Strawbs-Grave New World

December 2, 2011

The Strawbs

Grave New World (A&M 1972)

http://www.mediafire.com/?q2ezq173o11kxr7

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.

Richard Thompson

Small Town Romance (Hannibal 1984)

http://www.divshare.com/download/6116236-5bf

When one first encounters an artist with a vast discography, it is all too easy to reach for the accepted classics only to ignore the many back alleys and sidebars that make vast discographies so intruiging and rewarding. God knows that Richard Thompson’s solo work, collaborations with Linda Thompson as well as Fairport Convention are rife with worthwhile peaks and humdrum valleys. Thompson’s solo work of the mid 80s to the present gets ignored by anyone who doesn’t think that Ron Sexsmith and Billy Bragg are the bees knees. Actually, that is quite a slice of hyperbole, but folks rightfully gush over his brilliance in the 60s and 70s at the expense of great records like Rumour and Sigh, Amnesia and Mock Tudor. Yeah, they have their fannypack and granola munching moments, but musicians mature and evolve to varying degrees of success. However, Small Town Romance,  a live album recorded in 1982, exposes all of the sores and scabs of his divorce while exposing a vulnerable side of Thompson as he begins anew without his muse.

You can sense the hurt emanating from his voice and general demeanor as he plays. This is wholly unsurprising since 1982 was the year of his divorce from Linda Thompson. These internal and external conflicts fueled their collaborations and provided an edge lacking from his later work. Here, the edge has dulled and the furnace has gone cold. All that is left are broken pieces and he dutifully attempts to rearrange them on Small Town Romance.  He seems a bit lost without his usual foil when he tackles the songs they used to sing together. My heart really goes out to him on this one despite his own contributions to this sad conclusion.

There is one song in particular that really floors me and forces me to reflect on my own fuckups. “Beat the Retreat” deals with how he was prone to fuck things up. but took comfort in the fact that he could always retreat and find comfort in the arms of his love. On Small Town Romance, the door has been slammed shut and his backpedaling is only met by an empty bed.

Beat my retreat, back home to you
Beat my retreat, back home to you
I’m burning all my bridges
I’m burning all my bridges
I’m burning all my bridges
I’m running back home to you

Trailing my colours, back home to you
Trailing my colours, back home to you
This world is filled with sadness
This world is filled with sadness
This world is filled with sadness
I’m running back home to you

Follow the drum, back home to you
Follow the drum, back home to you
There was no sense in my leaving
There was no sense in my leaving
There was no sense in my leaving
I’m running back home to you

There is something so romantic, but flawed about the sentiment of this song. It is all about a man who can never decide what the hell he wants and blows things to holy hell, but expects his partner to welcome with open arms. There is also a deep sense of regret that permeates this song, but a sense of warmth and hope that there is someone out there in this cold world that loves you no matter what. I want to simultaneously punch and hug the man since he obviously has taken liberties, but really loves her to death and hates himself for every misstep.

It is one of those few showstoppers that renders the rest of the performances somewhat impotent by comparison. I used toincessantly listen to this song at the expense of the others. However, years have passed and the rest of the album feels like an old friend with a ton of hubris weighing it down at every turn.

Music for Melancholy Moods: Part Deux

One of the most popular posts on this garbage heap was Music for Melancholy Moods, a mix of songs designed to drag you into the dumps. The original was conceived amidst a heap of beer bottles and sour intentions and its sequel will be no exception. Being the predictable soul I am, the previous collection stopped at the letter M once my sobriety wore thin like cheap toilet paper. Hopefully, this one will strike the same dour chord.

1. Whiskeytown-Sit and Listen to the Rain (From the Fucker demos)

http://www.mediafire.com/?y0jykjzyn3n

Never cared much for the band, but like some of Ryan Adams solo debut, but the tape hiss coupled with a hushed ode to ennui and rainy days occupies a dear place in my heart. I love few things more than the greyness and incessant drip of a rainy day in spring. These are moments where you ponder your navel while enjoying the mist and drip.

2. Unrest-Imperial (from Imperial fffr)

http://www.mediafire.com/?lxrxwqntm14

This is the song that makes sense of Unrest’s eventual association with the 4ad label. Instead of ethereal balladry ala This Mortal Coil’s take on “Song to the Siren” and Lisa Gerrard’s “Sanvean” we get a pasty indie-rocker who somehow channels the majestic grandeur of the label at its finest. An epic eight minutes that should last so much longer, “Imperial” breaks my heart in all the right places. Awkward falsettos never sounded quite so sublime.

