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Steeleye Span - Hark! The Village Wait CD (album) cover


Steeleye Span


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3.84 | 44 ratings

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5 stars 14.25/15P. - The equally mindblowing counterpart to Fairport Convention's folk rock ideas of 1969-1971: less instrumental pyrotechnics and less original compositions than on 'Full House', but more Britishness and more obscure instruments which jangle and slide through the scenery. This album is most simple regarding time signatures and chord progressions, but as sophisticated as can be in terms of arrangement, melody and accentuation.

The years from 1969 to 1971 were doubtlessly the years in which the insertion of British folk to rock music was on its peak. Think Genesis' pastoral work Trespass, Supertramp's debut album, the music Fairport Convention were doing at that time, the foundation of the Albion Country Band and all that stuff. Steeleye Span, a grouping of already renowned folk musicians which too came into being in that time, plotted the sketches of an authentic British folk rock album in a shared house in the idyllic British county of Wiltshire in 1970. Ashley Hutchings, bassist and bandleader formerly of Fairport Convention, had been inspired by the inventively moody and minimalistic work of the Canadian band The Band and wanted to transfer this approach to the British lore. It wasn't a start geared to the media, but in hindsight the band Hutchings assembled around him must have raised great expectations amongst the followers of the British folk rock scene. The couple of Tim Hart and Maddy Prior had already recorded two albums of pretty traditional, but resonant renditions of some of lesser-known folk songs. With Gay Woods he had a silky alto voice to accompany Maddy Prior's crystal-clear mezzosoprano (listen to My Johnny Was A Shoemaker for a beautiful unaccompanied duo), and Gay's husband Terry came in as an able multi-instrumentalist who added lots of different string instruments to the album sound along with Tim Hart.

And sound is, to sum it up, what this album is in a way all about. Lots of instruments with a really complex frequency response occur (most strikingly the autoharp with all those resonating strings) and in their arrangements there are so many flourishes and details to explore that, if you ensure to listen to a good-sounding copy of this album with a decent pair of headphones, you will enjoy forty minutes recorded with a pure and powerful sound, dulled neither by a muddy production nor by big amounts of compressors, effects or other sonic glutamate which so many albums suffer from. And interestingly there's not a single acoustic guitar to be heard on this album. I'm pretty sure this is one of the reasons for the album's great plasticity.

The Scotch song Fisherman's Wife, for instance, features the swirling sound of the autoharp to a finger-picked banjo backing in the left channel and mandola in the right channel. But don't worry, the banjo doesn't give the music a country or bluegrass touch at all; this particular song, with its two-part vocals by Gay Woods and Maddy Prior, gives a perfect impression of a long-ago Scottish winter, depicting how a fisherman suffers big hardship to finance a family which actually doesn't exist due to his exceedingly time-consuming job. The barely understandable Scotch lyrics and the strangely accentuated worksong-like rhythm create a surreal atmosphere quite alike The Strawbs' song Witchwood. More 5-string banjo may be enjoyed in the Tim Hart sung Blackleg Miner, an upbeat driving song about strike-breaking miners and the union men's hostile attitude towards them. Hart's voice doesn't have a most common timbre, but after sitting through the three Hart&Prior duo albums I've ended up liking his fairly original voice more than just tolerating it. He's certainly one of the bright figures of British folk revival and sorely missed after his death in 2009. And it's him who, along with Simon Nicol and Richard Thompson of Fairport Convention, popularized the electric dulcimer as the British pendant to the slide guitar, a potent drone instrument with a woodier sound than a simple electric guitar. On Copshawholme Fair Tim Hart's seminal electric dulcimer playing is first placed in the foreground, along with Ashley Hutchings' bass playing which is located somewhere between Paul McCartney and James Jamerson. It's Hutchings who is the metronome of the band since actually he plays the guide track and ties the sound together, allowing the drums to play more freely. The bluesy All Things Are Quite Silent hobbles slowly on and on in a 3/4 measure and gets maximum effect out of two clean Telecasters which bend, slide and dance around the thumping bass line; one of them was seemingly fitted with the famous B-Bender device constructed by Gene Parsons and Clarence White. And indeed this song with those jangling guitars would fit quite well on a Byrds album, if it wasn't for Maddy Prior's voice.

Finally there are the two studio drummers who weren't full members of the band. Gerry Conway, later playing with Fotheringay, Jethro Tull and Cat Stevens, played 60% of the drum tracks and is a canny and careful drummer who has the right sense of hearing to play along the lyrical metre of the song. And in that case this also means playing against the common accentuation in rock music. But the remaining 40% of the drum duties were taken by Fairport Convention drummer Dave Mattacks, a drummer who has played on hundreds of renowned albums (including the 801 studio album), and this guy drives and grooves like hell. He doesn't play like Paice or Bonham, at least not on this album, but rather like a young Phil Collins on Nursery Cryme: a swinging style comprising imaginative fills, played with the suitable power in the louder parts and with an impressionistic subtlety in the more comtemplative moments. Listen to Lowlands of Holland which is, in my opinion, the very best track to check if this album suits your taste. Lyrically, it's one of the two songs on this album which deal with young women lamenting the deaths of their sailor lovers missed in action. While the girl mourns her true love her social surroundings remind her that there are also other men in the village where she lives. She disobeys and rejects these pieces of advice, promising to rather reduce her hygiene and living standard completely than take another man. A simple story of cruel fate ruining a lover's life? Or a story of a young woman who strongly objects to the shallowness of her society, a society which regards a partnership as merely something functional, overlooking everything which one could call 'spiritual'? The raw break-out of emotions in the song - for a British girl it is pretty raw, indeed - rather supports the second interpretation. There's the menacing drone of the rhythm electric guitar, the 5-string-banjo which sounds like the relic of a time before electricity defined the human life, the hectic violin enmeshing the wavy lead guitar howl which breaks through before each stanza - and finally this restless drum track in which Mattacks pumps and drives without even thinking about calming down. Mindblowing! You might think that I'm a wee bit pathetic about this song, but I don't know many pieces which amaze me even after several years of listening to them more than once per week. Check it out even if you're only vaguely interested in folk-like music from the UK.

