circles at least). Often this record has sharp claws cut on later records: there's a murder as early in Pentangle's canon as 'Bruton Town', a particularly nasty affair sung with an angular melody that seems to be mirroring the sheer ugliness that the human race is capable of. There are sections on 'Bells' and 'Waltz' too where the beast suddenly rolls over from having it's tummy tickled and screams so loudly and abruptly in your ears that you half-vow never to go there again. There's a moment in the middle of 'Pentangling' where you fear this beast is never going to let you go or get back into it's box, that it's simply going to feature four shrieking musicians and a singer going 'aaaaah' like a banshee possessed forever, that you've been lured to your death out of musical curiosity, siren-style. There are long periods too where nothing seems to be happening - something that later longer Pentangle albums can get away with but which this one  (a mere half hour long from head to tail) just can't afford.

However just as animals kept in zoos are only living out a folk memory of what made them wild in the first process, so no other later Pentangle album will ever feel quite this gloriously 'free' again. We marvel in reviews of later Pentangle records at the musician's abilities to read each other so well after years of playing together. On this record, though the band have known each other in twos and threes for quite long stretches of time, they've only just begun to play as a quintet and you can hear the very real doubt in the band's minds as they breath in nervously and cross their fingers and hope that somehow they will all find their way back to the straight and narrow at the same time, after walking into a wholly un-catalogued part of the jungle. Amazingly the official word on this album is that Pentangle (of whom only Bert and John were used to recording studios) recorded almost every song on this album on the first take - the few songs that collapsed being taped safely in two or three takes. It's that element that's so astonishing to me: I could well believe that Pentangle could manage the old 'monkeys in front of typewriters' thing and just keeping taping over all their 'bad' nights until they caught a good one. I would have understood too if the band had played safe, repeating the songs they'd already recorded together while guesting on each other's solo albums or recorded the sort of material they'll do later (the more 'obvious' folk standards, from 'Will The Circle Be Unbroken?' to 'Sally Free And Easy' - well, perhaps we'd better make that 'obvious assuming you grew up above a folk club'). Instead we get three traditional songs very few people would have known, one recent cover song that you'd still have to be a pretty big folk collector to know (and still probably wouldn't recognise as done here) and four musical jams. That's a tall order for any band to get right but Pentangle, at their youngest and hungriest, sound as if they've been doing this all their lives.

To some extent, of course, they had - adult lives anyway. 'Pentangle' were the CSN of the folk world in many ways, a 'super-group' of five performers who'd already made a name for themselves and had gotten together not so much to further their careers but because that's the way the music seemed to be taking them (and just as CSN were well known enough to play their second ever gig in public at Woodstock, so Pentangle's second 'real' gig was a sell out show at the Royal Festival Hall in May 1968, after lots of great performances for locals at a London folk club called 'The Horseshoe Hotel'in Tottenham Court Road across the early part of 1967 - shame no one had a tape recorder). Bert had already made four solo albums by the time of this debut LP, while John had made three, while the two friends had already made a joint album together in 1966 that in many ways is the genesis of the 'Pentangle' sound as well as guesting on each other's solo records. Though the pair were technically rivals, battling it out for the prestigious spots at folk clubs, the pair's styles were so different to each other that they were more like mutual admirers who found several shared passions (Bert's purist folk was driven by words and rhythms and his solo albums almost always feature instrumentals featuring fast finger-flying chord exercises - John's background was in blues and was based more around melody and mood, while his own fast-flying guitar solos tended to be clear and precise; if Pentangle had been a rock band Bert would have been the rhythm player and John the soloist but as usual the lines were more blurred than that in Pentangle).

