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Class ?

Main Category: Folk Rock
Also applicable: Pop Rock, Psychedelia, Celtic/Medieval
Starting Period: The Psychedelic Years
Also active in: The Artsy/Rootsy Years, The Interim Years,

The Punk/New Wave Years, The Divided Eighties,

From Grunge To The Present Day



Disclaimer: this page is not written from the point of view of a Donovan fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Donovan fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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Postponed until the page is more comprehensive.



Year Of Release: 1966
Overall rating =

Overlooked, apart from the hits, and hopelessly idealistic, but I like hopeless idealists. They're better than me.


Track listing: 1) Sunshine Superman; 2) Legend Of A Girl Child Linda; 3) Three Kingfishers; 4) Ferris Wheel; 5) Bert's Blues; 6) Season Of The Witch; 7) The Trip; 8) Guinevere; 9) The Fat Angel; 10) Celeste.

Preliminary note: in keeping up with the general trend of having artists' discographies severely messed up in the Sixties, the record industry has heaped two entirely different versions of Sunshine Superman on our asses. The US 10-song one, issued in the fall of '66, is the original. The UK version, issued about a year (!) later, has 12 songs and is actually a weird hybrid, dropping three songs ('Fat Angel', 'The Trip', and 'Ferris Wheel') from the original and adding five (!) from next year's Mellow Yellow. The sucky side of this is that I currently only have the UK version of the album, so, in all honesty, I should be reviewing these twelve songs, but then I wouldn't be able to give a normal review to Mellow Yellow. So bear with me if I pretend to be reviewing the US version without having heard three of the ten songs, then! I'm sure they're good, considering the high quality of the rest of the material. (Not that you'd know it from Jefferson Airplane's own live rendition of 'Fat Angel', but whoever would want to draw any definite conclusions based on that observation?).

Anyhoo, this record was Donovan's big breakthrough, of course, and up to this day remains more or less his visit card, thanks to the two "biggies" - the hit title track and 'Season Of The Witch', since its original release covered by everyone and their grandmother. Deservedly so: for all the great great songwriting wonders of 1966, these two chestnuts gotta rank in the first row. 'Sunshine Superman', in particular, is the kind of bouncy, shiny, cheery, and catchy song that I don't really see too many people coming up with that year; popmeister wizards like the Beatles and the Kinks were too obsessed with music hall influences to do something that down-to-earth-folksy, while folk-rock pioneers like the Byrds and, yes, the newly-incarnated Jefferson Airplane were much too solemn and gloomy to do something that sunny and bubblegummy. Not "bubblegummy" in a bad way, not at all. Donovan's gorgeous looping vocal melody is unbeatable, and when you add the cool minimalistic garage-day solo (is that really Jimmy Page playing? my, how totally uncharacteristic of our usual idea of Jimmy Page!), you remain with nothing less than a three-minute masterpiece.

With 'Season Of The Witch', Donovan wears his Dylan adoration a bit more openly, but even so, it still remains confined to the lyrical and vocal department rather than the melody. The basic hook here is unbelievably simple and has more to do with the tension Mr Leitch raises with the thrice repeated line about the stitch than with some particularly ingenious vocal or instrumental idea, but somehow it works, maybe because the arrangement is so immaculate. These jagged, broken guitar lines, with a slight whiff of danger, the subdued, unsophisticated organ solo, Donovan's own restrained, but menacing vocal delivery, all work towards conveying the vague "there's something happening here" idea, although, as Steve Stills would add, what it is ain't exactly clear.

That said, two good songs don't make an album, and if, mostly thanks to them, Donovan did have the misfortune of becoming sort of a flower-power one-hit wonder in the public conscience, that doesn't mean we have to follow suit and discard the rest. Sure, most of the rest sounds drastically different. Donovan didn't have anything against catchy pop songs, but when it came to LPs, he was a balladeer with a penchant for dark/spiritual folk, on one hand, and quiet jazz patterns, on the other one, and that tends to confuse people who hear the first song on the album and naturally suppose they're gonna have more of the same. Already the second song, 'Legend Of A Girl Child Linda' (I wonder if Paul ever learned that one to sing under his wife's front window?), is a quiet, repetitive seven-minute-long romantic ballad, with all of Dylan's repetitiveness and disregard for radio format but none of his subtle sense of humour. But is it any good? That depends on your tastes, and my tastes tell me it is. I'll admit it is rather unfortunately placed: after the upbeat 'Sunshine Superman', with its sunniness and get-up-and-shine and tap-your-feet-against-your-ears atmosphere, there's nothing like a steady seven-minute stream of lethargic acoustic guitars, wishy-washy chamber quartets, and lullaby-attuned vocals to put you into an undeserved coma. But once you get used to that sequencing, you might eventually come around to enjoying its hippiesque, but still enchanting and ultimately well-written melody.

