Friday, 4 July 2008
Pentangle "Basket Of Light" (1969) (AAA 'Core' Album #31, Revised Review 2015)
On which Pentangle do a spot of time-travelling…
‘Just ain’t right to be caught in the night…’
You wouldn't necessarily know it from the album cover, which depicts a blurred tiny picture of a pair of Pentangle performing amidst the huge towering innards of the Festival Hall turned topsy turvy (with the stage now in the top stalls) and which makes the band look small and vulnerable, completely unready for the life of fame that awaits them. You wouldn't know it from the writing credits, which at just three original songs and six cover songs makes for even less creative 'Pentangling' than usual. You wouldn't necessarily know even if you were a folk collector who recognised the mix of obscure English and American standards from centuries before, many of them already in regular rotation amongst the folk club circuit. But you would know instantly, from the very opening drum lick of 'Light Flight' and would stay knowing right up until the dying sitar notes of 'House Carpenter', that 'Basket Of Light' is Pentangle's masterpiece. Their other five original albums all have magical moments, some of them even more than made it to this album, but there's no getting away from the fact: this is the pinnacle of what Pentangle can do that other bands can’t, uniting so many different styles in one and bringing the past to life in a way that makes it sound alive and current and never again will Pentangle release an album so perfect for their times (an album of quiet social protest with folkie acoustic routes showing). Other people, me included, love them but the first two albums are stepping stones leading up to this point and the next three see the band nervously shying away from their fame as fast as their folkie legs can carry them, with more and more chaotic ingredients thrown into the mix, refusing to ever bake a cake this rich in case it traps them forever. This recipe though captures the Pentangle brew at its finest: a rare record that 99.9% of all fans rate as their best, accessible enough for new-coming and casual fans to understand and connect with (it even includes a hit! Well sort of - 'Light Flight' is a song everybody knows even though it never technically made the top forty anywhere) but far from 'selling out' or dumbing down also contains the sort of material you can't find anywhere else: an English folk tale told with Indian instruments! A Medieval madrigal sung a capella that still somehow manages to contain hints of psychedelia! One of the single greatest AAA solos of all time - on a sitar! In the middle of a folk song about English innocence!!! Many of our favourite AAA records break the rules and, unlikely as it may seem, this quietly spoken group of earnest folkies break them all on this commercial masterclass in hummable tunes and sweet songs more than any other LP they ever made. For a group who really, really didn't want to become rich and famous they don't half do a good job at using all their strengths across this album to make a word-of-mouth album that many millions fell in love with, possessing barely a weak seam in this basket of goodies.
Unusually this is an AAA favourite that the rest of the world loves too (give or take some ignoramuses out there who probably even like The Spice Girls) which means only one thing: as well as being a great album it's also an apt album for the times. The year 1969 was the absolute last point when you could get away with releasing an album like this one which was adventurous and playful and at least sounded like the band had been on mega drug trips even if the closest any of them ever came to illicit substances was a pint at their local folk club. I'm not quite sure what was in the water back in 1969, but whatever it was I want some - it's the year that has come to dominant our 'top albums' list like no other (just beating 1967 into second place in terms of our original 'core' albums) and this is yet another example of a band reaching their peak in this glorious musical year, with ‘Basket’ containing Pentangle’s most melodious, harmonious, inventive and traditional songs, more often than not all at the same time. If you’re new to Pentangle – and if you are you’re in good company as despite some decent critical appraisal this band never received much of or indeed cared for record sales – you might not be expecting the heady blend that first hits you when you play this album. Folk you’ve probably heard of. Folk-rock, if you’re a connoisseur of this list, is a given. Jazz-rock? Yes (but only if The Byrds' 'Eight Miles High' counts). Psychedelia-folk? Err possibly if you’re one of our more adventurous readers. Folk-jazz-rock-psychedelia-pop fusions with a hint of blues and some Medival chanting thrown in for free?...don’t be silly! Well, believe it or not, that’s just a sample of the sounds produced by the only true five-star group to have ever lived, in name at least, Pentangle; a band that bears so many influences it will make your head spin.
What will strike you if you've been reading these reviews in chronological order is how much this third record seems to come out of nowhere. When Pentangle started they were more of a jazz band than anything else, open to mammoth instrumental passages tethered to the ground thanks to a shared experience of playing folk clubs. The sprawling second record 'Sweet Child' tried to show off just how eclectic the band's tastes were, with a studio and live record (recorded at the very Festival Hall gig depicted on this record's sleeve) that went somewhere new with every track, from the fifteenth century to the space-age tale of hippies 'Moon Dawg' across it's messy sea of tracks. Back in 1969 fans were expecting more of the same of either or perhaps the more 'traditional' folk record those who had been fans of all five of these 'super-group' members had been patiently waiting for since they got together in 1967. Instead Pentangle defy expectations again by being very different on every song again, but in an entirely more focussed and united way than ‘Sweet Child’ with all five members on every track and every avenue explored one by one. TV theme 'Light Flight' is the most famous moment here for a reason, the lightest fluffiest poppiest song Pentangle ever did (and even that finds room for a lengthy middle eight full of such heartbreak that even those of us wary of pop can't resist it). 'Once I Had A Sweetheart' is the template Pentangle track: real emotion from our past transported in time thanks to a performance that's gloriously 1960s. 'Springtime Promises' is a John Renbourn original that sounds as if it's been hanging around for at least a couple of centuries and is one of the poppiest Pentangle moments ever, capturing its author’s natural good humour. 'Lyke Wake Dirge' is one of the most authentic re-creations of the middle ages in the whole of the 20th century and yet whose longing for death and salvation is also as period as any track on the album, showing that even if the times change people rarely do. 'Train Song' is an early Bert Jansch piece that's the album's lone foray into blues but in sonic style it's more like heavy metal, the very sound of a train squealing it's brakes as the narrator hints that he really didn't want to go so far away. 'Hunting Song' is Renbourn's favourite period of Camelot coming to life across seven minutes that are the epitome of prog rock performed with a music historian’s attention to detail. 'Sally Go Round The Roses' is as pretty and catchy a pop song as you'd have heard in 1969. 'The Cuckoo' is a children's song turned omen turned metaphor turned psychedelic splendour turned pop song with a hint of jazz. And 'House Carpenter' is your humble traditional English folk song somehow re-arranged for sitar – while using the lesser known American deviation of the folk ballad just so the band can be truly international.