They quickly became such good friends that they agreed to share the rent of a flat in London's St John's Wood together, which quickly became the scene for several extravagant folk parties and the in-place to hang out (including a film camera from Denmark who captured Bert and John rehearsing together in their flat for the documentary series 'Folksangre' - they play a mean version of 'Bells', with John laughing in delight at how well their styles mesh together). Three of the people who hung out were Jacqui, Danny and drummer Terry Cox, who hadn't yet made an album between them before but were big names in their own right on the local folk scene. Of the three Jacqui had perhaps the most interesting career: she got so tired of not being allowed to sing that she sank her own money into running a folk club called The Red Lion at a pub in Surrey and filled in for every singer who were too inebriated to turn up. Like Renbourn she had a really wide knowledge of early folk songs and knew most of what local bands liked performing anyway. Hearing about Bert's impressive following, she booked him to appear and the pair became friends - John too through Bert, who as the nerviest singer in the band found Jacqui an ideal partner for his guitar playing with the two becoming a firm double act (Bert, as usual, preferred to go it alone). Jacqui became a key guest on John's final pre-Pentangle album 'Another Monday', which along with 'Bert and John' sounds very much like an early regeneration of 'Pentangle', but the later purer folk Pentangle than this first LP. Danny had been playing in Alexis Korner's Blues Band and wishing he could play more folk when Alexis hired Terry as the band's new drummer -whose first love was also folk. The pair became fast friends and continued as a sort of ad hoc rhythm section for a number of bands after the Korner band finally folded. The pair happened to be playing together as the support act on a bill that included both Bert solo and John and Jacqui together at the Horseshoe Hotel and they discovered between them that they played similar music which also happened to sound nothing like what anyone else happened to be playing. Though it was Bert backstage who first mused 'hey wouldn't it be a great idea if we all got together and made up a new band based around all our similarities and differences?', he was simply dreaming of something he didn't think was likely to happen: all five had their own careers already with their own audiences and they weren't likely to see each other again. John in particular, though, thought that the idea was a brilliant one and made sure it would happen, approaching the others about their thoughts and deciding that everyone thought it was worth a shot.

It was, to some extent, a gamble: none of the five had ever performed in a band the size of Pentangle and folk music, traditionally, tended to be played by soloists or in twos and threes. Though The Incredible String Band in particular can lay claim to be the first folk 'band' long before Pentangle, 'pure' folk bands (rather than folk-rock bands like The Byrds) were rare. Pentangle was a very conscious leap into the unknown the band didn't have to make, as all five had their own careers going for them. Translating the material the band already knew into new arrangements for a five piece were going to be tricky too, while getting the different 'feel' of the five different performers (based around folk, blues and jazz) seemed near impossible. Given the need to differentiate between the two guitarists, Bert and John came up with the plan to either alternate acoustic and electric (still something that made folk purists gnash their teeth even two years after Bob Dylan was nicknamed 'Judas' for plugging in on stage)  and, where possible, a different instrument with Bert getting out his banjo and John 'borrowing' Bert's battered second-hand sitar (bought in shadowy circumstances according to the sleevenotes of Pentangle's 'The Time Has Come' box set). However though the members of Pentangle were very different in many ways, they shared a similar musical curiosity. The fact that no other band had ever tried to do something quite like Pentangle before was, rather than something to be feared, something to be celebrated. And if the band kept their tentative rehearsals quiet then they could just go back to their old jobs anyway in a few weeks' time, the folk world none the wiser. Far from being formed by a desire to change the folk music landscape forever, Pentangle were more of a 'gee wouldn't it be nice if we?...' kind of a band and who were, it seems, as surprised as anybody at how different their combined style was to anything any of them had individually made before.

The band needed a name - and Renbourn happened to have one ready, as if he'd been waiting for this moment to come along all his life. 'Pentangle' were a super-group made up of five 'stars' so it made sense to give them the name of a five-star emblem that, though forgotten by 1967, used to be a 'special' sign in his beloved Medieval manuscripts (basically another word for a 'pentagram'). A magical sign intended to ward off evil spirits, it's thought Renbourn got the idea from the shield King Arthur was meant to have had at Camelot according to a series of mystery sources (that were already somewhat middle aged in the Middle Ages). Though it's to be debated whether the logo really did help the band steer off bad vibes given that the band only lasted six years, with more than their fair share of heartbreak along the way (perhaps the emblem only worked for a certain limited time?) it certainly seemed to 'fit': to folk fans who knew enough about old manuscripts it was a nice traditional symbol; to the psychedelic rock fan its association with magic and the supernatural made it perfect for a band formed in the year 1967 and to the general public it was just a distinctive logo that stood out on concert posters and record covers. What's more, the picture summed up Pentangle's ethos: though the 'pentangle' ended in five points, the intercuts between the lines resulted in an 'extra' five triangles, with the five stars overlapping and interweaving with one another. This wasn't a band in stasis, with set boundaries - this was a band that delighted in going anywhere, with every section of the picture representing a different 'style' that could be explored at will, brought to the table by any of the five band members.