3. Michael Hurley-Tea Song from Blueberry Wine

http://www.mediafire.com/?gbhafylzwue

Never has a song about brewing tea and preparing a meal of honeydew achieved such pathos. His tender description of this snack seems to be the only thing holding together as he speaks of a relationship gone wrong. He tries to play it cool, but this daily ritual of drinking tea along is the only thing tethering him to earth while his emotions are run into the dirt. I had never heard this song until five years ago when I had the pleasure of seeing him live. It left me dumbstruck and found it to be the most moving tale of a man who hugs his humble comforts and sense of humor in times of trouble.

4. Terry Allen-“Cortez Sail” from Juarez

http://www.mediafire.com/?lzkcvumcnbm

Someday I will pay tribute to this lonesome country concept album. This is not the time for such things. However, “Cortez Sail” is awash in folklore and apocalyptic tales of the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs. There is something chilling about his portrayal of Cortez as he prepared to attack and something hopeless about the depiction of the Aztecs watching the conquistadors sail onto their shores. It then jumps to a narrative concerning the album’s  protagonist as he attempts to escape his own inescapable fate. The song reminds me that certain outcomes simply cannot be avoided no matter how hard we wish otherwise.

5. Neil Young-“Comes a Time” from Comes a Time LP

http://www.mediafire.com/?wxhvcxjc4it

This ong reminds me of chances missed and those that were taken. The intrsumentation is simple, but perfect as fiddle and a string section duke it out while Neil Yound tackles a moment where life could go horribly wrong or end in happiness. Depending on your mood, you can choose your own adventure with this song.

6. Sunny Day Real Estate-“Every Shining Time you Arrive’ from How Does it Feel to be Something On

http://www.mediafire.com/?m1mtmwcwmil

Don’t laugh. I always loved this album because it is so troubled and in search of meaning in the world. Many of the lyrics seem so naive and innocent in the face of a world that is quickly becoming claustrophobic. This one sticks with me the most because it mirrors the moment I bought it. I had just broken up with a live-in girlfriend and bought every depressing album that my grubby mitts would hold. I immediately bonded with this song because it dealt with a relationship that nudged a boulder up a hill only to have it roll backwards at the last moment.

7. Steve Young-“That’s How Strong My Love Is” from Rock Salt and Nails

http://www.mediafire.com/?se9n3wlkynn

Sometimes it’s just as simple as a perfect country rendering of a soul classic. No explanation is needed.

8. Stephen Stills-Change Partners

http://www.mediafire.com/?myt9df7ibw3

He uses a debutante ball as a metaphor for the restless nature of relationships. Love is temporary because eventually someone taps you on the shoulder and your love is dancing with another in front of your eyes. His reassurances that this is natural provide little comfort.

9. Songs Ohia-“Back on Top” from The Lioness

Suppressed violence and testosterone lurk beneath the surface of this one. It deals with a man tortured by the glimmers of hope he sees in his lover’s eyes and the mere sight of her body. He cannot have what he once had, so he keeps reiterating that he will show her when he is back on top again. It is a battle for superiority in a relationship where both parties view love as a competition instead of a collaboration. There is something about that concept that bums me out.

10. Sibylle Baier-“Tonight” from Colour Green

http://www.mediafire.com/?jgmbxf4dqcy

Not much to this but a woman coming home from work to sit with her lover as they gaze at the moon, but there is something spooky and melancholy about her delivery. It reminds me of lying on a roof and gazing at the heavens because it seems like there is nothing more fruitful than simple observations next to the one you love.

11. Scud Mountain Boys-“Scratch Ticket” from Massachusetts

http://www.mediafire.com/?1x3lmd1ejf2

Instead of wasting money in juke joints and barrooms galore, this character wastes his money in a far less hedonistic fashion. The Scud Mountain Boys recast the country weeper and replace whiskey with the scratch ticket as the bane of the working man or woman. Bleary eyed drunks are replaced with desperate souls with quarters instead of shot glasses.