Especially considering 'Legend Of A Girl Child Linda' still sounds like Motorhead in comparison to the real sleepfest of 'Guinevere' (which demands a weird cultural observation: apparently, the image of Guinevere was imminently linked with the idea of something hypnotic/lethargic in the minds of Sixties' songwriters; consider the equally snooze-inducing - also in a good sense, though - tune courtesy of Dave Crosby on CSN's debut), "driven", or, rather, "dragged" forth by an even slower, 'interruptier' acoustic pattern and an occasional plink from an occasional sitar. But it's a good sleep. Maybe because of the "interrupted" flow of the song, which makes each individual phrase stand out instead of getting us muddled down in a steady monolithic drone. Maybe because the "chorus" is catchy again. Maybe it's just because I'm weird, but I really like the tune, regardless of any possible theoretical explanations. Just as I like the pure pseudo-Indian droning of 'Three Kingfishers' which worships a bit too much at the altar of 'Love You To' (provided Revolver could chronologically be an inspiration - the two albums came out with a very small delay), but does it nicely and with respect.

The major success, though, and the one song off the album which should by all means considered a classic as timeless as the title track (why isn't it?), is the stately hymn 'Celeste', which mixes classic Dylanish pathos a la 'Chimes Of Freedom' with classic starry-eyed hippie romanticism and a real celeste (as apt as the title is, it is never mentioned in the actual lyrics, but is fully confirmed instrumental-wise). The result may not be as profound as, say, your average Pet Sounds tune, but is practically as beautiful as anything on there, and for anyone wanting direct proof of Donovan's status of The Greatest Troubadour of the Sixties, this song is recommended as the main course.

In the end, as far as memorability goes, the only relative stinker on here is 'Bert's Blues' - but that's to be expected, as this is Donovan's little exploration in jazz textures (akin to 'The Observation' on Mellow Yellow, albeit a bit more "structured"), and he still manages to get a great sound going, with that so-beloved harpsichord of his once again mixing with the chamber quartet and producing a general impression that's once again quite different from almost everything you had out there in 1966. Making this, like I said, a tremendously consistent and a quite unusual album, although it really matters a lot that one approach it from a totally unbiased position (meaning it's only recommended for representatives of that one world which allows lengthy repetitive folksy ballads to exist on par with short hook-filled pop songs, and vice versa. Don't say you haven't been warned!).



Year Of Release: 1967
Overall rating =

Add a little streak of Bonzo Dogishness, and there you have it!

Best song: SAND AND FOAM

Track listing: 1) Mellow Yellow; 2) Writer In The Sun; 3) Sand And Foam; 4) The Observation; 5) Bleak City Woman; 6) House Of Jansch; 7) Young Girl Blues; 8) Museum; 9) Hampstead Incident; 10) Sunny South Kensington.

Once again, an album that's not particularly innovating - in fact, downright derivative - and not particularly awe-inspiring, but Donovan is good at these hippie-dippie folky-dopy things, and it's easily my personal favourite style of music, or, at least, among my personal favourite styles of music when it's done well. See, I do not - in the least - mind that too many of these songs are so obviously written by a young Dylan disciple. I don't even mind that the vocal melody of 'Hampstead Innocent', in all of its modest epicness, follows 'My Back Pages' so closely: anyway, whoever'd want to cast the first stone at Mr Leitch would have to have a go at Mr Zimmerman first (and who was that guy ripping his melodies off in 1964, eh?). Donovan's no phoney. He's a professional, and he lets you know this. The songs may meander, but they're always interesting to follow. On Mellow Yellow, he has even more fun with different kinds of instrumentation than on Superman, and watching all these harpsichords, violins, flutes and what-not play fiddle-diddle with each other is a great way of passing time when you're not busy with other things, such as picking your nose or saving democracy and freedom.

