Pentangle - The Albums

by Ian Fraser Rating:8 Release Date:2017-09-29

Pentangle’s five-sided roots were more complex and varied than most other congregational members of the cathedral of “folk revival”. Singer (and indeed possessor of one of the finest voices of any genre) Jacqui McShee’s roots were in folk music, while Bert Jansch and John Renbourn were already hailed as two of the finest exponents of the acoustic guitar, each with an acclaimed body of work under their belt (alas, both are no longer with us). However what really set them apart were the “jazzers” - Terry Cox on drums and, on upright bass, Danny Thompson, whose session work subsequently enriched work of the likes of John Martyn and is renowned for his decades’ long association with the godhead that is Richard Thompson. This multifaceted infusion is reflected in their output, a bluesy, “folk-jazz” as opposed to the more linear folk rock of contemporaries Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, with which they are loosely and lazily lumped.

Debut offering The Pentangle is ushered in with sonorous, droning bowed bass heralding about the best version of ‘Let No Man Steel Your Thyme’ you are likely to hear (their ‘Bruton Town’ here sounds fresher and more inventive still). Purists may have balked at the polished proficiency of this archetypal “folk” supergroup, but no doubt soon disappeared up their own Ewan MacColls. Renbourn and Jansch are at their most enthusiastic and showy, their fancies given free reign thanks to Thompson and Cox’s solid yet nimble grounding and over all of which McShee sours angelic. It’s sure-footed, consumer friendly and about as far removed from what the late folk singer Peter Bellamy self-deprecatingly termed “boring, bleating old traddies” as you can imagine while being tarred with the same broad brush.

Basket of Light (1969) remains the band’s best known album and features ‘Light Flight’, the theme to TV drama Take Three Girls (which your scribe is just about old enough to recall). McShee’s exquisite, pitch perfect voice is multi-layered in harmony here and on ‘Once I Had A Sweetheart’ while Jansch’s sorrowful delivery provides the principal male vocal counterpoint. It’s by no means a pretty voice, sounding as if in the throes of a heavy head cold, but an effectively gnarly, earthy rooting nonetheless. ‘Lyke Wake Dirge’ may sound more sugar coated than The Young Tradition’s rendition but probably wins more friends and it all coalesces beautifully on ‘Train Song’ on which strains of West Coast psychedelia blend easily with nimble jazz arrangements and where McShee’s scat singing bobs and weaves around Jansch’s vocal lead. It remains the band’s touchstone and most accessible entry point for newcomers.

Nestling twixt these two is the sophomore double album (one live, one studio), Sweet Child (1968). As with so many live albums it probably means more if you were there. At times indulgent and unessential it also exposes Jacqui’s vocal incompatibility with the blues – best left to Bert, whose “A Woman Like You” is one of the set’s outstanding moments and one of his more accomplished vocal performances, while the arrangement and execution of ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ is also pretty damn inspiring. The studio album is well north of decent as you’d expect but seems in retrospect to mark time between the compelling debut and Basket Of Light.

The following year’s Cruel Sister is more traditional in aspect, full of rejection, murder, hurt – all the good stuff, like Game of Thrones played out in cotton loons and Biba prints. The unaccompanied ‘When I was In My Prime’ is a delightful oddity given that the men all down tools, while the title track is an exquisite, circular ear worm that not only delights but packs quite intricate structures into limited parameters without seeming to stretch any of the band members. Sometimes less is more after all, which cannot be said for the side-long ‘Jack O’Rion’ an ambitious and by and large successful, Jansch-led opus, during which empires have been known to rise and fall.

After Cruel Sister came the slide. Reflection is a mixed bag of covers and original material. The Appalachian banjo elevates ‘Wedding Dress’ to a notch or two above the murky waters of yee-ha by numbers, but if I never hear another rendition of ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’ it’ll be too soon. Genuine highlights are thin on the ground, ‘Omie Wise’ is probably the pick and ‘Cold Rain and Snow’ possesses a certain charm, but cuts like ‘When I Get Home’ presage Jansch’s more electrified, pastel shade mid-Atlantic mid 70s material or simply lack lustre and direction. All was not well by this point, contributions seemed grudging and there followed an acrimonious split with Transatlantic, for whom they had recorded all their albums to date over…yes you guessed it.

Solomon’s Song is the 1972 swansong and in many ways a fitting finale. Released by Warners/Reprise following the split from Transatlantic it sounds now like a pleasing paean to the fag-end days of the folk revival, with a heavy reliance on the standards. Reliable old plough horse ‘Sally Free And Easy’ is one of Thompson’s finest moments, his rippling, under-water bass providing playful propulsion as well as the usual solid anchorage. Alas jaunty and perfectly decent versions of ‘The Snows They Melt The Soonest’ and ‘High Germany’ and a set choc with the usual accomplished, often intricately crafted product weren’t enough to breathe new life into what was now a tired and fractious relationship, with the gaze of each member of the band seemingly fixed on the door marked ‘exit’. It was a route which, by now, much of their listenership had already taken. It was Jansch who was first to blink, announcing his departure on New Year’s Day 1973.

There would of course be reunions and periodic resurrection of the brand with various line-ups but ultimately there would only be one Pentangle. This is a welcome repackage of all their original and best material. As you might imagine there is the usual raft of outtakes and extras used to fill up CD and box set reissues, some more worthy of listen that others. Completists and archivists will love that, the rest of us will be content to bask in the material that was deemed good-enough for release first time around.

Individual album ratings:

The Pentangle      9
Sweet Child          7
First Light              8
Reflection             6
Solomon's Song   7

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