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Strawbs - Strawbs CD (album) cover

STRAWBS

Strawbs

 

Prog Folk

3.15 | 84 ratings

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ClemofNazareth
Special Collaborator
Prog Folk Researcher
3 stars Dave Cousins and Company had managed to secure themselves a recording contract with the up-and-coming American label A&M in the spring of 1968, largely on the strength of material they had recorded in Denmark with then-band member the late Sandy Denny. Its unclear today whether A&M realized Denny had already left the group when they signed the Strawbs, but the label was definitely looking to expand their portfolio into the folk-rock arena. They began with the Strawbs but would eventually add Cat Stevens, Phil Ochs, Joan Baez and others, and would manage U.S. distribution for several of Joe Boyd's Island Records acts including Fairport Convention, which of course is where Denny had landed by the time the tracks for the Strawbs debut had been recorded.

A&M must have been taking a pretty conservative trek into progressive music of the British or folk variety though, as they originally limited distribution of the band's debut to Britain. It didn't find its way into U.S. release until 1973 by which time the band had established itself as a serious prog folk force.

In some respects this is a transitional album even though it is technically the band's first. Their earlier work as the Strawberry Hill Boys was limited to a couple demo singles steeped in skiffle, folk and pop blues; while the band adopted a convincing electric folk-rock sound during Denny's brief tenure in 1967. They would eventually grow to be a fairly mature and complex progressive rock band with symphonic leanings and hints of the blues, but in 1968 the group was still pretty committed to developing their folk-rock sound.

As with the Denny material though the group realized the need for an ear-catching potential single to open the record, and provided the same here with the pop-folk story-song "The Man Who Called Himself Jesus", a deity-disguised-as-commoner ditty in the vein of the later Joan Osborne mega-hit "One of Us". The style is closer to pop than either folk or prog rock but the song achieved its goal of getting the band some attention, namely a ban from BBC for lyrics that the company's censors apparently never really listened to.

With that out of the way the band turned to creating a collection of pleasant and period- appropriate pop-folk numbers with obvious awareness of what was happening musically in both England and the U.S. at the time. The blend of acoustic folk and electric guitar instrumentation was quite popular in the late sixties and Cousins tried to capitalize on this with his own brand folk-rock that was beginning to show signs of progressive leanings. The band employed elaborate string arrangements on the Moody Blues-sounding "Pieces of 79 and 15" and "Oh How She Changed"; some Arab instrumentation on the mildly psych- tinged "Tell Me What You See in Me"; and hand drums with "Where is this Dream of your Youth?" which Cousins had originally penned in hopes of getting a regional vocal folk group The Young Tradition to record. Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones and sometimes- Rolling Stones keyboardist Nicky Hopkins also appear on the album.

The band revealed future directions with the sprawling, Gregorian-steeped symphonic piece "The Battle" that closes the album. They would pick up where this song leaves off when the returned to the studio for a follow-up album.

A&M originally rejected the album as too bombastic and non-commercial, not really surprising considering they had been sold on the band based on the comparatively stolid folk-rock material the group had presented them from the Denny-lead Denmark sessions. The record would be released in Britain after some rework and eventually in the U.S., but for the most part the album had scant promotion and made little impression at the time.

Despite the poor initial reception, this has become a well-regarded debut for the band in retrospect. While the group would move into a much more progressive direction in the ensuing years, and eventually away from folk almost completely in the eighties and nineties, this is a great example of the unique blend of pop, folk and rock that would endear the band to their fans in the early and mid seventies. A solid three star effort and recommended to any Strawbs fan that didn't become aware of them until the 'Dragonfly' days or later.

peace

ClemofNazareth | 3/5 |

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