This album yielded just one classic instead of two - the bouncy music-hallish title track, which in the hands of the Beatles (and you gotta admit, it's pretty McCartneyesque) would probably look like a slight, half-forgettable trifle a la 'Good Day Sunshine', for Donovan appears to be one of his highest achievements, but it's not that I'm saying this in a denigrating sense. If I wanna denigrate Donovan for something, I'll choose a million other ways. It's just that for Donovan, the Eternal Hippie Kid, 'Mellow Yellow' is no trifle, no mere pointless studio amusement as it would be for McCartney. Hey, the guy obviously lived in that candy-coloured world, which is why he can bring it up on stage so perfectly with just a wave of his hand (and the song is quite simple in its arrangement - only the background cheering and the trivial brass instrumental section to separate you from its bare bones).

But, honestly, it's not 'Mellow Yellow' that tips me over with this record. It's Donovan's quiet love ode to sunny Mexico where he was on vacation or something like that, the totally stripped down acoustic ballad 'Sand And Foam'. All based on that tricky finger-picking style of his which Lennon later copped for 'Julia', all produced so that the guitar seems to be coming from somewhere a little below the level you're standing or sitting on, all strangely sad - as if he weren't so much appraising the beauty of the things he witnessed as lamenting his final separation from them. And a melody that's damn near impossible to shake out of your head. Just another example of a marvelous, value-transgressing, age-defying song that you should always shove into the faces of everybody wishing to wash away every one of them "damn hippie" artists as "moronic flower-power crap". Nosiree, even the most starry-eyed Sixties hippies were much smarter than people usually give them credit for.

In fact, by 1967 Donovan was pretty smart: smart enough to essay a little bit of free (well, almost free) jazz on the odd-going, moody 'Observation', with its broken basslines, piano runs, and part-time cacophonic brass interludes that wouldn't have been out of place on a Bonzo Dog record indeed. It's a compromised sort of thing - something in between a bold musical experiment and a basic pop song - but I likes me compromises when they don't suck particularly. And it's definitely better than the much more straightforward 'n' streamlined "cabaret blues" tune 'Bleak City Woman': both songs are fun, but the latter certainly does not strike you in any particular way.

Two more magnificent acoustic "epics" add up to the picture, even if they're almost directly opposite each other in mood. 'Writer In The Sun' symbolizes the starry-eyedness of this period: the most openly romantic and fairy tale-like song on the album, it's something like an uplifted pastorale (and a bit of ecstatic self-promotion) which, depending on your tastes, will either enchant and subdue you in a very direct way or just bore you to death; and since I'm honestly and openly offered a choice here, hey, I take enchantment, especially when it's so sincerely troubadourish as here. In dire contrast, 'Young Girl Blues' is mopey, dark, almost "depressing" in a proto-Nick Drake way. Stripped down again, with but a slight change of melody from verse to chorus and back, it's the closest Donovan ever got (in this period, at least) to offering a Dylanish "female putdown", but it's twice more obvious he's no Dylan - he doesn't have the nerve to make this into a really vicious, self-righteous putdown, instead it's sort of a confused, vaguely stated mourning for [what is considered] the ruined life of the female protagonist. Who she is, I don't know. A roadie? A druggie? Too early for both. A whore? Too realistic for Donovan. More like, simply, a confused soul. In any case, Donovan's first attempt at having a little moralizing is more successful than not.

Actually, the only tune on here that definitely sounds dated is 'Sunny South Kensington', where Donovan's tactic of borrowing names off all kinds of celebrities (including Jean-Paul Belmondo et al.) is way too flat to be a good Dylanism, and the melody just sort of feels tired and recycled after the two or three previous folk-music-hall romps. Even so, the clumsy instrumental mid-section (with a little bit of minimalistic, garage-styled blues-rock guitar that seems to come out totally out of nowhere) is obviously there for the music, not just to make a good impression, and coming off the heels of nine songs that range from magnificent to magni-decent, that's hardly a big problem.

