Strawbs-Grave New World

December 2, 2011

The Strawbs

Grave New World (A&M 1972)

Amidst all of the psychedelic wayfarers of the 60s England, the Strawbs have always gotten lost in the shuffle of a deck stacked with Pink Floyds, Beatles, Cream, Incredible String Band and countless other seminal influences on modern music. All you need to know is that I discovered this album through the recommendation of my mother-in-law. Yeah, she’s a pretty cool mother-in-law to be sure, but it points to how their musical pollination never quite spread beyond a long-forgotten garden visited by far too few souls. That’s a shame because I’ve been dipping my toes into their pool and hate that they’ve become a criminally neglected footnote to the careers of original member Sandy Denny and later addition Rick Wakeman. Personally, I am enamored by the prospect of any band that combined the opposing viewpoints of the folks who sparked Fairport Convention and Yes, even if they contributed to different eras of the Strawbs. Sadly, the names of Denny and Wakeman obscure the legacy and immense talent of singer/guitarist Dave Cousins, who is the foundation of the band.

Cousins’ voice kind of reminds me of a folksier, gentle version of Cat Stevens, but with a bit more passion, grit and urgency. Although the instrumentation of Grave New World straddles the line between pastoral English folk and the orchestral bombast of 70s prog, Cousins grounds it all with a earnest, pleading voice that wouldn’t sound out of place on a lonesome folk platter lost to general obscurity. His timeless voice and knack for imbuing each track with a sad, weary pathos can be derived from his time playing skiffle and obsessing over the heartbreaking catalogs of Leadbelly, Bob Dylan and Elizabeth Cotten. Most important was his devotion to Flatt and Scruggs who inspired him to pick up a banjo and dedicate himself to its mastery. Don’t expect any hoedowns and juke joint paeans to wayward lovers since the Strawbs were a far different band by the time Grave New World was released in 1972.

Grave New World and its predecessor From the Witchwood are where the Strawbs really hit their stride. Folks tend to fixate on their debut with Sandy Denny, but it’s folk-rock sounds simplistic in comparison to their flights into the pretentious heavens of prog. Don’t fear–this is no Tarkus or The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Grave New World may be the most folksy, earthy prog album of the 70s and avoids the conceptual excess and pompous pitfalls of their brethren. At it’s core, Grave New World is 60s English folk album concerned with “lords of the forest”, changing seasons and the decay of true love. However, Cousins dalliances with prog enervates these tried and true themes and the familiar becomes electric. Just take a listen to “The Flower and the Young Man” and tell me that it doesn’t deserve a place besides “Calvary Cross” and “Come All Ye” in the sweepstakes for the penultimate English folk tune deserving of epic status. Awash in warm, buzzing organ, perfect harmony and a beautiful progression from serenity to frenetic guitar soloing, this song just nails everything I love about this era in music. Even the lyrics paint a perfect picture:

While seasons change in timely way
The salt sea ever flows
Where open moors lie cold and bleak
A single flower grows.

Though winter snows fall deep and long
The flower grows the while
The weary traveller passing by
Feels warmer for her smile.

Sunshine and the tender flower
Both melt the young man’s heart
But he who lingers waits his turn
Must learn to play his part.

Through summer days of warmth and love
The young man tends his flower
But blinded by their colours bright
Heeds not the passing hour.

The autumn trees once clothed with gold
Now frayed and sadly worn
The flower bids a chill farewell
The young man’s heart is torn.

While seasons change in timely way
The salt sea ever flows
Where open moors lie cold and bleak
A single flower grows.

It’s a classic tale that wouldn’t sound out of place as a traditional folk tune recorded long ago, but their instrumentation places it in a different musical context and it is simultaneously a twist on time honored themes and a declaration of their individuality and unique take on what others fumbled or rehashed. I’m not saying Grave New World is some game changer that will leave you slack jawed, but is peppered with bouts of genius that deserves to be treasured by more than my mother-in-law and I.

World Party-Bang!

August 13, 2008

World Party Bang! (

Crysalis/EMI 1993)

pt. 1

The Waterboys might not have been the sensation of their heroes, the Beatles, but what they didn’t borrow in melodic craftsmanship from the fab four–they took quite a bit actually, they mimicked in distribution of labor. With Mike Scott hooting enough to fill the shoes of a Lennon and a McCartney, it left Karl Wallinger to take the diminutive, underemployed, role of George Harrison.

Wallinger adhered to the archetype and moved ahead with his own thing. World Party recorded five albums in the wake of his departure from the Waterboys (1985-?), all with their merits. But it was his 1993 album, Bang! an eco-social concept album, that was both his best, and most continually puzzling as it eluded broader context recognition.

World Paty was pretty well established by 1993, with indie hits like “Put the Message in the Box” and “Way Down Now”, along with a critically-favored collaboration with Sinead O’Connor, but Bang! demonstrated Wallinger’s push out of staid indie jangle to a self-made pastiche of pop-rock songwriting and crate-digger exploration. The Beatles, Beach Boys, and Stones, permeated the sound, braided in with Prince, Was Not Was, and early The The.

The very notion of a political record from 1993 sounds a bit precious given all that has happened since. But Wallinger, every bit the intellectual, took the Earth Day-era sensibility and crafted some lasting music. Didn’t hurt that he could also fashion a hook and layer harmonies with the best of them.

“Is it Like Today?”, probably the best charting single of his career, was a sci-fi allegory about the end of times, a bit of wistful folk with Wallinger plying his gorgeous one man-CSNY vocal strategy to glorious effect. Like any good sci-fi the key is to humanize the story, which he did–right down to the nominal “bang”, forcefully whispered in mock compliance to T.S. Eliot’s apocalyptic vision.

