The Pentangle's Reflection, like the best albums by the group, consists of inventive but faithful arrangements of traditional songs plus a few Pentangle originals.
But Reflection is a striking, unique album, both within the context of the Pentangle's other albums and as a work unto itself.
A significant difference is that, while Pentangle's other albums take on British folk, here the traditional songs are North American in origin. The Pentangle both adapt to their source material and adapt it to suit them. But they don't merely make the songs sound more British- the Pentangle's take on americana conjures up new and surprising sounds.
The opening track, "Wedding Dress," contains some convincing hillbilly-style vocals from Jacqui and Terry Cox, banjo from Bert Jansch, a bowed bass, and a driving, almost rocking beat from Terry.
But the second track, "Omie Wise," would not be out of place on an earlier album. It is an American murder ballad that the Pentangle perform faithfully, respectfully and well. Bert Jansch doesn't try to mimic an American accent, but the song forces him to change his diction just a little bit, and the results are interesting enough to grab one's attention.
But the third track, a version of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," is a revolutionary re-working of the song. Neither the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band nor the Carter Family can give the listener any idea of what the Pentangle do here. Terry preserves the traditional rhythm to the song, while transforming the song's usual "umpa" beat into a more complex drum pattern, Bert plays some unsettling seventh chords, John sneaks in solos on both a harmonica and a phased electric guitar, and Jacqui sings about death and the great beyond in a haunted way that takes the lyrics far from their clap-your-hands-and-say-amen roots. It's the most creative song on the album.
Next, "When I Get Home" is a resigned, weary number about a man's wish that he had never settled down. It's not a song about wanting to get away as much as a song about regret. It's sung by a booze-soaked Bert and features some lightly amplified clean solo-ing by John. It begins with a two-chord intro, and then it surprises you by never leaving those two chords. It settles into a good groove and it has an appealing, exhausted late-night/early-morning vibe to it.
"Rain and Snow," like "House Carpenter" from Basket of Light, is a fairly straightforward reading of a traditional song that just so happens to feature the combination of sitar and banjo.
"Helping Hand" is best described as a mellow funk workout (As on "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," John puts his guitar through a phaser effect, and it is even more funky-sounding on this song) and it features two Pentangle rarities: a lead vocal by Terry Cox and socially-conscious lyrics.
"So Clear," with a mellow lead vocal by John Renbourne and a surprisingly prominent piano, is a more conventional sounding song that brings the Pentangle dangerously close to James Taylor territory. But the band's excellent playing, particularly John's turn on both electric and acoustic guitars makes it far better than a throwaway pop tune, although it nonetheless is one of the few Pentangle songs that sounds like it was made for AM radio.
In case listeners had been disappointed by the relatively unadventurous previous track, the band closes with the 11-minute "Reflection," featuring a psychedelic intro on a bowed bass that turns into a slow, bluesy number with impressive vocals by Jacqui and a solid groove courtesy of the the guitars, bass, and drums. It even has some satisfying jamming, with an electric guitar solo, a harmonica solo, and a drum solo. It sounds familiar enough to reassure you that you're listening to the same old Pentangle that made Sweet Child, but it's certainly not a rehash.
So, if you're already a fan of the group, listen with an open mind, but know that the expected medieval British vibe won't really be found here. But if you're a fan of Anglo-American folk music and all of its freaky variations, this album comes recommended with no reservation. Listen to Reflection with a clean slate, and you'll wonder where it's been all your life.