September 17: Joan Baez, Billy Bragg, Donovan, Fairport Convention, John Martyn, Pentangle, Simon and Garfunkel

This week, we’ll be taking another dip into the folk selections on the list, after previously covering some here. Still a few more folk records on the list, but not enough for a third visit, so we’ll have to meet those along the road like a magician in a folk song.

Joan Baez, ‘Joan Baez’ (link)

Recorded in a mouldering theatre where you could do all your tracks in one take “unless a dog ran in”, Baez’s only appearance on the list sees her almost solely accompanied by her own guitar picking. The material is traditional songs, including ‘House of the Rising Sun’ and a Spanish-language cut, ‘El Preso Número Nueve’. Baez’s quavering soprano is full of feeling but the stark minimalism makes it feel as old as it is (released in 1960).

Billy Bragg, ‘Talking with the Taxman about Poetry’ (link)

You or I can probably imagine what most Billy Bragg albums sound like: just the king of the Glastonbury Leftfield tent and his guitar. Indeed, his first two albums were nothing more than that. Here, he broadens his sonic palette a bit to include a rhythm section, a mandolin, and Kirsty MacColl on vocals, sandpapering some of the coarseness from Bragg’s bolshy delivery. Recorded in 1986, this is both lyrically and musically a very 80s album (and not just because there’s a song called ‘There Is Power in a Union’), but it’s pretty listenable.

Donovan, ‘Sunshine Superman’ (link)

In the same way that the Bragg album couldn’t have been recorded in any other decade, this album could only have been recorded in 1966: there’s a song for solo tambura, a harpsichord features prominently, and the session hacks include a pre-Zep Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones. More a psychedelic rock album than strictly a folk one, this invokes the images of swinging Carnaby Street in summer. ‘Legend of a Girl Child Linda’ sounds kind of like Nico’s ‘Chelsea Girl’, ‘Guinevere’ gets a bit cutesy-mystic for its own good, but the upbeat feel of the majority of the tracks is worth a recommendation.

Fairport Convention, ‘Liege and Lief’ (link)

Fairport weren’t resting on their ‘Unhalfbricking’ laurels, putting this one out just six months after its predecessor (they’d put out ‘What We Did On Our Holidays’ at the start of the year too, meaning 1968 had three FC albums). Based mainly around traditional English folk songs, it’s the contributions of Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson that set them apart from the pack. Denny’s voice, songs and choices of trad songs mean that they don’t get bogged down too much in blokey rocking, but Thompson’s robust guitar playing adds muscle where it would be tempting to concede the stage to Denny’s floaty voice. Another killer album by the member-fluid collective, this is alas their final appearance on the list.

John Martyn, ‘Solid Air’ (link)

I got an advance preview of this album this week when I was in a pub in Bristol, surrounded by cats (literal cats, not cool jazz dudes) and somebody put this on the turntable. It sounded pretty cool, but it killed the atmosphere, as we went from ‘Are You Experienced?’ to the minimalist folk-jazz of the title track. Listening to it at home reinforced the feeling that this is a pretty far-out album. ‘Don’t Want To Know’ sounds like the sort of jazz-tinged soft-rock that Steely Dan would later make their trademark, while ‘I’d Rather Be The Devil’ is an old blues cut arranged for clavinet and delay pedal. The occasional Rhodes piano (always too high in the mix) and synthesizer (!) add to the disorientating feel of the album. I’m not sure I definitely loved this – Martyn’s husky, bluesy mumbling seems like an acquired taste – but further listens will no doubt be worthwhile. Give this a listen.

Pentangle, ‘Basket of Light’ (link)

Sort of a supergroup of folksters, Pentangle (or ‘The Pentangle’) are best known for the interplay between guitarists John Renbourn and Bert Jansch (we’ve met Jansch before). Their material is kind of jazzy folk, while sitars and glockenspiels give the arrangements a psychedelic tinge and Jacqui McShee’s spooky vocals give the whole affair a ‘Wicker Man’ vibe. This album, only 40 minutes long, felt like it went on for a long time.

Simon and Garfunkel, ‘Bookends’ (link)

One of these “first half is a concept album, second half is leftovers” jobs that I’ve seen before, although I’m struggling to think of too many examples: ‘Diamond Dogs’ maybe is another. This weird record’s first proper track, ‘Save the Life of My Child’, starts with a Moog bassline drenched with reverb-heavy tape cacophony: an intro so confusing I had to check I’d put the right album on. The album also features a collage of old people’s home residents talking (‘Voices of Old People’, obviously) and a mid-song interruption apparently recorded in a grocers (‘Fakin’ It’). On the B-side, all the hits are stockpiled at the end: ‘Mrs Robinson’, ‘Hazy Shade of Winter’ (which sounds great), ‘At The Zoo’. A wild, unpredictable ride throughout. Who knew S&G had it in them?