It's interesting to notice, though, that Donovan hardly ever rocks on here; there's nothing even remotely resembling 'Season Of The Witch' and its jagged mild-hard-rock sound. A minor observation, but certainly fitting in with the times: you could argue that early '67, those few months in between the Great Psychedelic Revolution of late '66 and the expropriation of the Revolution's results for the benefit of Jimi Hendrix's acid rock was easily the worst period for "hard rockers" ever. Hey, everyone was going softer at the time, including Love and the Rolling Stones. And Donovan, well, he's soft by nature, so it's actually a big wonder these songs from Mellow Yellow haven't been squished into total jello.



Year Of Release: 1967
Overall rating =

Is it possible to mock the most starry-eyed album ever recorded? No, let me rephrase that - would that be a good sport? Hardly.

Best song: too many to choose from.

Track listing: 1) Wear Your Love Like Heaven; 2) Mad John's Escape; 3) Skip-A-Long Sam; 4) Sun; 5) There Was A Time; 6) Oh Gosh; 7) Little Boy In Corduroy; 8) Under The Greenwood Tree; 9) The Land Of Doesn't Have To Be; 10) Someone Singing; 11) Song Of The Naturalist's Wife; 12) The Enchanted Gypsy; 13) Voyage Into The Golden Screen; 14) Isle Of Islay; 15) The Mandolin Man And His Secret; 16) Lay Of The Last Tinker; 17) The Tinker And The Crab; 18) Widow With Shawl (A Portrait); 19) The Lullaby Of Spring; 20) The Magpie; 21) Starfish On The Toast; 22) Epistle To Derroll.

It takes time, but slowly, gradually, bit by bit, step by step, brain layer after brain layer, I've come to realize this could just be the best Donovan album ever. Not only that, it just may be one of the best odes to Total Escapism ever recorded. So all you followers of Joe Strummer and Phil Lynott, outta the door, please.

There, now that we got rid of that bunch of commie troublemakers, let's inhale some "opium for the people". That's what Marxism calls religion, that's what I call Donovan albums like this one. Ah, here comes sweet relief... Anyway, there are two LPs included here, and I could as well review them separately, not only because they're different in style, but because they were even offered independently upon release - you could buy either one of them or both in a single package. Wear Your Love Like Heaven was the name of the first one, For Little Ones was the second, and it's really impossible to decide which one's the better one. They just serve slightly different goals. But fit together anyway. In the long run. Like Democrats and Republicans.

Twenty two songs, nary a stinker. 'Wear Your Love Like Heaven' was the only identifiable hit, but this album is not about hits; it is all about creating a world. It reminds me closely of Tyrannosaurus Rex' Unicorn (and if you don't strain your eyes too much, you'll see there's even a weird resemblance between Donovan and Bolan in their hippie-dippie image), but Unicorn is still different in that it is way too much shaped by Bolan's impending individuality. Donovan was always far less visible as an individual; he's fairly normal as far as both music-making and singing go, and his artistic vision was always far more limited than Bolan's. But somehow, with A Gift, it just don't matter nohow. Vision or no vision, individualism or collectivism, this record enchants and mesmerizes like almost no other.

In pure musical terms, few things have changed. Donovan's favourite instruments still remain the acoustic guitar (played by himself) and the harpsichord (played by Mike O'Neil), with flutes and vibraphones and other sissy gadgets coming next. In addition, only the first of the two LPs actually boasts anything closely resembling "full" arrangements; the second one is almost completely acoustic, with naught but some flutes and percussion occasionally accompanying the man. But it's not the technical modifications that count here, it's the scope and the magnitude. And conception, of course. As good as his previous records were, they weren't tied together by anything - loose collections of songs, 'sall. Here, there's The Decision. There's a flowering universe to be made. So maybe he was among the last artists of the Summer of Love era to actually fulfill this task, but certainly not among the least.

Acute observation number one: there's no sitar anywhere in sight. Interesting, isn't it, considering Donovan's infatuation with all things psychedelic and the fact that pretty soon he'd be basking in the Indian sun learning Maharishi wisdom and teaching Lennon how to write 'Julia'? But fact is, A Gift falls into the "psychedelic folk" category. Mercilessly filtering through all of his influences, here Mr Leitch rips out any traces of Eastern stylistics and concentrates on the past glories of his native land - poppy music hall, Celtic motives, and Anglo-Saxon balladeering. Not that this makes any of the songs any less "fruity"; this is hardly Fairport Convention-style music we're talking about. But it certainly gives the material a bit more credibility; after all, a Scotsman is always more believable singing Scotland-related material than Bangalore-related material, isn't it? Well, maybe not always. I'm willing to make exceptions here when presented with a good case. But this is not a good case.