Audiences, used to one thing or the other, were at first confused by Pentangle. There's a famous story that the first time Pentangle played together outside their Horseshoe Hotel home at a Jazz and Blues Festival in Windsor - sandwiched on the bill between the pure folk of Joan Baez and the pure blues of Fleetwood Mac and Cream - a member of the front row assumed they were a comedy band and laughed his socks off throughout the performance, while the rest of the audience either tittered nervously along or watched in stony silence. That was nearly Pentangle's last gig too, but enough people around the band had faith to let them continue. Transatlantic Records had already signed Bert and John (paying them a pittance for record sales but allowing them almost total freedom - a price worth paying for both men) and the pair's record together had, by Transatlantic standards, been an impressively strong seller. How better, then, to have an extra three potential audiences to buy into this new band? Manager and entrepreneur Jo Lustig also instantly 'got' the possibilities Pentangle offered that no one else could and offered the band a one-shot makeover 'deal'. If the band 'retired' from their Horseshoe Hotel gigs and worked up enough material for an album, he would 'launch' them afresh via the Royal Festival Hall, something the media savvy Lustig marked up as a big 'event'. All Pentangle had to do was turn up and play and instead of going after the media (something a band like Pentangle were always deeply reluctant to do) the media came to them. As a result, while 'The Pentangle' wasn't a big seller (people really weren't sure what to make of it) it got an awful lot of notice for a debut album by a 'new' band. Reviews were slightly mixed too: unsure of quite what reviewers to send the album to, Lustig sent it to everyone and, surprisingly, most of the genre reviewers at least mentioned it (often as 'disc of the week'). As a very wide generalisation the jazz community (suspicious of genre-bending) condemned it, the folk community really scratched their heads over it (did recording some of the oldest and obscurest folk songs known to exist in a cutting edge style make this the most traditional folk album ever or the least?) and the blues community largely ignored it. However the rock and pop community did 'get' it - at least enough to see the tie-in first single (sadly not on the album) 'Traveling Song' rated as 'disc of the week' above The Rolling Stones' 'Jumpin' Jack Flash' out at the same time and for enough reviewers to enjoy the 'no holds barred' adventurous spirit seeping through every pore (even if the jazzier passages left one or two a little chilly).

So, after all that history and wonderfully random preparation, is 'The Pentangle' an album that lives up to its reputation and no-holds-barred impact? Well, yes and no. The interplay between the band members is wonderful and the saving grace of the album - though Pentangle will remain a tight and largely telepathic band right to the last, here the group feel as if they're actively searching the edges of their boundaries, seeing how far they can push things before a song collapses in on itself (quite far, as it happens). Some of the moments here really are amongst the best things the band ever did: Jacqui and Danny - who'd only just met months before the recording of 'Let No Man Steal Your Thyme' - turn in one of the definitive Pentangle performances which transforms what could have been a twee song about a fair maiden using herbs as metaphors for her virginity into a scary adult world of new confusing rules that everybody understands but no one talks about. Though I love Jacqui's pure voice as much as the next fan - possibly more - for me this most uncharacteristic  is her definitive performance, adding a sultry mocking sneer alongside her protestations, suggesting the lady doth protest a bit too much (very sixties). 'Bells' may well be the best of the small handful of instrumentals Pentangle will go on to do (half of them are on this album as it turns out), a playful darting melody that's passed between Bert and John like two athlete relay runners at the peak of their fitness. The jolly 'Way Behind The Sun', a traditional folk song so obscure only one other bands has ever covered it (and what do you know, it's another AAA band - The Byrds, whose bass player John York fell head over heels in love with it after buying this album) shows that Pentangle can do jolly as well as the blues where doesn't merely sing but purrs. Parts of the mammoth jam sessions (the lyrical beginning and the breathtakingly noisy finale of 'Pentangling' and the middle of 'Waltz' when the band stop toying with us and hit straight back into the song's strutting riff, complete with handclaps) are brilliant too in only an as-live by-the-seat-of-your-pants recording can be (curiously Pentangle sound almost stiff by comparison on the 'actual' live recording on second album 'Sweet Child', too concerned with being precise than with being brave).

