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The Pentangle - The Pentangle CD (album) cover

THE PENTANGLE

The Pentangle

 

Prog Folk

3.88 | 32 ratings

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ClemofNazareth
Special Collaborator
Prog Folk Researcher
3 stars Its worth noting that the Pentangle's debut album was released the same month as Fairport Convention's first record, on which Judy Dyble sang lead vocals rather than Sandy Denny who debuted on their second album the following winter. I say this is notable because nearly every British (and many American) female folk-rock singers of that era have been compared at some point to Ms. Denny, or have at least cited (or had her name- checked) as one of their influences. The Pentangle of course featured Jacqui McShee, whose vocal style was quite similar and who probably deserves at least some of the same influence nods given that John Renbourn and Bert Jansch (and to a lesser extent McShee, Terry Cox and Danny Thompson) were fairly well-established as folk rockers by 1968 and their collaboration on this Pentangle debut was critically acclaimed and well-known in London-area music circles even while Denny was early on in establishing her reputation.

While Fairport's name recognition has survived the years somewhat better than the Pentangle's, this first album shows the members to be all accomplished musicians and their sound to be quite original and innovative for its time, perhaps even more so than the early Fairport records. Indeed, while Fairport seemed to be much more influenced by their counterparts across the ocean on the U.S. east coast (Dylan, Cohen, Fariņa, Joni Mitchell), the Pentangle crafted a folk-rock sound that was both more elaborate and creative, and decidedly more English. The tracks on this album are a mix of original compositions and reworks of traditional English folk tunes, with the exception of "Hear my Call" which was a cover of the Chicago-based R&B icons the Staple Singers, a song which interestingly enough the Staple Singers had never even released as a single.

The band sets the tone for their uniquely modern 'baroque folk' sound with a mildly trippy version of "Let No Man Steal Your Thyme" (aka 'Maiden's Lament'), a 17th century British folk tune that has also been covered by Ms. Denny as well as any number of other British and even American folk singers over the years. This version introduces the clear and dulcet timbre of Ms. McShee's voice amid a great example of early acid folk guitar picking/strumming with just a touch of sitar for Eastern flavor. I suppose today that sound has become somewhat dated, but at the time this blend of folksy, alternately-tuned guitars along with sitar and gentle female vocals was quite novel and surely alienated some of the more staid folk traditionalists of that day. Not quite as drastic as Dylan going electric, but certainly not one of your grandmother's folk ditties either.

"Bells" along with "Waltz" are two original instrumentals that showcase the musical and compositional talents of the quartet with both songs offering extended examples of the sort of alternative guitar playing that bridged the gap between conventional folk and rock and characterized so much of contemporary British and American folk of that period (John Fahey, Robbie Basho, Davey Graham and even Fairport's Richard Thompson all built their careers on broadly similar styles). The 'bells' on the former are actually courtesy of a glockenspiel, and I'm pretty sure the stereo mix (most noticeable with Cox's drumming) was added on a later reissue, but I can't say for sure since I've never seen or heard the original Reprise vinyl version.

And speaking of "Hear my Call", this one is an early example of the slightly jazzy sound the band would employ more prominently on later albums. The bassline is fat and funky, while Renbourn and Jansch play off each other with a picking lead guitar style accented by strumming rhythm that provide a subtle yet complex backdrop to McShee's vocals. There are several reissued versions of this album with various bonus tracks, and one of my favorite is the live version of this song that appears on the 2001 CD. McShee's voice radiates there, and the bass is much more subdued which serves to put focus to the guitar interplay and vocals, and the warm applause at the end shows the band's fans appreciated the strength of their live delivery.

Aside from the epic "Jack Orion" off their 'Cruel Sister' album "Pentangling" is one of the longest tracks the band ever recorded, clocking in at more than seven minutes. Much of its length is clearly the result of improvisational jamming between the various musicians after a brief intro that lulls the listener into thinking this is just another nondescript mellow folk- rock tune. Jansch, Renbourn and Thompson get their groove on for nearly five minutes in the middle of the track before the band settles back into a more bucolic English folksy stanza to close the energetic number. I can imagine the band received enthusiastic responses whenever this song made it onto their live setlist.

The only original tune credited to a single member is the brief, poetic ditty "Mirage" which was written and arranged by Bert Jansch. It's a catchy little tune but I can't really discern what the band thought it added to the album beyond acting as a brief interlude.

"Way Behind the Sun" on the other hand is a surprisingly strong blues number from a band much better known for their folk music. This traditional number was also recorded by the Byrds (reportedly after hearing Pentangle's version) and appears as a bonus track on that band's reissue of 'Ballad of Easy Rider' as "Way Beyond the Sun". While the Byrds version is steeped in the American country sound Gram Parsons brought to the band, this one is all R&B with fat guitar and bass riffs, although Cox's drumming comes off more like lounge jazz than blues.

Finally "Bruton Town" is yet another traditional British tune and as with many old English folk tunes is a cautionary tale, this one about courting young maidens who are out of your social league, especially if they happen to have brothers. As with "Pentangling" Jansch and Renbourn indulge in some fine picking and strumming throughout, and McShee's vocals are solid. The storyline is as old as the hills, and can be heard in such varied incarnations as West Side Story and even the Decemberists tune "O Valencia!". Sandy Denny also covered this song, as has much of the modern folk community, and the CD reissue includes an alternate version with extended instrumental passages.

I was never a Pentangle fan back in the day, mostly because I was barely a toddler when this album released and also because British folk-rock was quite difficult to obtain in the late sixties and early seventies in the Midwestern United States. Thankfully today the album is quite easy to find, and while the novelty of rock-infused British folk has waned in recent decades this record still has its charms and is well revered by serious progressive folk fans. For those reasons as well as for the crisp musicianship I have to say it easily rates three out of five stars today and probably deserved a lot more back when it was released. Well recommended, especially to folk music fans.

peace

ClemofNazareth | 3/5 |

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