That range of styles ought to be a mess. Sometimes, when Pentangle try to re-create this formula on later albums, it really is a mess: lots of contrasting styles, ‘busy’ performances and a sense of trying too hard. So why does this record work so well? My guess is that 'Basket Of Light' is the only truly happy album in the Pentangle canon. Most of their records have a melancholy air peculiar to sixties folk albums caught between repeating mistakes from yesteryear that nearly always end in death, murder or revenge and period protest from an age where society wasn't changing fast enough to undo all the injustices of decades past that now seemed wicked and unfair now that the world had moved on. Though 'Light' too features death, betrayal, desperation and even an appearance by the Devil, the overall mood is one of inexpressible joy - even the death on 'Lyke Wake Dirge' is born out of the narrator's knowledge that he'll be in the kingdom of Heaven when his time comes, while 'House Carpenter' and 'Once I Had A Sweetheart', which start slow and inward, turn into epic band performances by the end suggesting some form of brotherhood and unity. 'Light Flight' 'Springtime Promises' and 'Sally Go Round The Roses' are easily the three happiest (perhaps the only three happy?) songs in the Pentangle canon: no one dies, everyone lives and more importantly everyone loves. Pentangle are now an established band who have seen so many of their dreams come true. The five are very much still enjoying playing together and haven’t yet become exhausted by too many concerts and recording session to repeat themselves or give second-best; instead every arrangement comes with an extra sparkle, every performance comes with an extra twinkle and every song comes with something extra. ‘Basket Of Light’ might be one of many Pentangle albums to include pop, blues, jazz, folk and psychedelia but it contains the poppiest pop songs, the bluesiest blues song, the jazziest jazz breaks, the most traditional folk songs and the most wigged out psychedelia they ever played. While other future band records sound like they were made on the side between solo albums, this is the one that could never have been made by the band apart: they need each other, with Bert’s paranoia hitting John’s merry traditionalist, Jacqui’s tough innocence, Danny’s jazzy licks and Terry’s rock and roll drive working at their best.
Though it seems odd to proclaim a record with so many ancient texts on it as psychedelic, this is also Pentangle's summer of love album and delicious in its hippie-ness and optimism for a brighter tomorrow (though, typically, it arrived two years late: Pentangle were trying to resuscitate the dying brand of jazz during the actual summer of love!) The first record is, you could say, their ‘Merseybeat’ years, the most extreme undiluted example of their sound and the second their folk-rock era boom. Later records chart the ‘White Album/Let It Be’ style decline slowly and fragmentedly. This one though feels like it takes a trip and explodes in colour, the Pentangle album to feature the most overdubs and ‘extra’ things whizzing past out ears. Thematically, too, it’s the Pentangle album most about life rather than death (even if it contradictedly features the only Pentangle song sung from the afterlife): most of the characters on this album are escaping, finding a new way to do something they always dreamed of, life is full of ‘Springtime Promises’, there are cuckoos in the sky, there are roses to dance round and lots of long hair to ‘hang down’. Danny’s attempts to sound like a locomotive on ‘Train Song’ and John’s twin sitar parts on ‘House Carpenter’ and ‘Once I Had A Sweetheart’ are also a psychedelic delight, unhinged and trippy. Oddly – and this is a sentence that surely can’t be said for any other folk band in existence – these flashes of psychedelia really suit this band, a then-modern burst of sound that makes these songs of far away places and people feel all the nearer. Together with Jacqui's voice at its loveliest and the trippiest, spaciest hippie backing tracks on any folk album I own, listening to 'Basket Of Light' is a strangely unworldly, ethereal listen for a record by a rootsy folk band. No other Pentangle album could possibly have been called 'Basket Of Light' (a line of Bert's used in 'Train Song', a metaphor for love carried lightly) and yet it suits this album's tales of spiritual soul seeking and lightness of touch very well.
Like other Pentangle albums but more so, 'Light' is all about the search for salvation - from God, from lovers, from nature or simply from faith of better times. Unlike other Pentangle albums, you sense that most if not all the narrators eventually find it (oddly enough the exception is the last verse of the last song 'House Carpenter' finds us in Hell, lovely as it all still sounds – and if that isn’t the ending to an LP I don’t know what is). 'Light Flight' and 'Train Song' are physically active, so restless in their search for the great unknown that the narrators put their lives in upheaval to try and find it. The narrator of 'Lyke Wake Dirge' thinks they've found it in the arms of God. ‘Springtime Promises' and 'The Cuckoo' find it in the simple joys of nature. 'Hunting Song' and 'Sally Go Round The Roses' find it in love. On past albums characters come a cropper: their husbands or lovers die or get murdered or turn out to be a ‘mirage’. The difference here is that until that last track everyone gets more or less what they want: ‘Light Flight’ delights in escape, the Christian believer in ‘Lyke Wake Dirge’ finds the lights of heaven they’ve spent their life waiting for, ‘Train Song’ runs away from a doomed marriage at top speed, ‘Hunting Song’ has a magic horn that brings love (even if that typically goes more than a little wrong by the end) and Sally has fun going round the roses. This is a world, whichever century we live in, where nice things can happen some of the time.