However, compared to the albums to come (especially the second and third) this isn't a feast but a snack (seeing as it's a double album, 'Sweet Child' can be considered a banquet). Though I understand why the jazz licks are so prominent here - this is, after all, a band who are still getting to know each other and what better way to get to know another musician than to jam with them? - they're arguably less interesting than the folk overload of albums two and four-to-six or the let's-include-everything gloriousness of third album 'Basket Of Light'. At a mere half hour this is Pentangle's shortest album by some margin and sounds like it too - though the seven minute 'Pentangling' and five minute closing pair of 'Bruton Town' and 'Waltz' are daring for their day,  all of them feel slightly shortened (particularly compared to later lie arrangements), a fascinating day trip rather than the week-long vacation they appeared to promise from the cover and period reviews. 'Hear My Call' and 'Mirage' are amongst the weakest songs the early Pentangle had in their set - the CD re-issue thankfully adds a further three songs considered for release and arguably they all should be here, if not instead of then as well as to make this album feel as substantial as many of its parts do: 'Koan' adds a touch of Arabic flavour to the band's sound and while it's a take away from getting things right it's an important enough piece of the puzzle to have deserved inclusion; 'The Wheel' is a curious blues guitar/drums workout that sounds at one with earlier Jansch pieces like 'The Waggoner's Lad'; 'The Casbah' would have fleshed out the record's blues quota a bit more too with a nicely smoky creepy atmosphere. The CD also includes four alternate versions of the recordings (more or less making it a 'complete' collection of everything Pentangle did for their first album), of which the best is a rockier go at 'Bruton Town'. Even so, with all these extras the album still only lasts fifty minutes and feels slightly underwhelming and less active than the list of the album's achievements have suggested down the years (we came all this way to see the beast and he's flipping asleep!)

Even so, AAA albums always get bonus points for invention and bravery and this is where 'The Pentangle' catches back up with its peers in a big way. Though often the description that 'it's the only one of its kind' is an insult, here it's a comment made with admiration. Even the other Pentangle records don't sound like this one, which is so close to the 'fire' of the excitement and discovery that made Pentangle want to work together you can still get burnt from this album half a century or so later. Many fans rate it as their best work in fact, but there's still something slightly unfinished and lightweight about it all, with the material not always up to the performances for now. Better, deeper, stronger, longer Pentangle albums are available, then, but that doesn't stop this debut being a fascinating first course or from being perhaps the band's most 'fun' album (despite the heavy emphasis on blues). Let no man steal your copy - this is the sort of record that sounds like a one-off, then and now, in both good ways and bad.

'Let No Man Steal Your Thyme' is in many ways the perfect song for Pentangle to start their career with. Though the song dates back to 1689 and almost certainly earlier (like many of the references in these articles, that's just the date it was first written down), 'Thyme' sounds like a very contemporary sort of song that works on multiple levels. On the one hand it's a simple tale of a bit of herb thievery with some botanical references thrown in ('A woman is a branchy tree, a man a clinging vine'). On another it's a feminist statement, a warning to other fair maidens not to let men take their virginity easily because 'when your thyme is past and gone, he'll care no more for you'. On yet another the pun on the word 'thyme' makes it clear that it's a part of your life you'll lose forever if you get pregnant while unmarried and cast out by society - that it's your future 'time' you'll lose. As early as the opening growling double-bass note from Danny you're hooked: this is a sound like no other band around in 1967/1968 and acts like a guard dog, growling at all those who would harm the narrator to back off. Jacqui, meanwhile, is the epitome of a pure innocent maid - except when she isn't, adding several blues style hollerings into her voice that also make her sound as if she's singing from experience, struggling to regain her earlier innocent years when this song really would have seemed about a 'herb garden' not a metaphor for being exploited. Though male, the rest of Pentangle wrap her voice up in a cocoon to keep her safe, with twin meshed guitars from Jansch and Renbourn that really take flight off on a glorious instrumental as if chasing all would-be-suitors away and a rat-a-tat drumming from Terry nailing the lid shut on a box that no one can penetrate. Though other folk acts had recorded this song in the past (usually under the song's alternate name 'The Sprig Of Thyme') most versions tend to pick up on the nursery rhyme style melody and make the song curiously happy. Pentangle don't do that, instead turning this into a painful lament full of fear and fright, but above all loneliness: Jacqui's narrator has, depending on how you read this version, either been jilted herself or is doomed by her own hand to a life of loneliness and isolation, afraid of men who 'take what they can find'. An excellent beginning, with all the band on good form but especially Jacqui who delivers a complex narrative with just the right range of moods.

