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Steeleye Span - All Around My Hat CD (album) cover

ALL AROUND MY HAT

Steeleye Span

 

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3.13 | 25 ratings

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Einsetumadur
Prog Reviewer
3 stars 9.5/15P. After the symphonic folk grandeur of the previous two albums Steeleye Span abstract the through-and-through folk material even more, at least on about one half of the tunes. But this time it frequently sounds quite much like children's music. If you want to inure your small children to folk rock, however, go for it!

After the pretty atmospheric art rock/folk rock melange of the previous two albums with full-time drummer Nigel Pegrum, Steeleye Span decided to intensify their approach of implanting folk melodies into self-penned (art) pop songs even more. The critics weren't as deeply impressed as in the case of, for example, Please To See The King, but I do think that there's still a good bunch of fine songs on this album, some of them even able to compete against the immaculate side A of Commoner's Crown. Notwithstanding, some of the through-and-through pop numbers tend to become a bit boring after a while, even though even some of these songs include some little specialities - in their lyrics, in their rhythm or in their arrangement - which keep me from skipping them.

The fairytale-like song Dance With Me, which - without Maddy Prior's vocals - wouldn't be out of place on Caravan's Cunning Stunts, begins in a really sublime way with a classically inspired variation of the chorus harmonies, played by two electric guitars; like quite a lot of bands in 1975 Steeleye Span had also discovered the Uni-Vibe chorus/vibrato device and use it to quite a good effect on this album. But then Nigel Pegrum jumps into a pretty stupid shuffle rhythm, and for the rest of the piece the estrangement of this song from its folk roots happens to be a few tads too acute for me. Neither the more or less featureless fiddle solo nor the uninspired backing vocals really grade the whole thing up considerably. Nonetheless I must admit that this ultra-jolly song has a sort of morbid humor to it because of its pretty awkward story. The girl who wants a knight to dance with her is, in fact, an elf princess who - in a carrot-and-stickish manner - pampers the knight before announcing she will curse him to death. This song originally stems from Denmark, and - indeed - this is the country which a really popular German ballad comes from: Der Erlkoenig ('The Elfin King') by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In Goethe's ballad a feverish boy is taken home on horseback by his father, and meanwhile he hallucinates about an elfin king who frightens the child with announcements of both caress and death; in the end, the child dies - contrary to the knight in Dance With Me whose fate remains dubious. So at least, the irony of this ridiculously huge contrast between music and lyrics keeps me interested - as well as the lyrics which are, without doubt, more profound than most of the songs which sound similar.

Hard Times Of Old England really makes me wonder how the band made such an arrangement of a song which, for instance, the all-acoustic Etchingham Steam Band (around Ashley Hutchings and Shirley Collins) in a diametrically different way one year earlier. Again there's the straightforward shuffle rhythm, but this time there's no weird story which could re-define the meaning of the recording. All in all this 5-minutes-plus track is just too long, and apart from a brief pseudo guitar solo the band just tries hard to get all the stanzas together (and, again and again, the chorus). And the brief guitar solo lacks the blazing lead playing of, for instance, Richard Thompson. Steeleye Span had great guitarists (Bob Johnson on Seven Hundred Elves was pretty cool and avant-garde), but none who could play well on top of a rock'n'roll groove; this solo is actually some slight deviation from the rhythm guitar track. I skip this track.

Gamble Gold continues this children's music attitude - most authentically with Nigel Pegrum providing the hook of the song, a really simple melody, on three recorders in an accurate music school fashion. Overall this is pretty dull and cliche-laden, and representative of the way how I don't like folk to be - too much pop and too few inspiration. I even liked the tongue-in-cheek St.Eleye choir stuff from Now We Are Six much more since it had some jolly humor and some kind of atmosphere. This is basically pop - in spite of some nice academic little twists, such as the 3/8-chorus interspersed in the 4/4 song.

All Around My Hat, another rock'n'roll shuffle thing, is on a different level; it's a pretty crude combination of two different folk songs, one of them apparently also used by the Irish as some kind of a protest song in the British-Irish civil war. You actually don't notice that these are two different songs stuck together, and you don't notice any political connotations either - neither one was conceived as a political song, anyway. Although it's got the very same rhythm as Hard Times Of Old England, the catchy and 100% positive chorus give it a charm which is hard to resist. Maddy Prior's lead vocals in the verses, on top of the tight shuffle, are filled with Prior's trademark vocal glissandos and some snotty accentuation which I always liked a lot. There are simply not too many folk singers who deliberately 'jump off' the basic vocal melody, just in order to slide to the correct note from, let's say, four half-tones below. And, to lighten things up even more, Nigel Pegrum can be heard playing some recorder counterpoints very low in the mix - and of course one shouldn't forget the clever mandolin/fiddle-unisono adaptation of sort of a Scottish jig coming in at about two thirds of the song. That's art pop of a different type - inspired music providing fun for both the analytic and the more immediate listeners.