More than the songs, though, ‘Basket Of Light’ works as well as it does because of the top-notch performances. Usually their records feature the band working singly or in twos or three but this record is unique in that everybody plays on everything, eager to be a part of an album everyone sensed was something special. Everyone brought in their own material too, making this the most equal collaboration across the band's history, and everyone got space to shine and be themselves. The weakness of Pentangle on their other records - their pulling in five such very different directions, with their very different backgrounds (with a shared interest only in folk) - is a strength here. Bert's eccentric side and interest in the blues heard on 'Train Song' is offset by Jacqui's folky loveliness on 'Sally Go Round The Roses', which is in turn challenged by John's visions of King Arthur, while Danny Thompson and drummer Terry Cox add some delightfully jazzy and rocky overtones to the whole album with lots of instrumental breaks to keep them happy. Though the next album 'Cruel Sister' will be more about showing off the band in turn, with only the side-long 'Jack Orion' showing how well the band can work in unison, 'Basket Of Light' features all the band all the time; it's just the spotlight that shifts between them across each track. Thankfully at just the same time Pentangle were getting up to speed so was their producer Shel Talmy on what must surely be his best production job despite his years of working with bands like The Kinks and The Who. We’ve been quite critical of Shel’s work (and especially his people skills) in other books to give him his credit he’s exceptional here adding a commercial sheen to Pentangle’s work that somehow sounds completely and utterly in keeping with the album and band. Some Pentangle albums have so much going on they can sound cluttered, with the vocals especially suffering from being too low in the mix. This album, however, sounds as perfect as any record nearly half a century old can and still doesn't get the respect it deserves for its clever effects (Danny's surround sound double bass pings and the closing eccentric double bass scream on 'Train Song', the toy xylophone working the way a piano normally would twinkling away on the oh-so-adult middle of 'Hunting Song' and the sheer genius of 'Once I Had A Sweetheart' that unites cultures, timezones and continents in a lament for lost love). This is easily Pentangle’s best record, but its easily Shel Talmy’s too and he seems to instinctively ‘understand’ folk in a way he never did purist rock and roll.
On this list we discuss quite a few times how 1960s music owes its origins to madrigals and medieval works, how so many of these songs – particularly the acoustic ones – are tied to these early developments in the use of vocal harmony. The early Beach Boys, for instance, could easily have passed as a travelling choir of medieval monks had they dropped the Chuck Berry influences (and their rather irreligious private behaviour!) Despite their Jewish heritage I can easily imagine Simon and Garfunkel joining a sect of singing Benedictine Monks. Plonked down in the 15th century by a time-travel machine Lindisfarne would have adored the instruments of the middle age and cooked up ‘The Fog On The Tyne Is Because We haven’t Got A Decent Sewer System Yet’ within about five minutes. The Monkees would have been singing ‘Hey Hey We Are The Monks…’ and having a great old time rescuing Davy Jones from falling in love with a local nun and being cast out of a monastery. Pentangle though are the band who time-travel best, perfectly at home jumping centuries as if time means nothing to them and never better than here. The real reason I think ‘Basket’ works so well is that it’s the best combination of their desire to tell history properly and address current problems in the world when their records were being made. Here Pentangle juxtapose traditional songs from the time of Henry VIII and songs about medieval peasants cursed by the devil with songs about a steam train – oddly enough held up not as a virtue of the present day but as something to be lost and mourned in an age of the electric (at least according to Bert’s sleevenotes on the original album, which quietly gloss over the fact it was probably about his painful split with girlfriend Nicola). Sometimes you can hear the archaic language in the songs, albeit this isn't always that readily noticeable when they're surrounded by sitar solos and Danny Thompson turning that most classical of instruments, the double bass, into a psychedelic powerhouse as great as any Rickenbacker guitar. But then, as all you good list readers know, music is timeless and it makes perfect sense to find past gems updating and re-inventing themselves in other decades, as sensitive musicians give classic songs a new home, digging out the kernel of truth about human relations that strays more or less the same over time and giving them a quick generational spit-and-polish. A time machine that takes you back to medieval England on the one hand – and firmly back to the 1960s on the other – ‘Basket of Light’ is a basket full of all sorts of goodies waiting to be re-discovered and is suitably illuminating about the human race then and now too.
'Basket Of Light', you see, is a very special album. It's one of those records that you love instantly on first hearing and which never let you down no matter how many times you play it - there's always something new in the many layers of sound and lyrics to find (well, most people do - strangely I have known occasional people who don't 'get' this album and their tastes inevitably go down in my estimation after discovering this heinous crime). Like many a group built on improvisation Pentangle’s later records often get overlong, self-indulgent and messy, but here the solos are confined to brief bursts of splendour, blending old and stale genres together and mixing them up with a brush of pentangle magic. ‘Basket’ though is by far the band’s most consistent record, showing off each member’s strengths one by one, with all five stretching out into some telepathic jamming without letting go of the song somewhere down the line. Would that there were more records in their canon like this one. I hadn’t much interest in folk before discovering this album on a whim (like the best discoveries, I can't even remember why I tried it now - sometimes in our collections things are just meant to be). Now fifteen or so years on from first hearing 'Basket' I have a shelf full of records I never would have even heard of if not for the ‘gateway drug’ of this album. Though there are many other fine folk albums there (including several Pentangle ones) none have ever matched up to this one. It's opened my ears wider to jazz and blues too - I can't claim this record given me a lifelong obsession with Big Bill Broonzy or Miles Davis (and all blues and jazz to me still feels as if they're waiting for the great Jansch/Renbourn/Thompson guitar/sitar/double bass solos to arrive) but I understand those genres more too now thanks to Pentangle. 