'Bells' is a charming four minute guitar workout invented by Bert and John who found it a great way of showing off their respective styles back when they were a folk duo. That's Bert's blues-based wailings on the electric on the left and John's more traditionally folky acoustic on the right, interweaving a fascinating tapestry of madly dancing staccato rhythms. The oldest song in Pentangle terms on the album - the pair had been playing this for a good year before starting work on this first record - its best heard in 'rehearsal' form on that Folksangre documentary where it's wilder and faster and shows off even more differences between the pair. This version is slower and slightly more static, perhaps because Bert and John have found space in the arrangement for Danny and Terry, but while the heavy drum rolls at the end do add a certain gravitas to the sound, this is a song that should have stayed as a double guitar workout I think. The song is rather oddly named too - it doesn't remind me of ringing bills so much as clucking hens or - that perennial Pentangle favourite - the steam train rattling down a long and winding track. Even so, the central riff is a good one and an obvious candidate for Pentangle's jazzy improv era, a step above most of the instrumentals on the guitarists' own solo albums. The extended CD re-issue of the 'Sweet Child' album contains a particularly good live version of the song too.

Pentangle weren't just about the covers from their great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents. Occasionally they covered songs by their peers as well, usually at the rate of one per album, starting with this album's 'Hear My Call' as first recorded by the Staple Singers. A Pentangle style mix of jazz and gospel, you can see why this song would have appealed, although as usual Pentangle go a little further in teasing out all the nuances of the original, switching from an introspective tiny voice asking for help from God into a stormy sea of noise and confusion hinting at the drama rattling along underneath the surface. Once again, Jacqui's purity and Danny's outrageous jazz improvs on the double bass make for a particularly potent combination, as if the narrator is trying hard to sound prim and proper and respectful but has too many inner wild emotions bubbling up inside. Alas the melody is a little less gripping than most on the record and is a little too forgettable compared to the other tracks, while Jacqui's voice is perhaps a little too 'folk' for a song so steeped in blues, gospel and jazz. The lyrics too are rather more poetical and fragmentary than Pentangle's usual style to come and Jacqui doesn't sound quite as comfortable here as she will on more character driven songs. As early as the third song Pentangle also seem to have got slightly stuck into a mid-tempo boom-cha-cha boom-cha-cha rhythm style which is in danger of restricting them. All in all one of the weaker songs on the album.

Side closer 'Pentangling', though, is an epic that breaks every rule, every restriction. Credited to the whole band, it's a jazz jam that lasts for a full seven minutes (live versions tended to last for even longer - there's  a fab seventeen minute version on the 'Time Has Come' box set for instance). The song starts as a quiet ballad as sung by Jacqui which was written by 'word association', with everyone coming up with a line each and passing it on to the next person to see what they would do with it. This is a style that seems to have really united the band and results in some of the most alluring, poetical Pentangle writing: 'The summer slips below the surface, floating slowly in clear water' (surely a Renbourn line given the similarities with his later track 'So Clear') and 'Heart and soul, life passes from one to another, death alone walks with no one to converse with' (which sounds more like something from a Jansch solo LP). If there is a story to be taken from all this, it seems to be of a lonely narrator taking a trip to the river, jealous at all her friends and siblings falling in love while she's left with no one and contemplating jumping in it to take her blues away. In the second verse Jacqui switches from pure folk ballad into funky blues, joined by Bert's voice as if mocking her own pure tones. Somewhere at the end of this the song changes tacks again, turning into a monumental solo section that sounds like some sort of big 'revelation'. Suddenly without warning we're in the middle of a frenetic jazz workout with Bert pinging up and John finger-picking down, over a groovy bass and drum workout that in truth sounds a little tame on this recording but will on the stage become the stuff of legend. Suddenly at 3:30 the song lurches to a full stop with Danny getting a full minute of double bass whoops to himself with an other-worldly racket that does a pretty good of suggesting the narrator has just dunked themselves in the water. Somehow, though, the life force is too strong and just as the bass sounds appear to sound like 'drowning', Danny kicks himself back into the groove with Bert and Jacqui chiming in too over the top with another twist: 'I had a dream of love, all night long, I thought I heard a siren sing a song of love'. That hope is enough to put the song back on the straight and narrow although both singers sound slightly deranged here, manic and possessed rather than purely optimistic.