Sum Waves is, apart from some low notes which are seemingly vocal drones, an instrumental piece of Scottish origin, given a faintly bluesy treatment. Maddy Prior states in the liner notes that the band intended to abandon a clear melody in favor of atmosphere and drone. Especially via headphones this approach sounds quite interesting indeed, although there are many folk songs - including Steeleye Span recordings (Saucy Sailor, for instance) - which get into those Scottish/hypnotic/ambience realms even more. The multi-tracked violins and the deep vocal drones, however, are impressing, and the sedate bluesy rhythm is something you don't find too often in this context.

But Steeleye Span were able to force the whole matter further up with a set of four songs which I like even more than the previously mentioned songs. The Wife Of Ushers Well, a relic from the Now We Are Six sessions, for instance, is an amazingly good piece of folk rock. Dense riffs, mighty harmony vocals and enough little rhythmic twists overall, most probably brought in by drummer Nigel Pegrum, to keep the listener entertained. Tim Hart, along with Maddy Prior the only original folk musician in the band, takes the lead vocals in the quiet narrative stanzas - surrounded by Nigel Pegrum's multi-instrumental work on flute and oboe which really proves that the collaboration of the two proficient arrangers Peter Knight and Nigel Pegrum was a real fruitful one. The anthemic chorus, sung by Prior, Knight, Hart, Kemp and Johnson to Pegrum's quick hi-hat 16ths, brings the music back to its British roots and make this track the only genuine 5-star moment on this album. Interestingly, parts of the chorus share melodies with a beautiful song Maddy Prior and Tim Hart already performed in 1968 as a duo, The Gardener, which in turn also appears under the name Proud Maisrie. The complete duo work by Hart & Prior has been collected on an inexpensive 2CD set called Heyday - essential listening for friends of British folk!

Black Jack Davy and Cadgwith Anthem, however, come pretty close. Black Jack Davy, a song with both a history in America and Great Britain, ties in well with the sound of the previous Commoner's Crown album, but adds a string arrangement by Mike Batt, who also produced the album. I'm not a definite fan of Mike Batt's AOR solo material, but songs like The Ride to Agadir and Winds of Change feature the handwriting of a songwriter and arranger with an independent style, a distinct voice and an ability to record songs which are bombastic, but rarely embarrasing. His string arrangements are pretty similar: they do have a certain Victorian pomp, but I never really cared if they are (or aren't) inappropiate to this kind of music. They blend in fine and add to the atmosphere - and, most importantly they get along extremely well with Pete Knight's classically influenced fiddle playing and Nigel Pegrum's oboe counterpoints. Maddy Priors sings lead in the verses, and the male choir of Hart, Johnson, Kemp and Knight takes the pre-chorus and chorus. Especially the pre-chorus is really powerful, and - comparing this recording with other renderings of the song - Steeleye Span have added quite a lot of original ideas to a song. Re-arranging a folk song in a convincing way, contrary to what some critics say, definitely does require a songwriting skill, even if one mostly works with songs which already exist. And it needs a certain 'historical' commitment, as well, which makes working in this genre a really different, but interesting task.

The Cadgwith Anthem brought me - who originally comes from Bavaria (Germany) - memories of the kind of the authentic Bavarian traditional music. Sadly, this area of Germany is widely (and incorrectly) known as the mere capital of beer, pretzels and a particularly slimy deviation of folk music, including yodeling on plastic europop rhythms. Both the Cadgwith Anthem, which deals with a small town in Cornwall, and many Bavarian folk songs share the close connection of music to human settlements, elaborate harmony vocals and the tender homophonous brass pads (trombone/horn/trumpet). All in all, the relation between the Bavarian music and the music of the Scottish Highlands people would be even bigger, but this comes pretty close. (If you get that special emotional connection to this kind of music as well, and if you're interested in music of different ethnic cultures, I can highly recommend you check out the album Tiroler Kirchtagmusig by the Inntaler Saenger, which is basically authentic Alpine folk music.)

For the lengthy album closer Batchelors Hall Tim Hart uses his electric dulcimer again, enveloping the listener in the gentle drone of this fine instrument. The song might remind you of American country music - and if it does, it doesn't without reason: it's in fact a rare Steeleye Span arrangement of an American folk song. Bassist Rick Kemp, previously destined to be the successor of Gordon Haskell in King Crimson in 1971, sings the lead vocals here and gives the song a tight, gritty mood. Furthermore I'd like to mention the beautiful fiddle solos by Pete Knight which have that special broken-hearted feel of the real good American country fiddlers, such as Byron Berline. Sadly, the first chorus - again with the huge string arrangements in the background - gets a bit too sweet to fit in with the biting lament of the verse. The second one works out fine because the band gradually build up more layers of sound after the first chorus; hence, the change to the second chorus is more fluid.

Taken together it's hard to decline that this album ain't flawed. But in its best moments it still shows a band with a distinct vision and sound, and a healthy balance of pop professionalism (mostly in the arrangements) and atmosphere. Even though all the preceding Steeleye Span albums are more captivating than this one, I can thoroughly recommend this to folk rock lovers - especially in the context of the affordable A Parcel of Steeleye Span compilation which includes the complete five Steeleye Span albums between 1972 and 1975, plus four bonus tracks.

Einsetumadur | 3/5 |

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