'Basket Of Light' is an education we should all be lucky enough to have. This was, you could say, the sort of genre bending exercise any band would have made sooner or later (it's a surprise, in fact, that no one got there first before 1969 in such a finely weighted way) but Pentangle were the perfect band to deliver it: music fans with eclectic record collections of their own and a real passion for passing it on to listeners which shines through every note. It remains not only the best folk/blues/jazz/psychedelic/pop hybrid records in my collection (there isn't much competition there to be honest) but one of the best records in my collection by anybody, with every track a gem in its own way and each one offering up a combination of styles and influences that had never really been heard in music before – or at least never like this! ‘Basket Of Light’ lights up my day like few other records and no wonder I grasp it so tight - my life is all the richer for knowing it
Sadly the balance will be upset as soon as the next record, meaning that Pentangle never got the respect they deserved and their reputation was overshadowed by all the bands who pushed their way through the folk doors they'd just opened, with Pentangle hanging back in the shadows as everyone else with a guitar and a gravelly drawl took over their audience. However these were all merely pretenders to the crown: sweeter than Capercaillie, more adventurous than Fairport Convention, not as self indulgent as Steeleye Span, more serious than The Strawbs and far more interesting than Clannad, there can only be one AAA folk band - but then Pentangle were much more than a mere folk band too. Record label Transatlantic, who'd bravely signed Pentangle up as leading folkies whose music was important rather than commercial, were at first thrilled to find the 'Light Flight' and 'Sweetheart' singles actually reaching the charts and the impact this had on orders for this record. They quickly found, though, that as a tiny label effectively made out of a single office they were unprepared to face quite so much demand and had to bring in several extra employees to match the volume of records needed and those who already worked there often had to work longer hours. As a result staff quickly came to know it as 'that bloody record' or 'Old Basket' and - in contrast to almost every record label that's ever existed anywhere - Pentangle were told not to be quite so blooming successful next time. So, being Pentangle, they weren't - the rest of their original career will be more about trying to kill off any recurring sense of commerciality created by this record and never again will Pentangle care quite so much about what their audience might think of them. They were, no doubt, much happier heading down this path (the band were horrified when the magazine Jackie rang up to say they'd turned the band into a series of centrefold spreads to go with their other rockstar idols and were one of the few bands to ever turn the magazine down while their manager laughed his head off down the phone; has there ever been a band more reluctant to become celebrities? Bonus AAA points if you said 'Belle and Sebastian' by the way!) but I can't help but wonder, had 'Basket' been recorded for a big label urgent for a sequel, what a second 'Basket Of Light' might have sounded like with Pentangle still keen to deliver another album just as consistent and just as strong. Pentangle could have easily become household names off the back of this album and this book would be several hundred pages thicker, full of successful albums people who didn’t usually go for these genres would have fallen in love with thanks to a continued media presence and word of mouth. Sometimes, though, the most special records in our collection are special precisely because they don't sound like any other record ever made by anyone and are only ever meant to be one-offs and ‘Basket Of Light’ is surely one of them. In truth it would have been a mighty hard task to replicate - Pentangle may well have turned into basket (of light) cases just trying. Thank goodness though that, just once, everything gloriously came together on one of the real highlights of the AAA discography.
Welcome to all you readers who inevitably skip straight past the ‘coming together’ years to the point where Pentangle are at the peak of their powers. Whether you’ve arrived at  Light Flight because it’s the opening track on the only Pentangle album you know or because it is in fact the only Pentangle song you know or whether you’ve patiently ploughed your way through every page of this book, this is clearly a very pivotal song in the Pentangle canon. Oddly. though, Pentangle’s best known tune doesn’t sound much like anything else they ever did. It’s happy for one thing, taking the usual Pentangle oppression and suppression and turning it on its head by dreaming of escape. The folk elements are there in the acoustic guitars but for once its down in the mix compared to the great poppy chorus, the rocky rat-a-tat of Terry’s sparkiest drums and the jazz swing of Danny’s double-bass. Dear God, it actually sounds happy – even if, when you analyse the lyrics, it’s more about being happy once you’ve escaped something awful. Perhaps the difference is because it’s the first of only two times Pentangle were ever ‘commissioned’ to write something for someone else – BBC TV Drama series ‘Take Three Girls’ which is, nowadays, pretty much the only reason anyone remembers this series (many people assume it’s been wiped as it’s never been repeated or put on video or DVD – ten episodes were indeed lost to the whims of the BBC tape department but fourteen still exist). What few people realise is that the theme tune was a totally different take – it’s a much folkier song all round, with Jacqui much lighter and prettier and none of the lyrics there yet, just a bunch of ‘doo dah de doo dahs’ over the riff (though it barely lasts a minute it would be great to have it out as a bonus track on a CD one day, along with the bursts of  ‘Pentangling’ we occasionally get on the soundtrack). The series made a star of Liza Goddard years before she was a regular in ‘Whodunnit’ and ‘Woof!’ and is a superior kind of soap opera detailing the lives of three friends in their twenties and how differently their lives turn out: one’s a widow, one a young mum, one a student. What I never quite understood was why Pentangle got the commission: the series is meant to young and hip and trendy (it was the first BBC drama to be made in colour a full year before Dr Who was!) and Pentangle are, in 1969, young but decidedly not hip or trendy and of all the AAA bands we cover around in that year were probably the most oblivious to what was going on outside their door.