Next up comes a fast-paced guitar riff Bert had had kicking around for years looking for a home as the singers debate back and forth what this river 'really' is. Many folk songs have rivers and lakes and wide wide oceans as metaphors for love - the unfathomable, the unknowable, working to its own curious tide. That might be the case here as Jacqui sings 'Does this river belong to me? Or anybody I know?' There's also the hint that the narrator has arrived in the next world, the river her earthly body has just drowned in taking her spiritual soul somewhere new. Bert protests he didn't really mean to die, that 'I just fished a little to ease my body and soul' while the big finale is ambiguous: 'Let my mind relax, let my consciousness be free and easy'. The music, though, is anything but free and easy, with John and Terry getting increasingly carried away as they set out on a battle royale to see who can play in the most outrageous way, eventually fading out as the two finally run out of steam a little (result: a draw). Though the version played here is a little too tentative, with great obvious switches of gears between the parts, you can tell that this is already a band favourite, the first 'Pentangle' song rather than a 'hey I've been playing this song for years and thought it might suit us' one from the past. It's a song that needs all the five elements of the band to work and gives them all chances to shine, pushing back the boundaries of what each of them had been used to and that sense of excitement is clearly there in the room. It's just a shame that the band still don't know each other well enough yet to really go for it - like many a track on this album it's a shame they didn't keep this one as the 'safe' banker recording and try to go even more all out the next time; the later live recordings show what a daring and provocative track this could be at its live peak. Still, you've never Pentangled unless you've heard 'Pentangling', one of the greatest examples of why this band were like no other of their era - or anybody's eras.

'Mirage' is the only song credited to an individual in the band and no surprise that it's one of Bert's. Very much the most experienced writer in Pentangle at this time, this track would have sounded right at home on one of his first solo albums, with the same melancholia flecked with hope as second album 'It Don't Bother Me' especially. However it's a sensible choice to put aside for Pentangle: the rhythm section give this song a darkness and danger the track would never have had if Bert had performed it solo and Jacqui's velvet tones make the contrast between a pure idea of romance and the harsh realities of life that much greater than if Bert had sang it solo in his usual endearing scowl. The track is not obviously like any previous Jansch song though. 'Come here sweet lover, come carry me away from here...' it starts, like it's about to be a romantic love song from a musical or Cliff Richard (or worse, a musical about Cliff Richard). However, while Jacqui floats in the heavens, Danny's urgent and increasingly desperate bass riffs sound like someone's legs flailing desperately in the air trying to find land again, working hard without ever really getting anywhere. Hence, perhaps, the second verse: 'Take me across deserts red, mirage take me there'. The narrator knows this isn't 'real' love, the way he's always dreamed of - its a passing illusion before he finds out all the negative traits of his beloved, the difference between loving someone from afar and seeing all the truths up close. By the end, though, he's too desperate with the idea of love to care if this is mirage or not: 'Take me to the end of a rainbow dream, falling into your arms...' Unique in both Jansch and Pentangle canons, 'Mirage' sticks out like a sore plectrum,  with less of the folk jazz and blues practices of the rest of this album. Instead it sounds like a rock band trying to do a ballad when they've never done one before - or balladeers who've just hired The Who's rhythm section by accident and don't quite know how to keep up with them. I'm not sure the result quite works, switching too heavily from one gear to another, but as ever with this album the fact that Pentangle end up with a song that sounds like nothing else anybody else ever made is something to be proud of, not ashamed.

