The Strawbs are a band who, in their almost chameleon like way have managed to avoid gaining the levels of attention and admiration which would normally be due to a band of such musical stature and longevity. While many know the name, comparatively few have heard the music. Despite the early Rick Wakeman connection, the common reaction would generally include a reference to a novelty satirical hit about industrial relations in the 1970s which got them labelled as jolly folksters at a time when earnest young people wanted their rock heavy, cultish and laced with something illegal. Which is a shame because on this, their first new music release in 8 years, and their first on Cherry Red's progressive Esoteric Antenna label the Strawbs demonstrate that they are not only fine musicians, but have a flair for intelligent songwriting and a turn of phrase which would put many to shame.
All the stars are aligned for this release, produced by Chris Tsangarides (Thin Lizzy, Judas Priest, Yngwie Malmsteen) and featuring the electric line up which has toured to great success of late. It opens to lush pastoral orchestrations before driving in to The Nails From The Hands Of Christ, a tale of a young woman's brush with uncomprehended spirituality, experienced through a haze of cheap culture, drugs and knock off commercialism. This finds Dave Cousins on great lyrical form, showing a few younger competitors how to call up the zeitgeist without sounding like an embarrassing great-aunt and inject real humour to effect (The eponymous nails are described as 'kosher'). Religion remains a constant theme through the album, the rather sober assessment of this opening, despite its positive upturn, contrasting with the out and out certainty of a second coming portrayed in When The Spirit Moves. This simple tune and profession of faith and hope may seem to speak to another age before the cynicism and despondency of the populist dawn tossed innocence in the trash bin. But I am not here to question any faith, and there is an artfulness in the way the hippyish vision of peace and love gives way to The Ten Commandments, a grinding blues rocker satirising the new cheap religions of TV chefs and fame for fame's sake (There's a high priestess/She knows the spice of life/She's only skin and bone/But she's a football wife). The centrepiece, The Ferryman's Curse continues the battle of sin and temptation begun in The Vision Of The Lady Of The Lake from 1970's Dragonfly album, a track which perhaps more than anything signalled the band's transition from folk to rock. The boatman has one more enemy to slay in an epic combat, but evil and sin persist as they will as he and his cursed wife row over to the other side.
Elsewhere, themes of love loss and remembering are sketched with the confidence and acceptance of age. It's almost endearing to hear the odd whistle through the bridgework, no need to hide the changes wrought by age, nothing to hide and no hypocrisy. This is a consummately professional work with much to discover and admire. Fans will love this and for those who, like me only ever knew Part Of The Union and that Wakeman connection, well, it's been a long time getting to meet you, but I'm mighty glad I did.
****+ Andrew Cottrell
Where to buy?
All Rights Reserved Background Magazine 2018