Good week this week.

Next week: We take a look at the few artists on the list whose names start with J, Q, X or Z. Speculate now!

Status update: 630 listened to (63%), 371 remain.


January 22: Tim Buckley, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Peter Gabriel, Roxy Music, Simon and Garfunkel, Yes

Welcome back to 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die! This week, I’ll be looking at seven artists who each have three albums on the list, but which I’d never heard.

Tim Buckley, ‘Goodbye and Hello’

I had Jeff’s dad down as a gloomy folky, so it was something of a surprise to hear him being so direct and engaged with a full band complementing him. Released in 1967, the album is far out even by the standards of the decade: ‘Pleasant Street’ twists Buckley’s androgynous falsetto into a wail of despair while ‘Hallucinations’ has a disarmingly cacophonic arrangement. The only wrong move is the title track: a preposterous, overloaded pomp-folk wander nearly nine minutes long. Some of the arrangements would have benefitted from some restraint (the choir on ‘Morning Glory’, say) but this is a pretty wonderful album.

Creedence Clearwater Revival, ‘Bayou Country’

Even though Creedence were from California, you can imagine boating through the Louisana swamps with this album playing, imagery supported of course by the titles. The best-known track on this album, and in CCR’s repetoire, is ‘Proud Mary’, which is also the song least concerned with heavy blues riffs, sludgy harmonica and Robert Plant wailing. I don’t generally care for this sort of sound, but some of the songs are good examples of the genre, such as ‘Born on the Bayou’. Other songs sound half-finished: ‘Keep on Chooglin” for example.

Dexy’s Midnight Runners, ‘Searching for the Young Soul Rebels’

All three Dexys albums from their original run appear on the list (none from their comeback). This is the first, which symbolically starts with a radio being tuned away from Deep Purple and the Sex Pistols. Like me, you probably think of Dexys in dungarees playing violins. We’ll come to that era later: on their debut, they’re all about brassy soul with organs and, of course, that Kevin Rowland yelp, surprisingly listenable over the course of an album. While the B-side can’t match the A-side (the A-side has ‘Geno’, for one), I really enjoyed this.

Peter Gabriel, ‘Peter Gabriel’ (I/’Car’)

Gabriel’s solo debut and the first of four self-titled albums, this album is unusually hard to find online, which is possibly the influence of anti-streaming Crimson King Robert Fripp, the album’s guitarist. While Fripp’s contributions here are among his most unremarkable of the decade, Gabriel himself has an abundance of ideas: ‘Down the Dolce Vita’ goes straight from orchestral bombast to clavinet funk, ‘Excuse Me’ features a barbershop quartet and the second track’s ‘Solsbury Hill’ was a legit hit. Nothing struck me as demanding multiple listens here, but it’s clearly the work of an imaginative songwriter. I look forward to hearing more Gabriel.

Roxy Music, ‘Roxy Music’

Brian Eno is on the list about a million times in some form. Of course he started off in Roxy, and this album sees him mostly in the background, manipulating the other instruments and adding spacey VCS3 effects. The sound is unusual enough already, blending artsy experimentalism with sexy glam rock and regularly using an oboe, an instrument rarely used in rock music. I’m not sure I was entirely convinced by this. Still, the good one is meant to be ‘For Your Pleasure’, which we’ll come to later.

Simon and Garfunkel, ‘Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme’

Would it surprise you if I told you this album starts with ‘Scarborough Fair’? The duo’s third album was recorded with 60s regulars The Wrecking Crew (‘Pet Sounds’, ‘Forever Changes’ and so on) and is a pretty enjoyable folk-pop album. As you might imagine, it’s a very 1966 album: one song has the subtitle ‘Feelin’ Groovy’ and another is a cover of ‘Silent Night’ with Vietnam war footage played underneath it. The major bummer is ‘A Simple Desultory Phillipic’, an awful Dylan pastiche.

Yes, ‘The Yes Album’

When I was growing up, Yes had a kind of reputation for unbearable pomposity, probably thanks to fifth album ‘Tales from Topographic Oceans’, an 81-minute, four track double album. Posterity has been kinder to ‘The Yes Album’, however, insofar as it sounds pretty damn good to these ears. Refreshingly free of excess despite the long song length, the album combines McCartney-style melodies, long solo guitar instrumentals, three-way harmonies and fuzzy organs and at 41 minutes it’s a concise introduction to the band.

Next week: I’ll be checking out all the reggae on the list. I’m sure there’s plenty!

Status update: 395 heard (39%), 606 remain