One of the most influential songs on the album is 'Way Behind The Sun'. A very traditional folk song so obscure and yet so contemporary sounding almost everyone who bought or reviewed this album assumed it was an original, the earliest recording I can find is a 1964 recording by blues singer Barbara Dane. Pentangle sound nothing like that version though - this is perhaps their most out and out jazz song (as opposed to jam session), with Jacqui sounding like a totally different singer as she channels the ghost of Billie Holiday, the two guitarists turning their guitars so they sound more like John's beloved Big Bill Broonzy and Terry playing the sort of scattershot shuffle common to 1960s jazz recordings. The song is a good choice, with Jacqui given a rare chance to play predator rather than victim, offering up another warning to girls everywhere to 'beware' of men ('He'll roll you over in the clover and never come back again!') However, far from being passive, Jacqui's character is on the hunt for a man of her own, perhaps in another world 'way behind the sun' where all the rules have changed and it's the girls who are on the search for 'honey' ('and if I find it I might just bring you some!') It's a curious fact that many traditional English folk songs automatically have psychedelic overtones. Life, for many of the people writing these sorts of songs, was a sort of 'code' - a system of rules that people had to follow which none of them quite understood, with references that had to be written in such a way that they could plead perfect innocence whilst simultaneously saying what they wanted to say. As a result many folk songs sound as if the writers had been on drug trips, with references to space and metaphors loaded with meaning that sound curious out of context of their times, and even though drugs aren't the invention of the 1960s as everybody seems to think now, it's unlikely the writer of this song, for instance, had ever tasting anything stronger than mead (whoever he or she was). However the end result on 'Way Behind The Sun' especially is a song that could so easily be a psychedelic classic: a song that dreams of another life away from this one, set to a different set of rules, where the word 'honey' even to modern ears sound risqué when applied to love and downright dodgy when applied to drugs, though it's a word many other period songs use innocently enough; this is a Jefferson Airplane song right here! Though actually it was folk-rockers The Byrds that became the AAA band who recorded it, John York the bass player from 1968 to 1969 having adored this album when it first came out. Though the teenager had little influence over his hardened veteran colleagues the albums 'Dr Byrds and Mr Hyde' and 'Ballad Of Easy Rider' have a particularly Pentangle slant. The Byrds initially unreleased version (heard on the 'Easy Rider' bonus tracks or either Byrds box set) is a merry jaunt, but Pentangle's sounds like life and death despite being as fun and as exciting as anything else on the album. Played with gusto by the band a sneer from Jacqui that makes her sound like Liam Gallagher's long lost twin sister, 'Way Behind The Sun' is one of the better short songs on this first album and perhaps the first to really show what Pentangle were all about: reminding the world that the past had once been as real as the present and that though times change people rarely do. There'll be much more of this sort of thing on the next five Pentangle albums.

'Bruton Town' remains however, the single most 'Pentangle' moment on the first album, the closest to a template here on this debut album. Bruton was and is a real town located in Yeovil, Somerset and as far as anyone can tell after a distance of eight hundred odd years (plus?) a murder really take place in the town as described in the song. Usually titled 'The Bramble's Briar', it is most likely a seventeenth century re-telling of a fourteenth century tale known as 'Isabella and the Pot of Basil', which may itself be based on a much older tale. A posh little rich girl falls in love with her servant and the pair elope, much to the horror of her family. Her two brothers, fearful that she's thrown her life away, pretend to invite him out hunting with them and murder him, throwing his body into a ditch (or a hedge of brambled in the original). They pretend to their sister that the servant ran off and couldn't be found. The servant returns in a dream, though, and shows her where the body is. Riding out the next morning, she finds the body and mourns for three days and nights before going back to accuse her brothers (thankfully, perhaps, Pentangle's version 'loses' a gruesome verse from the original about cutting his head off and putting it in a jar to show them). Interestingly in the original she gets revenge, of a sort, denouncing her family and causing them to fall in reputation to the point where they'd have been glad to see her married off to a servant. In Pentangle's version, though, everyone loses: the lady simply slinks back home 'where she was obliged to go' unable to face up to the revelations this would cause. As is so often the case on their albums, a sudden moment's fall from grace via a moment of love-struck foolishness creates monumental ripples, turning formerly upstanding people into murderers and leading to the death of an innocent man. Pentangle even end their song on that line played in slow motion, turning 'goooooo' into a four syllable word, as if taunting us with our preconception that there will be a happy ending. Not in this world. Not in the real world of English counties and class systems and jealousy. An early Pentangle live favourite 'Bruton Town' is a song easy to admire with Bert and Jacqui trading lines and verses to great effect, but hard to love: there's something cold and distant about this song which lacks the warmth of most Pentangle songs from yesteryear. The song's stop-start melody is also not built for easy listening, even though as ever with Pentangle everything is gloriously placed, with Renbourn's solemn lament of a solo especially capturing the mood of futility over the whole situation. Though praised deservedly at the time for delivering a rock grunt to a traditional folk song that was still played authentically (the only folk song here most folkies might have actually known), 'Bruton Town' isn't quite as electrifying as other later Pentangle folk recordings to come.