On the first sight it seems as if there were no keyboards played during the recording of this album. In a way, this is even true. All of the duties which Hammond organs, pianos, Mellotrons or similar instruments usually do are taken, in an orthodoxically British way, by reed instruments such as harmonium and concertina. The list of instruments, however, as published on the excellent Zierke web encyclopedia of folk music, is erroneous. There's harmonium both on tracks 2 and 11, and there's concertina on tracks 5, 6 and 8. And these instruments do contribute quite a lot to the overall atmosphere. Twa Corbies, although quite brief, is surely the most shocking piece on this record. While the harmonium on The Blacksmith, a rhythmically most complex ballad about an attractive adulterer, rather lays a langurous carpet underneath the busy guitar and mandola work, you get subtle Gryphon-like harmonium notes in Twa Corbies. And the lyrics? Tim Hart, Gay Woods and Maddy Prior, again in finest Scottish English, impersonate two ravens which discuss about how to decompose the corpse of a fallen knight most effectively. Great Britain doesn't have the reputation of a really dark humour for nothing! When listening to that piece I do not only feel reminded of The Young Tradition's frightening version of Lyke-Wake Dirge, but also of medieval church music owing to the way Tim Hart acts as a 'choir cantor' playing the lead melody on the harmonium. The concertina sounds less gothic overall. In Dark Eyed Sailor it, played by Gay Woods, provides the plaintive sea shanty feeling. It's actually the same topic as in Lowlands of Holland, but the narrating woman is deeply in grief and hence quieter. Furthermore, listen carefully to the inventive bass guitar playing and the shimmering electric dulcimer setting the tenderly moving ostinato of the tune. One of the songs which can captivate you completely if you're in the mood for such stuff. The playing in Copshawholme Fair, handled by Terry Woods this time, is audibly different and more confident. The concertina, albeit staying close to the vocal melody, often plays independently from the vocal melody, for example at 0:50 when Woods plays a damn fine 'upward' counterpoint to the (from the melodic point of view) jumping sung part. The last part of the song features the only dance on this album (no endless jigs & reels here!), including a recording of the two lady singers step-dancing. The Hills of Greenmore, an Irish song with pretty obscure lyrics about hare hunting, even owes his uplifting and upbeat sound to the concertina. It is a genuinely hymnal song with a beautiful melody, sung quite decently by Terry Woods with his listenable Irish accent, and one of the most interesting Gerry Conway drum rhythms on this record because he continuingly plays against the common 4/4 accentuation, getting a pretty jolting metre into this tune.

The last song on the album, and in my opinion an unrecognized jewel, is One Night As I Lay On My Bed, in which all of the great components of the early Steeleye Span sound are united: the rootsy banjo playing (which is really in the foreground), the twang of the electric dulcimer and some sublime Maddy Prior vocals, either solo, or double-tracked, or backed by Gay Woods, depending on the stanza. And most importantly, Dave Mattacks and Ashley Hutchings are a perfectly working rhythm unit who simultaneously do this exciting start-stop twist in each stanza, beginning each one with a really long fill, building up a straight rhythm for some bars and deconstructing it again in the end. In written language it might sound more off-key than it really is, but in any case the piece just never gets going, but rather turns around every time. I like it, anyway. And I also sense a slightly snotty attitude in Prior's vocals, which might fit with the storyline that a young man argues his girlfriend into letting him creep in her bed via the bedroom window, seeing to it that her parents won't notice him.

I often read that Steeleye Span - at least on this album - are regarded to be merely a class B band compared with Fairport Convention. To me, this distinction is neither reasonable nor correct. Steeleye Span weren't a band which tried to be Fairport Convention, but which rather attempted to do something different to what Fairport Convention were about to do then. Liege and Lief was a glimmering and radical reconsideration of folk music from a rock point of view. The musicians in the first Steeleye Span line-up were basically folk musicians, and started exploring rock music under the influence of Ashley Hutchings. This is the reason for the great difference in sound, and for the fact that Hark! The Village Wait and Fairport Convention's Full House differ quite a lot from each other. The point in which they are similar is the high level of sophistication and the moony genuinely British atmosphere, integrating large parts of a long musical tradition into a time of new technical and musical possibilities. This album succeeds in doing that without even a hint of embarrassing outdatedness or employing questionable pub shanties. It simply never fails to amaze me even after many years of listening. Thus, it fully deserves the full 5-star-rating and a recommendation sans restrictions.

Einsetumadur | 5/5 |


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