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Steeleye Span - Now We Are Six CD (album) cover

NOW WE ARE SIX

Steeleye Span

 

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3.35 | 39 ratings

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britfolkgod
4 stars At this phase in their career, Steeleye Span, after a two-album dalliance with a pair of bona fide rock musicians (guitarist Bob Johnson and bassist Rick Kemp, who was formerly one of Bowie's "Spider from Mars" - his receding hairline cost him the job), moved to the next logical step in energizing their sound further, and so drummer Nigel Pegrum was added to the fold, and this addition is reflected in the album's title (which referred not just to the number of personnel but the number of albums to their credit at this point).

They had started as "electric folk" - not really intending to be a rock band at all, but the personnel changes as much as anything else seemed to push them in the rock direction, and on this album they sound for the first time like a rock band turning towards folk rather than vice versa. The results showed what was possible, but a few tracks frustratingly took a novelty approach and it wasn't until their next album that they showed a fully "serious" album.

The three tracks in question are "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" (yes, THAT Twinkle Twinkle Little Star) whose inclusion is valid in the sense that it is the oldest and purest traditional song in the world - "rocking up" a track like this would scarcely have been possible though, and so the band pretended to be children singing it to the accompaniment of a piano. Rather pointless, but at least blessedly short. The second offending track, "Now We Are Six" was a collection of riddles set to the same accompaniment again, just a single piano. Unfortunately it was also longer and chewed up a lot of real estate on an album that really should have been showcasing the band's new vitality.

Thirdly, "To Know Him Is To Love Him", the old 50s standard, is done here with David Bowie guesting on saxophone. It's worth hearing once but its inclusion with a group of songs that come from Britain's folk heritage makes (at least on the surface) very little sense. It's only when you know of the band's "rock and roll encore" they did around this period that it's understandable - the band would don 50s attire and do a set of rock standards for their encore during this period.

So three tracks mar the album but that still leaves a tremendous amount of excellent music to listen to. "Seven Hundred Elves" incorporates not just drums but also a synthesizer; "Drink Down the Moon" showcases the new drummer's abilities on oboe (he would also contribute flute parts occasionally); and "Thomas the Rhymer" is for many people the quintessential Steeleye track with its zinging acoustic guitars propelling the electric power chords and irresistible chorus sung in the band's glorious 5-part harmony. This was something new and something exciting. Steeleye Span also knew traditional music very well so often knew the best versions of the songs to use, and they were now showing themselves to be the hardest-rocking of all the British folk rockers at this time as well.

Part of my decision to review this album comes down to the unfair drubbing I have seen of the instrumental "Mooncoin Jig". If a traditional Irish jig isn't your cup of tea, hear me out - this ISN'T simply a case of "you've heard one Irish jig, you've heard them all" and here's why. This is the sound, and the utterly masterful sound, of folk music and rock music in perfect balance, with neither style overshadowing the other. Peter Knight plays mandolin and banjo and Tim Hart provides electric dulcimer, so there is the folk element - but the rest of the band is dishing out power chords and a very individualistic bass line; think of Roger Waters on Pink Floyd's "One of These Days" to get the idea of the rhythmic vitality at work here. Also, this isn't simply a tune being repeated ad infinitum, instruments peel in and out and on the final verse a set of spoons (of all things) clatters away, in no way eclipsed by the heavy drumming. This track is a masterpiece, and needs to be heard in this context.

There is an air of experimentation on this album that is quite palpable too; on "Edwin" we have Maddy Prior doing a multitracked whisper alongside her faraway vocal track. Effects like these lend a real dramatic quality to the murder ballads and bring the stories to life. These songs have lasted hundreds of years, and Steeleye Span wants to show you why.

This isn't my favorite Steeleye Span album, but it's up there - it's the one that shows them having fully matured and able to match most rock bands pound for pound in the rocking out department, and is a delight and an excellent starting place for those interested in what they have to offer.

britfolkgod | 4/5 |

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