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"Difficult" 6th to 10th Chrysalis albums - some classics, nicely remastered
on 20 September 2016
This second volume of Steeleye Span's Chrysalis albums covers the more troubled period of their career, when some critics turned against them, and the public largely ignored them - apart, of course, from a loyal and devoted fan-base. In retrospect, the critics were perhaps missing the point, and the public... just missed out!
Rocket Cottage (1976) is panned in Rob Young's book "Electric Eden", but it's not a bad album, once you get past the opening "All Around My Hat" clone of "London". "Orfeo" has multi-tracked Maddy Priors harmonizing with themselves over a solid band backing, "Brown Girl" features one of her most heartfelt vocal performances, "Fighting For Strangers" has been rightly lauded as a brilliant mash-up of modernist, stripped down percussion and two ancient folk melodies (in different keys, just for fun), "Sir James The Rose" is a big murder ballad, built around a big electric rock riff, and the closing "Drunkard" revisits the mellow fade-out vibe of earlier albums like "Below The Salt". The remastering here brings out new clarity from the original studio recording, and takes some of the claustrophobic feel away from Mike Batt's typically dry mid-70s production. As I commented in an earlier review of the single album, I find myself listening to RC more than I do to All Around My Hat.
Storm Force Ten (1977) was where things started to get really strange. The idea was great - John Kirkpatrick on concertina/melodeon, Martin Carthy back on electric guitar... but the result was an album I struggled to love at the time, if I'm honest. The production was extremely understated, and the treble almost struggled to get out of the grooves on the original vinyl pressing... as if punk rock had nicked all the high frequencies and there were none left for folk-rockers. This remastered edition fixes that problem to a large degree. OK, the cymbals on the drumkit still sound like they were recorded from under a duvet... in the next room... but the vocals and other instruments are now crystal clear. Listen to the notes in the group's throats on the acapella "Sweep Chimney Sweep". Elsewhere there are gorgeous arrangements on "Some Rival" and "The Wife of The Soldier", whilst "Seventeen Come Sunday" takes on new life, now freed from its lo-fi place at the end of Side 2 of the vinyl. Some of the songs are still a little hardcore "folk" (Treadmill Song comes to mind) but the goodies outweigh the baddies, and this combination of folk giants is thrilling.
The live album "Live At Last" (1978) was a bit of a holding pattern, although the monumental 15+ minute "Montrose" is a huge achievement for any band to play live.
"Sails of Silver" followed in 1980 and, as with "Rocket Cottage" has received some criticism over the years. Again, I think this is unfair. It's an album of solid pop/rock songs, in a folk-influenced style, and should be taken on its merits. At the time I remember that Gus Dudgeon's production revealed Rick Kemp (bass) and Nigel Pegrum (drums) to be a really solid, tight rhythm section... something which had always been there live, but not always previously captured in the studio. Maddy's voice was on fine form and, of course, the album is now slightly poignant as the final recorded outing with Tim Hart in the line-up (apart from the 1996 live album "The Journey"). A special mention, too, to Peter Knight's glorious fiddle solos, especially on the saucy "Senior Service".
Finally, for this collection, "Tempted and Tried" was released on Dover Records (a Chrysalis offshoot) in 1989, hot on the heels of the single "Padstow". As noted by other reviewers, the album "Back In Line" had been self-released by the band in 1986 and established them as something of an indie-folk band, so the move back to Chrysalis seemed a bit odd to me - and it turned out to be a one-off. Some of the songs are amongst the band's best - "Following Me", "Jack Hall", the chilling "Cruel Mother" and the irresistable instrumental "First House in Connaught/Sailor's Bonnet" which swirls around the dancefloor with the best of them. Between these highlights are songs that... just pass me by, I suppose. Not terrible, just not classics.
So, an odd period, between being a Top 40 band in 1975 and their more recent status as respected Elder Statespersons of folk-rock. A sometimes awkward period, but with some stone-cold classics in there as well, all well-served by the respectful but revealing remaster on these CDs.
I'm not sure what deal is with the wacky prices above, incidentally. I kept waiting until it appeared at under £20, which this collection seems to from time to time.