That most quintessentially ‘English’ of bands, the Strawbs are one of those institutions who, despite having been constantly creative for a long time in recent years both in terms of live and recording work, find themselves forever trapped in a sort of 1970s amber, with everything they do being held up against work which is over 40 years old. Of course, this has a hugely positive slant as well, in the fact that the band have managed to fashion a legacy which has seen them retain a memorable identity in the minds of rock and folk fans alike while many of their erstwhile contemporaries have faded from all except their hardcore support. In fact, recent Strawbs material has often been of a very high standard, with 2017’s The Ferryman’s Curse being a deservedly lauded case in point. This latest album, recorded in highly unconventional ways during the pandemic lockdown, thus finds itself in the situation of being compared directly to that previous album, whilst also compared just as directly to a body of work done by young men in the 1970s – something which few other professions can cause to happen! Fortunately, such comparisons are fairly favourable, as this is a very strong album, especially considering its gestation.
The current Strawbs line-up is one which still retains strong links with that ‘golden era’ of the ’70s, with lynchpin and Strawb-in-Chief David Cousins joined by veterans of the ‘classic’ line-ups in guitarist Dave Lambert and bassist Chas Cronk. Joining this trio are the enormously talented Dave Bainbridge on keyboards and guitar, and drummer and erstwhile Rick Wakeman compatriot Tony Fernandez. Other Strawbs alumni are present in the form of a guest appearance from John Ford and production duties being handled by another old member, Blue Weaver. The album was recorded entirely remotely, with none of the parties involved ever actually meeting, and all of the disparate parts being sent to Weaver at his studio in Germany where he remarkably managed to stitch them together into a coherent whole. Coming out of that with an album which sounds as if it was recorded together in the studio is remarkable in itself – being a strong and consistent record is doubly so.
All bases of the Strawbs unique yet hard-to-categorise sound are covered, with high drama, delicate folkiness and proggy grandeur all colliding to make up a satisfyingly varied collection. The opening title song is one of the strongest tracks the band have done in some time, being a scathing and cynical swipe at many of the things going awry in the world today, with Dave Cousins delivering the words in a caustic and stinging fashion to wring the full effect from the piece. It’s fair to say that Cousins’ distinctive voice has always been a ‘marmite’, love it or hate it, element of the band, but what cannot be denied is that, like other such divisive singers such as Peter Hammill, Bob Dylan or Nick Cave, he is unmatched when it comes to eking out every last drop of potency from his own lyrics. The stinging electric rock of that track gives way to the far more reflective Strange Times – and indeed, hasn’t this past year been just that? The seven-minute Judgement Day is a slow-burner of a track, with a darkly electronic feel to it conjuring up the ’80s work of the likes of Peter Gabriel, while The Visit (and its instrumental ‘coda’ Flying Free) is a folky ghost story drawing heavily on Celtic traditional music, and managing to be both mysteriously creepy and yet moving. Darkly fluid electric guitar lines underpin the ebullient We Are Everyone with a gravitas which it might otherwise have lacked, while Chorale is a beautifully uplifting proggy piece which ends the vinyl version of the album in fine style.
CD listeners, however, get three more songs left off the vinyl for space reasons, dubbed here ‘Off The Beaten Tracks’, and they are mostly well worth having. This is particularly true of the seven-and-a-half-minute Champion Jack, the longest song on the album and a classic in the old Strawbs ‘storytelling’ mode. A tale written about Cousins’ stepfather’s experiences before, during and after the Second World War, including a boxing career and a harrowing time as a prisoner of war in Japan, it is unfolded in classic raconteur style by Cousins himself, before the mellow feel of the piece explodes into a gloriously triumphant prog-rock coda. It’s the best song on the record to these ears, and a real miss for vinyl listeners. The closing track Liberty is another strong one, with some excellent lead guitar work driving it along beautifully, and it ends the record well. The only real mis-step comes with the middle of these three ‘bonus’ tracks, the mariachi-sounding Better Days, which mixes a melody reminiscent of Arms Of Mary by the Sutherland Brothers And Quiver with an arrangement which sounds as if it would work perfectly as backing music in an episode of TV comedy show Benidorm! It’s the only real miss on here though, and everyone is allowed one, after all!
People may argue the relative merits of this album with its predecessor, but to my mind, considering the feat involved in even making the album exist in this form, Settlement takes the edge. It also gives the band’s later 1970s albums, from about 1975 onward, a very good fight, and it may be argued that, with the exception of the superb Heartbreak Hill (not released until decades later), this could be the most consistent album of that decade after, perhaps, Ghosts in 1975. Certainly, any Strawbs fan expressing disappointment in this album would be hard to please indeed! The Strawbs are alive and well – and isn’t that a heartening and, well, once again, ‘English’ thing to say!