Somehow, though, Pentangle are on such top form in 1969 that they even nail this first commission right (see the much more obscure  ‘Christian The Lion’ for the next). By emphasising the poppiness that has only been heard fleetingly across their first two albums and having all the band nail a catchy riff with Jacqui excelling herself by switching from cute girl next door to folk banshee in seconds makes for a highly memorable song. Compared to the stark monochrome of the first two records it’s a very colourful piece and while the lyrics have nothing to do with the plot (except a very vague sense of longing for a better future that may never come) Pentangle truly nail the sheer colourfulness of the series. Even if you’ve never seen it (and most people haven’t) ‘Light Flight’ is still a killer song, so much more immediate than the other more learned songs around it and the perfect ‘gateway drug’ to the harder albums to come. Despite the song’s seemingly air, however, it’s actually a typically complex Pentangle composition, switching between no less than three rarely heard time signatures (5/8, 7/8 and 6/4), lending the song a rather gasping-for-air, slightly lopsided quality (John wittily suggested later it was deliberate and called it 'entertaining to observe pub customers trying to whistle it after a few beers'). Despite the lovely melody, especially the middle section where McShee suddenly takes charge of her noisy band and sings in a regular time-frame while the others merrily carry on in their own bizarre time signature behind her, it’s the lyrics of Light Flight that strike you the most on later hearings. A typically late 1960s call of optimism for things to ‘find a better place’, contrasting the dreary full city days to the empty sunny days of the countryside, it’s full of clever rhymes that fly by so quick they’re hard to catch, all held together with a sing-a-long ba-da-da-doo-da chorus. Throughout the song comes the very Pentangle mixture of being youthful and being old – the character lies in the sunshine and simply enjoys being, like a child – but equally they stare up at the stars and realise how fast they move, that they’re part of a universe that will never keep still. ‘No time to reflect on what the time was spent on’ is in particular a line that perfectly encapsulates the end year of the 1960s, when people are no longer dropping out but wondering how to plug back in without sacrificing their principles too much. The fact that the song is played slightly out of synch, with John’s guitar merrily chasing Bert round and round the riff, sometimes clashing and sometimes coming together, is the perfect accompaniment to this song about being young enough to daydream and old enough to fear that your daydreams might never come true. Though titled ‘Light Flight’, a line that isn’t in the lyric anywhere, this is actually a very grounded song – the final flourished full stop, played by John with a huge amount of echo almost physically pinning his guitar to the ground is particularly ‘real’ and earthy. The result is a triumph, pretty enough for newcomers and deep enough for old-timers to enjoy without accusations of selling out. Incidentally, while it’s not unusual for bands to credit a hit track to the whole group it’s unusual for none of the original members to ‘claim’ it in later life. However as far as I know none of Pentangle have ever come forward to say ‘it’s mine’. My guess is it’s a genuine collaboration: the music sounds like Renbourn’s, the lyrics sound like Jansch’s, the doo dah chorus sounds like McShee’s and Danny and Terry fill in so much of the overall sound they more than deserve their credit too. This may then be the only true five-way collaboration in the whole of this book and a testament to how great Pentangle could be when they all pulled together.
‘Light Flight’ however isn’t the best single Pentangle ever made. IT’s not even the best song on this album. That is – to my ears anyway -  Once I Had A Sweetheart which is just one of the most gorgeous songs ever made by anybody. If ‘Light Flight’ proved that Pentangle could do ‘new’ then this song is the band proving that the old can be made to sound ‘new’ too with one of the oldest compositions in this book dressed up to sound as 1960s as a recording can be. And where ‘Light Flight’ is infectiously joyous, ‘Sweetheart’ is endearingly sad, heartbreak in a song with a light and airy acoustic guitar fighting for space with a sawing double bass that hangs over the track like some ominous disapproving mother-in-law. Like a good half of the songs in the Pentangle songbook it started life as an English folk song, ‘A Maid Sat Weeping’. Unlike all the others, though, this is an American variation that changes many of the words of the original. As if that isn’t enough meddling with history, Pentangle then insert an additional verse from another English ballad ‘As Sylvie Was Walking’ which tells a similar tale of woe (This song will be recorded by Bert complete on his album 'Rosemary Lane' and includes three earlier verses of which this is the first: 'As Sylvie was walking by the riverside, and looking so sadly upon the swift tide/She thought on her lover who left her in her pride and on the banks of the meadow she sat down and cried/As she sat a weeping a young man came by, 'what ails you my jewel and makes for you to cry?'). So sublime is the mixture between the three different pieces that you can’t see the join – the inference is that heartbreak and misery and loss are universal, as poignant then in as they are now and that these feelings exist all round the world. The beauty of this track is that it starts off with nothing and swells up so big without you quite realising how it got there. Anyone whose been hit by grief will know the strange feeling when it first hits you and you think you can manage, only to slowly sink into your knees and end up falling into a pit of despair – people who haven’t had it or can’t remember assume misery is instantaneous but it isn’t – sorrow doesn’t leap but creeps. Pentangle instinctively know this and the high drama of the song comes from Jacqui knowing that she’s being dragged there with no escape, mourning the lost love whose left her in perpetual ‘sorrow to mourn’. Tortured by dreaming that her love had somehow found her way back to him, she weeps uncontrollably when she wakes up to find it was all a mirage and is struck again that this is the last time she’ll feel like she was with him.
As Jacqui’s ‘eyes like some fountains with tears overflow’ John’s sitar playing rises up out of nowhere, coming from the lowest notes growling with despair to soaring and flying as one of the greatest AAA solos of them all ebbs and flows, going through every stage of mourning in turn. After rising up for what seems like an eternity you think he’s come to a halt (so does Jacqui who breaths in as if to sing the first line of the last verse ‘I’ll’ not once but twice thanks to her double-tracked part; though a mistake it’s somehow perfect in context, a vocal sigh to go with the instrumental one). However no, after rising up as far as the sitar can go and now playing in double-time the whole thing falls apart, the sitar notes crashing again to the bottom of the scale with the added menace of a ‘drone’ sound that swathes everything in echo. For the most part the narrator has been stiff-upper-lip English (whatever the American derivation of this song); however this instrumental break points at the real emotion behind the song, spiralling further and further out of control and John’s playing hinting at all that huge cavernous loss is sublime. Like grief itself the solo seems to last a eternity and leaves the narratr sounding totally different to how she was before. Only after the song has finished playing does it hit you: the sitar has no right to be in an American variation of an English folk song and yet, somehow, it’s the perfect sound for this universal tale of woe. Only then does Jacqui pick herself up and move on with her life, even if she’s being hugely impractical – as this is the ‘American’ part of the song her cry that she will emigrate and ‘venture through England, through France and through Spain’ seems unrealistic given the century. However, still stung by pain and betrayal, you understand where the narrator is coming from, telling the listener that she’s doing it for revenge, to make her man feel guilty, as the only possible trump card she has left as he wonders whatever happened to her (‘And my false love will weep for me after I’m gone’). The result is exquisite, a tale of heartbreak that’s several hundred years old dressed up to sound as if it happened yesterday, more alive perhaps than at any time since the song was written. For me this is Pentangle’s pinnacle, their finest and most pioneering hour.
