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Strawbs - Grave New World CD (album) cover




Prog Folk

4.16 | 369 ratings

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4 stars With 'Grave New World' Strawbs fans really began to see (and hear) the emergence of a musical form Dave Cousins would later label 'baroque & roll', a difficult to describe but very easy to recognize blend of rock and classical arrangements using a combination of electric guitars, acoustic folk instrumentation, classical accompaniment, and plenty of keyboards but not in the overpowering style of heavier rock bands of this era. The vocals are really what separate the Strawbs from more conventional rock bands of the early seventies, while the keyboards and other electric instruments keeps them from being comfortably pigeonholed as folk-rock. And the lyrics, delivered by typically understated folksy British vocalists, tend to mark the band as more of a retro-sounding progressive band in the vein of Genesis circa 'Wind & Wuthering' or Gentle Giant without the jazz leanings.

The lineup changes continued unabated in 1971 with Rick Wakeman departing to join Yes before the Strawbs had even completed their supporting tour for the 1970 release 'From the Witchwood'. He was replaced by Derek "Blue" Weaver who left the short-lived Andy Fairweather-Low project Fair Weather to take up keyboards for the Strawbs. Fotheringay guitarist Trevor Lucas (a residual connection to Sandy Denny who had herself briefly been with the Strawbs in 1967) sang backing vocals on the opening "Benedictus" for some reason, perhaps because he was in the Island stable at the time and parts of the record were recorded at their studios in London. Guitarist Tony Hooper was still with the group but growing disenchanted with their movement away from more acoustic-oriented folk. This album wouldn't do much to assuage that concern and he would depart following its release leaving Cousins as the only original member.

But in the meantime the band was riding rather high on the wave of consecutive UK Top-40 live and studio albums in the prior year and a half, and despite Wakeman's departure managed to land well with Weaver doing a more than decent job filling in on keyboards though certainly not replacing Wakeman's very dominate and gregarious style especially on organ, although Weaver does make an impression with liberally sprinkling of Mellotron on the first half of the album. On the more acoustic second half of the record he all but disappears, delivering just a bit of piano and harmonium and providing the vocals on the closing "The Journey's End" while Cousins tinkles the ivories in his stead. And maybe it's a good thing Weaver managed to reduce emphasis on keyboards considering the volatility of the band's lineup during those years. Losing a strong personality like Wakeman might have been a much more critical blow to the band had he managed to establish himself as a member for a longer period than the year or so that he did stay with them. One can only wonder at what might have become of an assemblage that included the strong songwriting of Cousins, Wakeman's prowess on keyboards and the vocal talents of Sandy Denny. Talk about a band skirting the fringes of mega-stardom!

Still, the Strawbs did enjoy success with the loosely-themed 'Grave New World' which managed to break into the Top-20 in the UK and became their first studio release in the U.S. as well. Cousins does an admirable job of sequencing the record, and one has to wonder if he resorted to the biographical theme as a way to indulge the disparate musical interests of the various band members. Richard Hudson and John Ford continued to contribute original material, although Ford's "Heavy Disguise" is a surprising acoustic piece with nothing more than some brass accompaniment to Ford's strumming and singing provided by future Strawb the late Robert Kirby. Ford has acknowledged the piece was inspired by listening to Jethro Tull and apart from the horns the song does have the sort of timbre that distinguished Tull music during the same period.

Tony Hooper's affection for more traditional folk is also indulged with his own spotlight solo "Ah Me, Ah My" (with choral and orchestral backing), a brief ditty that sounds more Tin Pan Alley than anything else. Otherwise Hooper appears only as a rhythm acoustic guitarist with some backing vocals on the album and a brief bit of autoharp on the eclectic "Is it Today Lord?". Speaking of that song, Richard Hudson once again breaks out the sitar as he did on 'From the Witchwood' which along with his tabla playing, Cousins on recorder and Weaver's harmonium makes for a very Incredible String Band-sounding acoustic number that wouldn't be repeated often on future Strawbs albums.

And Cousins continued to write folk-inspired songs which occupy a big portion of the album, but with the absence of Wakeman he seems to be determined to leverage the wide range of instrumental prowess of his band lineup to fill in the gaps. Besides sitar, tabla, recorder, harmonium and guest brass, vocal and string accompaniment, Cousins and Co. manage to work in an amped-dulcimer, clavoline and quite a bit of hand percussion on all but a few tracks with the net result being a very full-sounding album from a musical standpoint.

I personally have never been able to really connect with this record as much as I have with some of the later Strawbs albums that delve more fully into electric folk-inspired rock, but for its time this was a fairly eclectic offering and a rather remarkable achievement for a band that had just suffered the significant loss of Wakeman's two hands. While they could have easily reverted to staid acoustic folk or folded altogether, the Strawbs managed to instead deliver a solid and well-received record that finally broke them into the U.S. market and led to a few years of relative popularity in the States even as their appeal waned with audiences back home. For that the album deserves four stars and a strong recommendation, although I would say for anyone who is interested in discovering the band during the seventies period I would encourage you to start with 'Hero and Heroine' or 'Ghosts' first (the latter especially for American fans) and then graduate to this one.


ClemofNazareth | 4/5 |


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