12. Richard Thompson-“Beat the Retreat” from Small Town Romance

http://www.mediafire.com/?yzyixjynuzn

Masochism at its finest. It is a song about a man who destroys all he treasures just so he may retreat home to the one he supposedly loves. On one hand, it is a testament to the love of a woman who will harbor her troubled husband no matter what, but it is also about a man who creates a tempest as an excuse to feel needed. From reading about Richard Thompson’s life, I’d bet the house on the latter.

13. Richard and Linda Thompson-“Calvary Cross” from I want to See the Bright Lights Tonight

http://www.mediafire.com/?yzyixjynuzn

Well, let’s see where this give and take began. I see this song as a bit of a parable for Richard and Linda Thompson’s troubled relationship. This song touches on some of the same themes as “Beat the Retreat” as Richard Thompson again deals with a similar situation where one wrongs the other, but Christian principles are expected from the offended party. There is one line in the song which sums up this fucked affair. He states that “I’ll hurt you til’ you need me” and talks of someone who remians at the station, but refuses to board the train. He almost seems proud of the mistreatment and confuses need with love.

14. Phil Ochs-“I’ve Had Her” from Pleasures in the Harbor

http://www.mediafire.com/?c13jzuy3unc

I almost hope this song is ironic. “I’ve Had Her” alternates between one man’s romantic perspective of a certain lady, but switches to that of another man who coldly proclaims that “i’ve had her, she’s nothing.” I cannot figure out if it is a condemnation of misogyny or a narrative of love gone horribly wrong.There is something cruel about this song that sticks in my craw. It is orchestrated as a dreamy melody, but the sentiments are so ugly.

15. Antony and the Johnsons-“hope There’s Someone” from I am a Bird Now

http://www.mediafire.com/?bml0mxbft1y

This song unsettles me as it forces you to deal with your last moments and who you would choose as your last visitor. It is a plea for relief and comfort in your dying hours.  I first heard it while walking to work and it made me teary-eyed as thoughts of mortality intruded upon my every thought. Not a great way to start the school day, but a necessary evil as the years march onward.

16. The Mountain Goats-“Sahdow Song” from The Coroner’s Gambit

http://www.mediafire.com/?g1cmxelbbyu

This one reminds me of a time when a relationship cracked, but hope remained that crazy glue and good intentions would reinforce mere shards. It is a song where hope attempts to outdistance the reality of love’s slow demise. Part of me admires its optimism, part of me gets depressed by the reality of the situation.

17. George Jones-“She Thinks I Still Care” from The Spirit of Country Compilation

http://www.mediafire.com/?99udzdxdy44

Where do I begin with George Jones? All of his music has been a destructive buddy in my hours of drink. However, this one is timeless and captures the essence of his masochistic tendencies. There’s plenty of sadism in his love as well, but George does more sulking and sipping than focusing on revenge. However, there is a cruel tinge to his mourning.

18. John Martyn-“Go Easy” from Bless the Weather

http://www.mediafire.com/?wk1nmsygcdy

I remember the day I bought this album and put it on the stereo. Rarely has an album begun in such a vulnerable position. John Martyn is a fucking wreck. His bouts with addiction and ruined relationships have left him a mere eggshell to cover his heart. The song is a plea for all involved parties to take it easy for a bit because his heart simply cannot take much more. The chorus begs for life to go easy on him, but the optimist in him still hopes love won’t pass him by. Another talented masochist whose losses created great music, John Martyn takes 70s folk to some really painful places.

19. Bauhaus-“All We Wanted Was Everything” from The Sky’s Gone Out

http://www.mediafire.com/?j5b5m5tfino

During my teenage years, I sent a package to my girlfriend and wrote the chorus of this song on the envelope. It read “all we wanted was everything, all we got was cold.” The postal service worker stopped me to remark on how she thought the phrase was a witty one. I claimed ownership of this Peter Murphy chestnut, smiled and walked on my merry way. I felt shame afterwards and it saved me from quoting Nitzer Ebb and KMFDM on future letters.

20. The Ink Spots-“I’ll Never Smile Again” from Original Decca Recordings

http://www.mediafire.com/?bwmnt1tv4xl

Every Ink Spots’ song sort of sounds the same, but this one suits this collection best. Lonesome harmonies, pledges of sadness, old-timey innocence and a belief that heartbreak is terminal make this song one where you hang on every sullen word. There is no irony or wit, but a wholehearted belief that this love was the last to be ever experienced. Plus, the baritione breaks down love in such a simple fashion that i cannot believe I was such a conniving clod.