The name Julian Littman may not be familiar to that many readers – but I bet the name Steeleye Span certainly is. The legendary folk-rock band, that rose to fame in the ‘70s during that glorious flowering of the English folk-rock genre, are still going strong and Julian Littman is one of their current guitarists. This release is actually pretty close to being a Steeleye Span album since all band members contribute to the project, but the concept is the brainchild of Littman and most of the song-writing is his too, so the album is rightly credited to him.
Interestingly, at least for those of us with a prog bent, it is also a concept album. That fact got me thinking about concept albums and folk-rock music which are two things that rarely seem to combine. Off the top of my head, I can only think of Steeleye Span’s own concept album Wintersmith from 2013, and the classic 1974 The King Of Elfland’s Daughter by Bob Johnson and Peter Knight, also two ex-Spanners (or whatever you call ex-members of the band!). There may well be other folk-rock concept albums that I am not aware of but given the folk tendency to tell a good yarn, it is surprising how few and far between there are. It seems that when there is a longer story to tell, bands just write longer songs – take Matty Groves by Fairport Convention which comes in at 8 minutes, or Jack Orion by Pentangle which lasts a whopping eighteen minutes, occupying one whole side of a vinyl album – half a concept album, one might say.
Anyway, back to Littman. He has based his own concept album on Goblin Market, a narrative poem written by Christina Rossetti and published way back in 1862. The poem is full of the typical fare that you would expect in folk or folk-rock lyrics– lovely maidens, dodgy goblins, sexual innuendos, and irresistible temptation. In a nutshell, the story tells of two sisters, one of whom is tempted to eat the goblin’s fruit which puts her into a coma and it’s her sister who has the task of trying to to save her. Rather unusually for such a cautionary tale, the two young damsels live happily ever after!
The music itself does not drift far from the typical Steeleye Span template, which of course is no bad thing. Temptation is a typically rhythmic folk-rock piece, with rich textures created by the violin and acoustic guitars, and nicely melodic – especially in the chorus as the goblins insistently try to lure the young lady into the trap (‘come buy our orchard fruit, come buy, come buy’ they beg). This is followed by Seduction, penned by Spud Sinclair (Steeleye Span’s other guitarist), and is based around another excellent rhythmic theme that will have you tapping your feet and smiling as the piece opens in an upbeat way, but it takes on a harder metal edge as the song develops. The vocal parts are now darker too with the ‘come buy’ phrase reappearing but sung in a distinctly menacing way.
For those of us who followed Steeleye Span during the ‘70s, the band undoubtedly revolved around the magical voice of Maddy Prior, so it was a surprise to me to discover she is still with the band to this day. Here she contributes the vocals on Admonition. Amazingly, her vocal timbre seems almost unchanged. The song itself is a pleasant ballad, nothing more, and with another voice might even be forgettable, but Prior lifts it up a level for sure. The next track, Addiction, is penned by Jessie May Smart, Span’s violin player. Smart also contributes vocals – very well, it must be said, even if she can hardly compete with Prior. Musically, this one is a little disjointed and seems to ramble along due to being more focused on telling the story than creating a solid self-standing song. The album closes with the two-part Salvation/Remembrance. Salvation is in line with the upbeat folk-rock numbers heard previously on the album but then without pause it segues into Remembrance with a simple but gracefully beautiful falling violin theme which is then echoed in the vocal melody. It’s a brilliant song and the best way possible to close the album.
The album duration is around thirty-five minutes, so it’s a tad on the short side, but it’s also true that the original poem is a relatively straight forward story and dragging out the tale beyond this length might have stretched many listeners’ attention span (sorry for the pun!). As it is, with the vocal diction very clear, and the spirit of the poem captured perfectly by Littman in the music, it does keep one gripped to the story.
For those fascinated by the story, John Matthews (whose wife Caitlin also sings on the album) has created a tarot card set and guidebook, illustrated by Charles Newington, based on the Goblin Market story. It looks like a labour of love so if you want to predict your future while listening to the album then this is the best way to do so. Just watch out if you draw a goblin with a barrow of fruit…..