 Springtime Promises is another uncharacteristic song, this one a very pretty piece written by John on top of a bus bound for home in London during the Spring of 1968. Perhaps with the sound of the early Pentangle recording sessions ringing in his ears, John delights in how things seem to be growing around him again after a cold Winter and starts to believe that new things are possible, that Summer which seems ‘so far away’ is really just round the corner. Pentangle clearly meant a lot to all five participants but you sense they meant a lot to Renbourn in particular. Of all the band he was the one who most hated going it alone and loved the camaraderie of bouncing off other musicians and he was instrumental in putting the group together. My guess is that this song is him honouring the bright new future that he knows Pentangle will have even though at this point in time of writing they’re a secret that only these five people (and their manager and engineers and producer) know about. In true Pentangle fashion this is a song that’s pretty timeless: there are no modern references in this song and anyone who didn’t check the sleeve could well believe this was a song written in 1768 not 1968. It’s also very Pentangle to play around with ‘time’ like this – the whole point of the band, if you like, is that the past, present and future all intermingle with humanity never really changing and that’s theme of this song, that everything comes and goes in cycles good and bad. The uncharacteristic element of this track, though, is that this is a ‘high’ and the song ends with the happiest moment of any Pentangle song: ‘Its Spring time now, be happy today!’ If at times the song is in danger of becoming just a weather report, it’s saved by two things - a dark foreboding switch to a minor key for the middle eight (‘Winter will be with us once again…’) that adds just enough hint of darkness before John remembers that it is Springtime now and a fine band performance that features some great Danny double bass ‘interruptions’ and some lovely chiming guitars. However this is John’s show and though his double-tracked vocal is rough (he sounds much more like Bert than his usual cleaner self) it’s full of character.
 Lyke Wake Dirge (or 'The Corpse Watching Song') is fascinating, perhaps the most ‘solemn’ moment of any Pentangle album as we follow a soul into the afterlife. It’s also one of the emptiest: there’s a bit of guitar and harpsichord and sawing cello and a few lightly rattled drums but mostly you hear those stunning three-part harmonies: that’s John’s bass, Jacqui in the middle and Terry at the back sliding between tenor and falsetto. Of all the songs Pentangle covered this is surely the earliest. Though the song was adapted by Christianity (hence the many ‘Christ receive thy souls’) it was originally a Pagan rack that pre-dated the birth of Jesus. Wondering what exists beyond life, this song is a solemn warning from someone dying and staring through Heaven's door into purgatory who finally understands what life was all about trying to pass it on to the living. The journey through the afterlife depends entirely on how the narrator behaved in life – the ‘alms’ he sings about is what he did for charity, with anything he ‘gave away’ to the less well off returned to him to help his journey. This narrator seems to have been a kind man for however difficult the struggle ‘every night’ Christ waits to receive his soul. This is a very English purgatory though: it’s full of ‘sleet’ as well as the more typical ‘fire’ and takes place in ‘Whinny Moor’, which is a real barren landscape in Leeds! On paper this song shouldn’t work at all: Pentangle were not a religious band (this is the only mention of ‘Christ’ in any of their songs, so unusual for a folk band singing traditional songs) and never again do a song quite this sombre or this empty, with so much emphasis on vocals without any sense of anything modern here at all. And yet it’s gorgeous: never did Pentangle’s vocal go together better than they do here. Jacqui’s haunting vocal sounds like she’s already passed on, while John’s rough diamond keeps moving forward up front and Terry keeps sliding from front to back as if he’s gaining and losing on this adventure. Far from palling, too, the slow tempo simply shows up how good Pentangle are at this sort of thing, teasing out the weary hidden beauty in this song and they make the moment when salvation arrives not some bouncy rainbow musical but a subtle triumphant ringing of guitar strings, a ‘humble acceptance’ of the afterlife that’s perfectly in keeping with the sentiment of the song. Though ‘dirge’ has now come to be a pejorative term, by the way, back in the dim and distant past it merely meant a slow song, while ‘lyke’ is an ancient name for a corpse and ‘wake’ of course means a vigil for someone who has passed on. Pentangle's version differs from most recordings of the song, cutting out an even scarier finale where anyone surrounded by riches and material comforts cannot ever reach Heaven: 'If ever thou gav'st silver and gold, Every nighte and alle, At t' Brig o' Dread thou'lt find foothold, And Christe receive thy saule'.
I must confess to a certain obsession with this song. It was the only song I hadn't fallen in love with on first hearing and back in the days when I only owned a cassette copy (and only had a battery-draining walkman to play it on) this was a problem being right at the heart of the album. Struggling with my creative writing uni homework (rewriting a James Joyce short story from a different character's perspective –sounds fun, right?), I went to bed with a fever, fell asleep and woke up every ninety minutes as this song came on over and over again and discovered that I'd suddenly got the entire tale I needed, an Irish preacher on his deathbed confessing to a life misled before he handed his soul over to God- a character who only got two lines in the whole flipping story and I hadn't even noticed the first time I read the book. It was the only decent marks I got all year and was all thanks to this song, whose mixture of fear and gratitude is so cleverly drawn it can't help but draw you in once you've 'met' this song in the same mood as the character, desperate and frightened but accepting in a greater power (I sailed over the word count too - something which won't surprise anyone whose read any of these books). Though it took me a long time to 'get' it, 'Lyke Wake Dirge' is one of my favourite Pentangle songs now and perhaps the warmest hearted song the band ever recorded, despite the icy cold depiction of it.