The album ends with 'Waltz', a song credited to the whole band but which is really a couple of instrumentals by Bert and John stuck together. John had even recorded his song, also titled 'Waltz', as part of his 'Another Monday' album and it's merry jig will prove to be popular with compilers of Renbourn CDs for some time. Bert's song 'The Casbah', meanwhile (which is the jazzy bit in the middle) was also recorded by the band early in the album but abandoned when Pentangle decided to combine the two. The song isn't in 3/4 'waltz' time for very long by the way - and good luck dancing to this one! - but was named by John after memories of growing up near the baudy lights of a carnival that came every summer, full of rides and glitz and glamour. Though a great showcase for the whole band this song is especially strong for the rhythm section, who play with a power and grit they don't often get a chance to show off. While the guitarists keep the song on the straight and narrow, Danny and Terry play cat and mouse with our emotions throughout the song, coasting off in tandem before jumping back in again hard at key moments across the song. Danny's double bass solo towards the end is exquisite, pausing for breath unexpectedly on seemingly random notes before somehow finding his way back into the song's funky groove (even sniffing at one point in concentration at around the 4:00 mark, which curiously cleans up rather well on CD!) Terry, too, signals each return into the song with a glorious 'circle' of drums, teasing us with when he's actually going to hit back into this song full pelt. The song's highlight though is surely towards the end when everyone else backs away leaving John to pick out the song's rhythm on his own while Bert, Danny and Terry simultaneously break into flamenco handclaps before, equally united, pounding into the song again. A glorious display of Pentangle's interplay, this track is deliciously live and you can feel the electricity crackling in the air as the band feel their way into this improvisation where everything could so easily go wrong. Of course nothing does, which is a marvel really considering how complex and tricky this instrumental is. One of the best examples of Pentangle's jazzier side, it's a shame that they'll never attempt anything quite like this again (from now on Pentangle instrumentals will tend to be earnest versions of old folk songs, while only the twenty minute 'Jack Orion' from 1970 will dare to match this song's feeling of going wrong at any moment). A glorious finale that finally unleashes the wild beast that's been playing with us across the rest of the record.

The result is an album that's impressively daring and original for a debut, with several great moments on it. Fans of the jazzier, improvisatory side of Pentangle's output are in for a treat, with 'Waltz' and 'Pentangling' the best longer examples of this in Pentangle's canon and 'Way Behind The Sun' the best example of the shorter songs. 'Thyme' too is, well, 'Thymeless', as good a folk cover as any Pentangle will deliver in their five years and six albums together. What this record isn't is a fully rounded and accessible album the way that 'Basket Of Light' and a lot of the others are. Many fans more used to the later folkier recordings actually hate this album, with its lengthy instrumentals and curiously short running time, complaining that nothing ever happens except for interminable bass solos (though fans who love it rather than loathe it probably win by around 2:1 I'd say). Typically, I'm right in the middle: I love parts of this album and admire almost all of it, with Pentangle still enjoying the excitement of having discovered a new sound that's quite unlike anything else out there and determined to throw everything at it. This is not, however, a record made for repeated listening. Even the deliberately opaque and challenging 'Cruel Sister' has been in my CD player more times than this record, which still has an impenetrable layer I can't quite break through, leaving this as an album to be impressed by and occasionally knocked out by rather than one to fall in love with. It may in fact be the weakest of the original six, if only for the short playing time and the relative drop in quality in the middle of the record (the reunion records are, sadly, another matter though not as bad as many people think). Bear in mind, however, that that's a 'wow that only goes to show how great all the others are!' comment rather than a 'gee this is awful' one. In fact I'm rather glad that there is an album like this in Pentangle's canon, just to show how well they could play as an ensemble and with the jazz overtones up higher than all their other styles, even if the folkier recordings of later years suits them slightly better. If you like the other Pentangle albums then you still need this album - but if you're new to Pentangle then your best bet is to wait until you've bought everything else and then you can listen to this at a whole new level, out of interest as to how their usual style has been altered and adapted to fit a band still exploring what their combined sound is like after years of playing solo or in pairs rather than as a towering achievement in its own right. This remains, however, a very influential and explosive debut which got everybody talking (if not actually buying - not yet at least). Now, people wanted to know,  would Pentangle branch out from this style? And how many styles could they possibly combine on their second LP, released a mere six months later? Oh, at least twenty as it happens...

A Now Complete List Of Pentangle Related Articles At Alan’s Album Archives:

Surviving TV Appearances 1968-2000 and The Best Unreleased Recordings

No comments:

Post a Comment