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The Pentangle - Basket Of Light CD (album) cover

BASKET OF LIGHT

The Pentangle

 

Prog Folk

4.10 | 74 ratings

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Raff
Prog Reviewer
5 stars There must have been something in the water in Great Britain back in 1969 that inspired musicians to produce such an impressive number of landmark albums. Though best known to prog fans for King Crimson's seminal debut, the year saw the release of other essential discs for the history of rock in all its forms. Pentangle's third album, "Basket of Light", is one of those, though unfortunately an album that all too easily flies under the radar, unless you are a folk-rock enthusiast - which is a pity, because the music produced by the British quintet definitely had a much higher progressive content than the offerings of their contemporaries Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention.

Widely considered as the band's masterpiece, "Basket of Light" is everything a prog-folk lover might expect, and then some. Bert Jansch's and John Renbourn's fluid, jangling guitars weave seamless melodies, backed by Danny Thompson's impeccable double bass work and Terry Cox's precise, understated drumming (the perfect antidote to overdoses of Portnoy and his ilk), with Jacqui McShee's enchantingly crystalline tones soaring above all. Though this is the recipe for all of Pentangle's best output, "Basket of Light" possesses a cohesive nature that somewhat eludes their other albums (as excellent as they are). Though a good proportion of the material featured here are rearrangements of traditional British or American folk songs, the band's original compositions are shining examples of how those traditions impacted their creative process, allowing them to produce songs that are at the same time accessible and musically complex (though in a very subtle way).

The album's title comes from a line of "Train Song", one of the best-known, most distinctive items in the band's output, and one of the original compositions previously mentioned. Indeed, the title describes the album quite aptly - it is an overall uplifting slice of music, though not in the quirkily humorous way typical of Canterbury bands. For instance, "Lyke-Wake Dirge" (as the title implies) is based on an ancient Anglo-Saxon funeral chant, and as such might be expected to be quite depressing - which is not the case. With its gorgeous, three-part vocals and a delicate, barely perceptible guitar accompaniment, the song is beautiful in a melancholy way, yet anything but gloomy. On the other hand, album opener "Light Flight" (a favourite of mine as a child) is a deceptively light and airy tune permeated by a faint sense of nostalgia, which follows some interesting rhythm patterns and introduces the listener to the delights of Jacqui's vocals. Gentler and less assertive than Annie Haslam's, but powerful in its own way, her voice possesses an authentic sweetness devoid of that saccharine aftertaste so rife in her modern followers.

Interestingly, a good proportion of the album is dedicated to American music, in the shape of two folk songs derived from traditional English ballads ("Once I Had a Sweetheart" and the vaguely disturbing "House Carpenter"), and "Sally Go Round the Roses", the only hit by New York girl group The Jaynetts, a delightful, feel-good tune (originally written by Phil Spector) showcasing a different side of Jacqui's singing style. The latter is also present in two different versions as a bonus track, together with two other songs that, while penned by the band or individual members, have strong connections with the American musical tradition (especially the upbeat "Cold Mountain"). The aforementioned "Train Song", written as a lament for the passing of the steam train, has a basic blues structure with vocal arrangements that reproduce the sound of a train in motion; while "The Cuckoo" is a traditional folk song from Somerset interpreted by Jacqui in piercingly sweet tones. "Hunting Song", an original band composition based on traditional materials (namely an episode of the King Arthur cycle involving Morgana Le Fay and a hunting horn), is an almost seven-minute mini-epic sung by Jansch and McShee in their sharply contrasting tones, and infused with the gently tinkling sound of the glockenspiel. "House Carpenter", which closes the original edition of the album, is another highlight, with Renbourn's and Jansch's banjo-sitar interaction reinforcing the sinister atmosphere of the tale of a young woman lured to perdition by the Devil himself.

And now for the burning question? Is it progressive? Of course it is, though not in the same way Yes or Genesis can be. We are not talking about lengthy epics with a pinch of folksy flavouring thrown in for good measure, but about a genuinely progressive approach, blending folk, blues, jazz, country and medieval/Elizabethan music with immaculate instrumental proficiency and vocals that achieve the perfect balance between technique and emotion. Though on "Basket of Light" there is nothing as overtly 'proggy' as the 20-minute-plus "Jack Orion", this is the kind of music whose progressiveness is made of subtle layers of light and shade, rather than a pile-up of flash and bombast. Indeed, many modern bands would have a lot to learn from this album. Five stars for a masterpiece of class, expertise and restraint - a delight from start to finish.

Raff | 5/5 |

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