 Train Song is Bert’s big moment on the album and a track he had been writing for some time (a very rough version of it appears as early as his 1962 concert tapes released as ‘Young Man Blues’). I’m not buying for a second Bert’s comments in the original sleevenotes that this is a lament for the passing of the steam trains. It’s really a song about love going wrong, Bert tortured as he finds himself so burned by a love affair he has to leave it quick, desperate to go from ‘one to the two to the three of the four thousand miles away from you’. Though the chorus had been around a long time, a jaunty folky ‘fare thee well little lady’, Bert seems to have added both the reflective instrumental break and the depressed bluesy verses. In 1967 Bert seems to have realised that his relationship with ‘Nicola’ was going badly wrong and couldn’t wait to leave fast enough - though happily married to Heather by the time of this recording this song sounds like a hangover, a ‘thank goodness I got out of there fast’ song. After the escape comes a fascinating reflective final verse that is as close as Bert ever came to writing out a philosophy of romance and life: ‘Love is a basket of light, grasping so tight’. The human receptacle is not equipped to contain something so fleeting and it is so much work to keep it in place. While the locomotive is clearly here as a method of transport away from the mess made in the past the fact that Bert writes this was about a ‘steam train’ intrigues me: something impractical and romantic has no place in the real world where people who get by have far more practical relationships based on convenience not passion. This song sounds to me like Bert vowing to let an impractical relationship go – certainly it ‘sounds’ real the way Pentangle play it here. Bert is magnificent, gruff and dynamic as his voice of panic is matched by some quick guitar peals as he and John bounce off each other to great effect. Jacqui is at her banshee best, luring Bert in as he tries to make the break, taking the song over for its prettiest moment, a gorgeous wordless humming over the middle that seems to go on for hours. Terry too keeps the train wheels oiled with some magnificent cymbal work that really does sound like a train. It’s Danny’s double bass though that captures the ear and makes it sound like a train wreck, running away from Jacqui’s sincerity like a scalded cat and taking over the finale of the song where he screeches his way off the rails in glorious slow-motion. The most ‘noisy’ and unhinged track Pentangle recorded by some margin, this is one of Bert’s more revealing songs and would normally have been held back for a solo album (it would have slotted in well on ‘Birthday Blues’ for instance). However you can see why he held it back for Pentangle to do their thing over it; this track wouldn’t work a millionth as well without them all there doing their thing. The result is another of this album’s fan favourite for several good reasons, a tale of panic and escape that perfectly captures those nerves in the tense dramatic performance.
Side two goes back to the medieval era with  Hunting Song, a lovely largely acoustic song sung that sounds just as it might have done when it was first written in Tudor times until some pounding drums and bass mid way through the track drag it fully into the 20th century. John picked out this song which sounds at one with his album ‘Sir John A Lotte’ (except of course that it has lyrics – and a lot of them too!) In a very Pentangle twist this song, first written down in the Middle Ages, is already nostalgic for an earlier time and deals with the time of Camelot and King Arthur (perhaps a lute version of Pentangle in the 15th century decided to daringly combine it with Madrigals, shocking musical society to its thatched rafters) It’s a tale of a magic horn and the servant who discovers it believing all his greatest wishes will come true – basically riches and maidens (throw in some mushrooms and that’s the basis of sex, drugs and rock and roll right there). Of course, this being a Pentangle morality tale, it doesn’t: told that the horn will only work if he stays ‘true’, the narrator does all the right things for the wrong motives and ends up with wooing a Queen whose not out of love just lonely that The King is off fighting and he helps a Knight get revenge on a noblewoman for jilting him. The magic horn, it seems, has existed only to teach mankind a lesson and by the end of it Pentangle cry ‘falseness is found out – the sorrowful quest is over’. My guess is that this older song became popular again as King Henry liked to compare himself to King Arthur and felt he had knights loyal to him; my other guess is that he liked the twist at the end where the noblemen aren’t noble at all but after revenge. In the end the chasing of love in the opposite gender becomes as fruitless as the hunting of the hare being chased through the forest at the start, the pun in the title being that it only starts off as a ‘typical’ hunting song and quickly becomes an allegory for something darker, as the servant chases love. However is it really love if he bewitches the girls he sees instead of having them fall in love with him for who he is? While the nearly seven minute epic song takes a long time to get going and isn’t perhaps as sharp for modern ears as other songs on the album it’s still a strong song impressively performed. Jacqui’s yearning middle eight, squashing more and more words into each line, and the choral round in the song’s false ending are both particularly impressive. What other band but Pentangle would juxtapose a song about magical power with the earthly chords of 'Train Song'?!
 Sally Go Round The Roses might be a bit more up-to-date, being written by early Pentangle contemporaries The Jaynetts, but it‘s another of those songs that could have been written in any era, recalling the last time Pentangle went gardening on  ‘Let No Man Steal Your Thyme’. Sally is another acoustic exercise in traditional story telling, with a nursery-rhyme-ish tale of a young maiden and her suitor chasing each other in love and lust, a sort of re-telling of the Ring-O-Ring-O-Roses nursery rhymes, but thankfully without the plague connotations. That’s John taking the lead of this song along with Jacqui as the two old friends dance around each other, unwilling to risk all by falling in love but not wanting anyone else to have the object of their desires either. Many traditional folk songs have imagery of roses: something pretty surrounded by thorns keeping the pretty blooms safe, it’s easy to see why so many writers would pick up on this metaphor – this may have been what the more 1960s writers had in mind too. The result is another pretty melodic and oddly (if you know the other five Pentangle albums) accessible song which is catchy and punchy without hitting the heights of much of the album. Thompson’s boomingly busy double-bass is the star of this track once again, with its jazzy licks fighting all attempts to pigeon-hole this track as straight pop or folk though close behind is John’s sudden guitar solo which comes out of nowhere once he stops singing, as if he’s swapped one way of communicating with another, adding some clashing jazzy chords to one of the most pure folkie things Pentangle ever did, just to be different!
