Various Artists - Avocet Revisited

by Bill Golembeski Rating:10 Release Date:2018-08-04

On his existential album Plastic Ono Band, John Lennon sang, “God is a concept by which we measure our pain.”

What’s interesting about existentialism the very definition of the idea precludes any definition of the very same idea. There is no perfect form, even a perfect definition of a term, in which to believe. Or, to cite another Beatleism: There is no “Toppermost of the Poppermost.”

Well, that idea serves this four song EP quite nicely. The task was daunting: Ask four groups of musicians to write a song that would somehow show knowledge, respect, and honor to Bert Jansch’s album Avocet. Bert Jansch was one of the most eclectic one-in-a-million talented Scottish folk musicians ever, and this particular work is one of his most eclectic and one-in-a-million -of-a-kind recordings ever. By the way, each song had to have a bird theme. And, contrary to other online reviews that state the songs are all covers of Bert Jansch songs, let the truth be told: No, these are originals tunes by Edwyn Collins and Carwyn Ellis, Modern Studies, Alasdair Roberts, and Trembling Bells.

Now, I don’t know anything about birds, but I know enough about rock music to quote (once again) John Lennon to say this assignment was like “Trying to shovel smoke with a pitchfork in the wind.” So thank goodness each track isn’t measured against a Bert original. That may have caused a lot of pain. Of course, the same is true for this review: I don’t think I could write it if I thought it would be compared to some perfect album review written by perfect Plato while he sits in his perfect chair. And I seriously doubt a perfect review would include any commentary about the inability of having a definition of existentialism.

So let’s just cut the crap (or guano in bird lingo) and say everyone should buy the new Earth Records reissue of Avocet. I have the Castle Music copy. But this new Earth version has what I believe to be the original cover, and lithographs come with the vinyl. Compact Disc buyers get a pretty great booklet. (Yeah, that old Charisma pressing I own has stupid album art.) The record has Bert—all instrumental Bert—like, maybe, Pentangle at their finest, yet this is quite different than that. And Bert plays the piano! Danny Thompson is the bass player. (Just listen to his solo on “Bittern!”) And Martin Jenkins, he of Dando Shaft and Hedgehog Pie fame, is the equally talented perfect foil whose violin and flute playing is absolutely sublime. Just buy this record.

After all of that prologue, I do have to say I was concerned about the first song on this EP tribute. Edwyn Collins and Carwyn Ellis have produced “Fulmar.” Well, Edwyn Collins, well, yeah Edwyn Collins of Orange Juice and his own Scottish Postcard label fame (which I like). But I never thought about putting Orange Juice and folk music in the same sentence. Not to worry: This song is a haunting performance that captures a bit of Bert, a Bert standing on the desolate shore contemplating the desolate shoreline of life. It’s not unlike Collins’ “Leviathan” from his solo album Home Again. And yes, the finger picking style of Carwyn Ellis pays homage to Bert Jansch’s guitar magic. Edwyn Collins’ own struggle, perhaps, inspires the batik of sad and introspective musical notation that is blended into the very fabric of the tune.

Modern Studies forgoes Emily Scot’s vocals, sort of. Their addition to this tribute, “Curlew,” begins with what I assume is the call of the song’s namesake bird. And that bird’s voice is woven into the actual tune which highlights the finger picked guitar and cello that truly mirrors the playing of Bert Jansch and Martin Jenkins. By the way, the original Avocet album never uses bird songs; however, I am reminded of those wonderful Paul Winter records like Common Ground and Callings in which Humpback Whale, Timber Wolf, and African Fish Eagle are given “lead vocal credits” and are actually designated are co-composers. And, yes, they were given royalties.

I’ve never talked to the man, but I think Bert Jansch would have loved that idea.

Now, in all fairness to Alasdair Roberts, both as a solo artist and as a member of the band Appendix Out, even if his music were to be taken to a different planet with a diminished gravitational force, it would never be considered to be exactly jaunty. I love his music, but it does fall somewhere between very early Bruce Cockburn and Richard Thompson’s singing on “Mary and Joseph” from the Henry the Human Fly album. But his tune “Goosander,” which uses guitar and organ to conjure the lonely pathos of a good Bert Jansch song, works well even without his unique vocals.

Trembling Bells’ “Golden Plover” really doesn’t even attempt to sound like Bert Jansch. But I love the band immensely, so all is forgiven. This is a “grade An English folk tune.” (I took that quote from an old advertisement for Fairport Convention’s Angel’s Delight in some rock magazine I read in 1970.) But investigate Trembling Bells and their records Abandoned Love, The Constant Pageant, and The Sovereign Self. Folk rock is alive and well in these grooves.

So cut the guano (again!) and get back to existentialism. Oddly enough, some of my high school students actually enjoyed Camus’ The Stranger. Of course, Camus himself never called himself an existentialist because that would imply some absolute definition of the word. He preferred the term absurdist. I just called him a clever guy who used symbols to symbolism that symbolism in literature didn’t exist. That was a pretty good card trick.  But my students wanted to try and write an existential essay. So we agreed it would have to be something that showed intense passion for the task at hand, yet be devoid of any hope of success, other than maybe shaking a fist at the gods and watching that rock roll back down that hill. They were game. They were kids, and kids are always willing to “shovel smoke with a pitchfork in the wind.” (And by the way, that’s my second Sisyphean allusion in the last two reviews!)

I just remember thinking that The Who got it right when they sang “The Kids Are Alright.”They also sang “I Can’t Explain” which pretty much says the very same thing.

That’s how I feel about this tribute EP. Yeah, the kids are all right. And the young folk bands are all right. They are all right just like Fairport Convention was equally all right when they recorded Angel’s Delight. So buy this EP. Then buy the records from these bands. Love Earth Records. And don’t miss the chance to hear Avocet, the most eclectic album by the most eclectic of British artists, a guy who just didn’t care about fame, record sales, or adulation. He was still willing to shovel smoke. He was like that Timber Wolf or a Humpback Whale or an African Fish Eagle on a Paul Winter record who just made wonderful music, music that somehow managed, every once in a while, to be devoid of pain.

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