And though his entreaties of Ursula K. LeGuin were (probably for the best) limited, that subtle talent for pushing human warmth into pedantic, speculative spaces proved invaluable. The cautionary, “Give it All Away” (perhaps more in line with Rachel Carson, in fact) was a tuneful and hectic nod to Paul Hardcastle’s “19”, remembered not nearly as well, and yet sounding far less dated for the trouble.

For that matter, the Prince homage, “Rescue Me” was both unlikely, and prescient. At a time when the Mtv Unplugged zeitgeist pushed a lot of artists into begrudging (and as often flat-out fake) acoustic directions, Wallinger’s nod to Prince’s synth soul-pop was an improbable, lovingly unironic, retort.

Best among the set, however, were the pretty side two ballads. “Sunshine” had the easy blues of something spun from Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti (I’m thinking, “Down By the Seaside”), or that mostly elided fourth side of the White Album. But the zen moment occurred on the smiley-faced tearjerker, “All I Gave”. It pooled the World Party resources of honeyed harmonies–here reaching dizzied Bee Gees heights, a sparkling guitar from McGuinn’s best Byrds numbers, and a lyrical sentiment that–even to the naysayers of Wallinger’s environmentalist agenda and other various lefty notions, must have been irresistable.

Bang! happened in the detente of Clinton’s America (the birthing hour of Blair’s England) when the do-gooding drive seemed only altruistic–as opposed to now when it feels positively dire. But such was Wallinger’s great moment, a romantic lull during which he, nevertheless, felt compelled to sound the alarm to warn he future. The all-wasteful, hacking blacklung in me feels as though I missed the point fifteen years ago. The overly romantic, hacking blacklung in me remains content to have enjoyed it as I did…

The Breeders

Pod Demos

At the time, The Pixies were my favorite band in the universe. The Smiths and Cocteau Twins were runners-up. My teenage mind latched onto Frank Black’s primal screams on Surfer Rosa and loved the eclectic smorgasbord of Doolittle. This teenage mind liked Bossanova and told Trompe Le Monde to talk to the hand. I saw them with the Ciure and Love and Rockets and my heart swooned at the possibilities of music. Now I am much older and calloused and I look back and wonder why I thought their first two albums were a door to all that was new. I still view Loveless, Queen is Dead, Heaven or Las Vegas and Viva Hate as impeccable gems, but the Pixies just haven’t aged well with me.

The Breeders’ debut, Pod, is a horse of a different color. It still gets played regularly and it grows more loved with each listen. I like First Splash a lot and find something to love on the other two, but the overall legacy is weak except for Pod. I used the term “supergroup” already today, but here we go on our hackneyed path again. In my mind, the Breeders were much more than Kim Deal. The band included Tanya Donnely of Throwing Muses, Josephine Wiggins of The Perfect Disaster and Britt Walford of Slint, who recorded under the alias of Shannon Doughton to preserve the all-girl flair. When you listen to the demos for Pod, it becomes apparent that they had a lot more to do with its success than you may think.

Pod was produced and engineered by Steve Albini. Known for his work with  Big Black, Rapeman and Shellac as well as production credits on albums by Nirvana, Superchunk Page and Plant and Pj Harvey. It was always obvious that he beefed up the sound of Pod, but one listen to the demos and it points to how Albini and Britt Walford made this album a great one instead of a good one. The demos include all of the Kim Deal tracks and excludes the Beatles cover as well as a few others. The demos are a great insight into the creation of the album and stand on their own as an album, but it lacks the forboding, metallic guitars and creepy atmosphere of the finished product. Yes, this is the case with most demos, but the contrast is schocking.

In the finished product, Walford’s drumming is pushed to the forefront and is recorded higher in the mix than than Deal’s vocals at times. In addition, Deal and Donnely’s guitars sounds more abrasive and harsh while Wiggs’ bass is prominent and drives each track with an air of aggression. The finished product is genius while the demos sounds almost twee. There is no Pod as wel know it without the pounding drums of Walford and Albini’s raw reconstruction of these songs. You may say this is unfair since these are demos. However, the band’s direction after Pod shows that they were always a catchy pop band with rough edges instead of the infinitely more interesting band which recorded Pod.


Geracao Bendita (Shadoks reissue of 1971 album)

Once you stray outside of Tropicalia’s inner circle of Brazilian psychedelic royalty (Gilberto Gil, Gaetano Veloso, Os Mutantes, Gal Costa, Jorge Ben and Tom Ze) there are so many more misses than hits. Therefore, it was a pleasant surprise to find an album that holds its own against any album recorded by the aforementioned artists. This Spectrum has nothing to do with Pete Kember of and his brilliant continuation of Spacemen 3’s work, but this Spectrum was assembled to perform the soundtrack to a Brazilian hippie flick.

Consisting of actors and actresses in the film as well as members of the 2000 Volts band, this Spectrum has much love for Os Mutantes’ first two classic albums, but the Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers and Magical Mystery Tour albums as well. Vocalists jump from English to Portuguese without rhyme or reason as the band professes their love of peace, love and understanding, but it doesn’t really matter anyway. The main attraction is in how this suddenly assembled band deftly builds upon the sound of Os Mutantes and slathers the tracks in fuzz guitar.

However, there is one track on Geracao Bendita that still floors me a year after I first stumbled upon it. “Mother Nature” combines the Brazilian vibes of Tropicalia, the wide eyed optimism of the Beatles and the laid-back West Coast vibes of Haight-Ashbury in one track. It’s Abbey Road, After Bathing at Baxters and Os Mutantes in one sitting. The rest of Geracao Bendita is good, but this track makes me grin from ear to ear. There is not hyperbole in my mutterings. I really, really love this song.