 The Cuckoo is in many ways more of the same, being an only slightly updated version of an old folk song from Somerset which seems to mix pretty birds of the ornithological kind with that of the human kind, in true 1960s London vernacular. This is also another acoustic song dominated by the sound of a glockenspiel, of all things, and until the more usual instruments kick in on the song’s second half you could forgive yourself for believing that you were listening to a Medieval re-enactment rather than a 1960s classic. At the time of the making of this album Bert had just moved out of London to live as a country gent in Ticehurst, East Sussex with Heather (something that must have come as a shock after living so long in that tiny flat in the city with John). According to the sleevenotes Bert learnt this song from his new neighbour’s children, which conjures up lovely images of this eccentric dishevelled shy songwriter seeing a bunch of pre-teens and struggling to make conversation with them (‘Football? Nah. Don’t really read comics, sorry. I’m not really a board-game-playing sort. *long pause* Say, uh, you don’t happen to know any good folk songs do you?’) I have to ask: what are a bunch of children doing knowing such a dark song about the underbelly of love anyway? They’re far too young for a song like this, which is only pretty on the surface and clearly not just about bird-watching. The cuckoo is a pure sort who ‘tells us no lies’ despite his bad reputation as a ‘trickster’ who plants his own eggs in other bird’s nests. By contrast the narrator is sick of the opposite gender: who in any era won’t laugh at the summary of love that ‘the meeting was a pleasure, but the courting was a woe!’ As ever the Pentangle version features a few subtle changes (the whole second verse 'As I was a walking and talking one day...' doesn't appear in any other version, suggesting Bert wrote it himself - it's a measure of Pentangle's timey-wimey ability to feel at home in any era that you can't see the join). The trouble is the narrator can’t trust the opposite sex: they’re always out to deceive, with Jacqui offering a medieval curse at the end that she wishes she could write to every man on the planet to give them a right telling off! What makes this a more 1960s style song that it first appears is that Pentangle seem to have swapped the genders over: what was once a song about mercurial women becomes quite different here with Jacqui taking the lead and dismissing all men as insolent baboons. In retrospect I’m surprised Pentangle didn’t make a bigger stir with the feminist movement (a female singer who was the de facto band leader – or at least you always sensed that Jacqui always had a lot more input than poor Mary next to Peter and Paul – who could play strong female roles and sometimes switched genders over to make a point). ‘Cuckoo’ is one of the band’s more daring songs in that sense even if, in truth, it’s not as musically interesting as some others. You hope that Bert didn’t have to spend much time learning it and quickly got on with some really entertaining game of hopscotch or leapfrog with his neighbour’s children or something.
 House Carpenter is another very old song better known to Fairport Convention fans as ‘The Daemon Lover’, in which The Devil seduces a girl who is quite happily married to her humble carpenter and woos her with tales of riches. What’s an unusual twist is that this isn’t some scheming awful Pentangle harridan but a potential princess who once offered the hand of ‘The King’s Third Son’ but who turned it down for love of a humble carpenter. Only after years of wedded bliss does the Devil try to lure her back with tales of how her life might have been surrounded by gold and jewels. She also regrets her decision, coming to miss the ‘three babes’ left at home once she boards Devil Bert’s three luxurious ships set for exotic lands. However there’s no happy ending here, no saving redemption and the song ends sadly with the song slowing to an a capella section as Jacqui realises she’s alone despite the wealth and realises the ‘hills of bright Heaven’ is where has she come from, signifying home. Pentangle’s version of this song is less traditional than most (well, it does feature a banjo part – an instrument first invented in the 19th century and traditionally played by African-Americans a million miles away from this very ‘white’ romance – plus another sitar which no English or American folk songwriter would have heard of back when this song was written). However it’s more than the instrumentation: this ‘feels’ like a 1960s song in a way none of the other many versions do, treating this like a period piece. As far as Pentangle think, though, everything in this song is current: the lust or jewels, the regret, the wondering how your life might have turned out differently. This arrangement has the same powerful folk-rock drive so common to the era, has Jacqui giving as good as she gives alongside Bert’s devilish tones and a real fight between the electric and acoustic sides of the band that make it clear if the Devil wants her she won’t go without a struggle. The effect, with McShee and Jansch’s traditional vocals accompanied by a backing that sounds almost psychedelic in its hypnotic mystical riffs and spacey improvisational bursts, makes the song sound somehow olde worldy and contemporary all at the same time. Many fans will tell you this re-make (pre-make?) of Tim Hardin’s ‘If I Were A Carpenter’ is the best thing Pentangle ever did. I’m not sure I quite agree (it lacks the sheer primal emotion of ‘Once I Had A Sweetheart’) but this is another rattlingly good performance of another scintillating arrangement of a song that still packs a punch even a few hundred years after it was first written.
‘Basket Of Light’ overall, though, is much closer to the hills of Heaven than it is to Hell. Usually when we talk about a band ‘selling out’ and making their work easier to hear that’s a bad thing: I love albums that talk up to me not down. However while ‘Basket Of Light’ is much catchier than other Pentangle albums and far poppier too I never feel as if it betrays anything Pentangle stand for. On the contrary, this very much not difficult third album is the most Pentangle-like of the lot I think, with the most extreme re-makes of older material and the most convincingly timeless band compositions. Whereas other albums will be the ‘Bert’ album (‘Solomon’s Seal’), John’s album (‘Reflection’) Jacqui’s album (‘Cruel Sister’) the rhythm section’s album (‘The Pentangle’) or everybody’s album by turns (‘Sweet Child’) the real reason ‘Basket Of Light’ is so extraordinary is because everyone is pulling together and everyone has a good album. John’s ‘Springtime Promises’ and ‘Hunting Song’, Jacqui’s ‘Once I Had A Sweetheart’, Bert’s ‘Train Song’ and ‘Cuckoo’ nestle alongside songs that really do feature all five Pentanglers working together (‘Light Flight’ especially). Whether you think this mix of ideas from different centuries in different styles every track makes for a basket of light or bunch of basket cases, there’s still something admirably brave about this album’s mix of contents that still excites all these years on. The idea of listening to a group of olde English folk songs might not fill everybody with desperate longing, but there’s always space for the traditional in music alongside the look-at-me-I-can-play-with-my-teeth-even-though-I-wear-false-ones-nowadays school of playing and Pentangle are the best examples of this by far. So natural do these old songs slip into the more modern albums in your collections that if you play it too many times you’ll forget any other time period ever existed. Not that that would ever happen to me, of course. Still, what can I say except forsooth yon listeners, get thee hence to thou nearest recorde shoppe and partake of thou worldly sounds within to give yon ears a treat – youle thanke me fore ite.