Strawbs (from the album Settlement available on Esoteric Records) (by Chris Wheatley)
For over fifty years now, English Folk Rock band Strawbs (sometimes known as The Strawbs) have been producing provocative, eclectic music of high class and ambitions. Chart success with their enduring single “Part of the Union” and early collaborations with Sandy Denny, may have seen their high-water-mark in terms of commercial success but Strawbs were never a band to sacrifice their sound at the altar of sales-figures. Long-time leader Dave Cousins clearly still has plenty to say, both lyrically and musically. On Settlement, Cousins is joined by regular members Dave Lambert, Chas Cronk, Dave Bainbridge, and Tony Fernandez, with guests John Ford, Cathryn Craig, and Schalk Joubert. Prevented from recording in the usual manner, Settlement has been put together by the musician's working remotely from one another, in home studios, with the project coordinated by Blue Weaver from his studio in Germany. Says Weaver ‘Strawbs dusted off their instruments and set up the necessary technology to make it happen - ranging from state-of-the-art recording equipment to an ironing board!”.
It's fair to say that every Strawbs record is an adventure. This particular one begins with the title-track. Slip-sliding, loose-limbed, guitar jangles and rolls in an uneasy fashion. ‘There comes a time, where every settlement is due’ sings Cousins in his unmistakable, potent, rough-edged voice. Strings edge in, washes of synth, and then the track explodes with thudding drums and electric guitar; a powerful, mercurial sound. Those jangling guitars skitter nervously around the song's edges. ‘no change of mind, whatever is will be’. This is Strawbs at their heaviest, though classic Strawbs it is, through and through. As ever, they inject enough invention and sophistication to prevent the music from ever sliding into the obvious.
“Strange Times” opens with ringing, ornate acoustic guitar over deep bass rumblings. Subtle strings propel the song gently, with start-stop dynamics and swelling synths. With Strawbs, you will always find drama (some might say melodrama), but the emotion is always earnest. There is no denying that these are talented musicians who are still passionate about their craft. “Each Manner of Man” Folk-roots in their hearts. Lyrically, the universal, human-centred experience is to the forefront.
On “The Visit” Strawbs tease out an old-time, almost Bluegrass feel with chiming guitar and a rolling arrangement. It's a track which builds organically, as with all of this band's music. Vocal harmonies and more of that rolling, finger-picked guitar carry the chorus. Again, Strawbs add novel elements and small, unexpected twists which reach beyond the Folk-world. For an album recorded piece-meal, the tightness and togetherness is remarkable. “Flying Free” arises from a hypnotic, pulsing riff, wheeling around and around in a deft dance of strings. Hand-percussion lends the track a shuffling, dancing feel. This is a showcase for the group's admirable instrumental playing, as the disparate strands weave and circle to great effect.
The somewhat melancholy “Quicksilver Days” utilizes bittersweet piano runs and minor chords to create a pensive ballad full of portent. “We Are Everyone”, by contrast, whips up the storm of far-reaching emotion which Strawbs have always delighted in, rising and falling on waves of electric guitar. Closer “Chorale” ends on a jauntier note, with sliding synth, burbling electronics, and driving acoustic guitar. Full of bright notes and hopeful overtones, the band, as always, end on a high. (by Chris Wheatley)
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