It's hard to believe, but Davy Graham has recorded and released a brand new collection of songs, many of them originals--his first new album since 1976's All That Moody(which was really just retrospective re-recording of his earlier work), and his first bona fide studio album since 1970's Holly Kaleidoscope. If you've already heard of (or heard) Graham, you'll no doubt know that his status in the folk world--particularly the British folk world--is nothing short of legendary; when artists like Bert Jansch, Martin Carthy, and Jimmy Page (all considered legends in their own rights) are heaping praise upon an artist, you know it's well-deserved. Although Graham's name was never widely-known, any more than a casual toe-dip into the music of the 60's British folk revival (which would at least turn up "Anji," an instrumental that is Graham's only claim to widespread fame, notably covered by Simon and Garfunkel) would reveal Graham as one of its fathers and driving forces. Having mastered the acoustic guitar and the folk idioms of the British isles, Graham pushed onward, incorporating blues, jazz, and folk music from around the world (especially Indian music) into his interpretations of traditional Western music. Always an unpredictable and reclusive character, he pretty much dropped out of the music world by the 70's, without a record deal and wasn't heard from for a very long time, that is, until now.
Broken Biscuits' existence can be largely attributed to Mark Pavey, a much younger folk/acoustic musician who became a friend and supporter of Graham in recent years, encouraging him to get out and play live and eventually to record this album. As he describes in the liner notes, Pavey's goal was to recreate the feel and spirit of Graham's After Hours at Hull University live album--all of the songs were recorded in one take, with no overdubs. Knowing Graham's biography, the resulting album is both a rewarding delivery of all of his best attributes from his 30-year-gone heyday, but it's also an occasionally (if understandably) erratic collection that doesn't succeed in consolidating all of Graham's glory with none of his faults.
The leadoff track, "Panic Room," is characteristic Graham; minor-key, bluesy, and loaded with playing nuances. On first listen, though, I was thinking to myself, "Wow, has he really slowed down this much? And where are those bum notes coming from?" Indeed, the song's at a laid-back midtempo which, compared to much of Graham's most impressive work, is pretty slow. And yeah, there are a few bum notes, which can be put down to the "live" nature of the songs. Forgivable, but it still begs the question, "Why not rehearse a little more and commit a more accurate product to tape?" As the album progresses, these first impressions linger but don't define the music. Track two, the Graham original "Flower Mountain" is vibrant; simultaneously Eastern-European and Indian textures lay down an almost menacing groove, with some impressive runs. "Rooty" and "Afrika" play to Graham's jazzier side, lightly dancing around major jazz harmony. "Samokovsakas" is the place in the album where I exclaimed, "OK, he really hasn't lost his speed." It's a romping Eastern barnstormer, replete with syncopated chording and harmonics; definitely a highlight. Other standouts include the bizarre a cappella original "Sa Ma," "Sita Ram" (a ballad about the great Indian epic the Ramayana), the jazzy vocal standard "Precious Memories," and the bluesy "Ignunt Oil," which is positively dripping with attitude.
Graham sings on about a third of the tracks, and about half of the vocal tunes are a cappella (some more tuneful than others). His voice never matched his guitar playing, but I've always enjoyed it and here he's in decent form, though on some of the weirder tracks he sounds a bit more like a rambling senile old man (I mean that in the most endearing way possible). In many ways, as the years have passed, Graham has become even more of a repository for different world music idioms--Broken Biscuits is packed with influences that span the globe, and off-beat folk nuggets like the humorous teetotaling "Delirium Tremens," the British folk of "Bonny at Morn," and obscure world folk like "Kadinesca."
Many of this albums flaws can be attributed to Mark Pavey. His efforts to revive Graham's career are impressive and must be acknowledged--this album would have never been recorded without him--but as a producer and album designer, he leaves a lot to be desired. His decision to record the songs live is admirable inasmuch as it hearkens back to Graham's classic status as a fiery live performer, but Pavey forgets that Graham's greatest live work was in front of an audience, which can greatly contribute to the spontaneity and energy of a recording, not to mention the fact that at nearly 70, it's somewhat more difficult to produce flawless playing in only one take. Likewise, his liner notes (which consist primarily of a rambling essay) leave a lot to be desired--there's no info about who plays flute on "The Gold Ring," or whose guest vocals are featured on "Sita Ram" or "Precious Memories," which is just annoying. Finally, the track sequencing definitely detracts from the album's impact and cohesion--"Panic Room" is not one of the album's strongest tracks and is far from the best choice for first track, which blunts the effect of what should be an exciting experience, and Graham's vocals don't appear until the seventh track. This is just confusing, since the first six instrumentals lead us to believe that it's an instrumental album, then the second half is overloaded with vocals, which would have been much more effective if interspersed with the other songs. Unfortunately, some of Pavey's post-recording decisions have somewhat failed to present the recorded material in the most effective way possible. It's disappointing, since Graham's abilities and personality clearly still merit our ears, and his talents are still worth listening to despite his advancing years; if only the package played more to his strengths.
Overall, despite some of my harsher points, Broken Biscuits is a thoroughly enjoyable listening experience--one that I'll be repeating for many years to come. Knowing the heights of what Graham is capable of, like the seminal Folk, Blues & Beyond..., and the explosive Large as Life & Twice as Natural (which saw his experimental side at its most fully-realized), it's hard not to judge this living legend at a high standard. By the way, both of those albums have been reissused by Les Cousins (along with much of Graham's back catalog) simultaneously with this release. If you've never heard Graham before, I'd recommend those albums before Broken Biscuits, which should really be an enjoyable coda to a justifiably hallowed career. Once you understand his greatness, this album's flaws are a bit easier to understand and take in stride. Yet again, I've written an obscenely long review. I hope you agree, though, after becoming acquainted with Davy Graham's music, that his contributions certainly merit a whole lot of attention and words.