The first disc is currently my favourite of the two, but this is certainly liable to change as it's merely the more easily accessible one. All of its ten songs are written with love (for the moods and melodies) and understanding (of what it takes to imprint the song in the head of the listener). 'Wear Your Love Like Heaven' smoothly alternates music hall with hypnotic mantra-like chanting of the title in the chorus, done by several Donovans at once - and certainly has an anthemic feel to it despite the main instrument being a friggin' vibraphone. It's pretty much the only 'generic' hippiesque anthem on here - unsurprisingly chosen as the main single from the album - and this is proven by the sharp contrast of its title with others, like 'Mad John's Escape', 'Skip-A-Long Sam', 'Under The Greenwood Tree' and so on: a typically flower-power-ish title vs. a set of typically folkish ones.

Favourites on here include 'Skip-A-Long Sam' (more music hall, with a really magical piano part in the background); 'Sun' (a stately soothing shuffle with a funny jazzy middle-eight intrusion); 'Oh Gosh' (can you beat the harmonies in that fairy-tale chorus? you can't!); 'Little Boy In Corduroy' (the duet between O'Neil's organ and Donovan's whistling is easily the most magical element on the entire album); and, of course, the lush orchestration on the album closer 'Someone Singing', with Jack Bruce guesting on bass. But really, every single song on here has at least a few small heartwarming touches to keep your interest, and given that they're all so short, you'll hardly ever get tired of the sparse arrangements.

You could get tired of them on the second record, of course. But it's your dime. Looking back at everything happening in 1967, I don't happen to see "British folk rock" as an established music genre yet. No Fairport Convention, no Steeleye Span, no Lindisfarne, no Nick Drake, not anybody. So, with a few reservations, I guess we could call For Little Ones the first "crossover" folk album from an established pop/rock artist, certainly paving the way for all these bands and more. So it's not pure folk; it's folk with a touch of psychedelia and absurdism, although even that absurdism owes more to Lewis Carroll (what do you make of titles like 'Starfish-on-the-Toast'?) than to dropping acid. So who cares? In 1967, making a pure folk album would be considered boring.

Favourites on here include 'The Enchanted Gypsy' (funny how the song starts out as this majestic weather-worn Celtic lay and then winds up to a frenzied dance speed), the gorgeous 'Isle Of Islay' (I'd advise you to take some time to dig Donovan's acoustic melodies - they may not be as technically complex as Nick Drake's, but speak to me on a much more personal level), the romantic pastorale-like 'Mandolin Man And His Secret', the truly childish-sounding 'Tinker And The Crab', the solemn, almost chivalrous-sounding 'Widow With Shawl (A Portrait)' (arguably the most serious and deepest song on the album), and, of course, the closing epic 'Epistle To Derroll'; at almost six minutes, it's longer than anything else and makes a suitably low-tone, humble, and yet thoroughly dignified conclusion to the whole experience. Plus the lyrics are so gloriously absurd, you can't help but feeling all Lewis Carroll-like-over-again.

And you know an album is... well, not necessarily good, fuck good, we don't really know what's good for us, but certainly special when you get that odd burning feeling of nostalgia for an epoch you've never really experienced on your own - a time when people could make an album like this Gift here and not be afraid of being mocked and ridiculed and battered and satyrized and feathered and tarred and crucified. This is pure escapism here, music written by a guy who didn't really want to experiment (not here at least) or push forward musical boundaries or open up new levels of conscience and crap; he just wanted to give people an Isle of Avalon with this music, or Isle of Islay if you wish. Today, it's hardly possible to be offered an Isle of Avalon without at least an excitement-killing disclaimer saying "WARNING: SPENDING LENGTHY PERIODS OF TIME IN LAND OF MILK AND HONEY CAN BE HAZARDOUS TO YOUR SENSE OF REALITY". Back in 1967, it was possible. Was it good or bad? I don't know. It was possible. I like things when they're possible.



Year Of Release: 1970
Overall rating =

The overlooked pop masterpiece. Bubblegum, ancient folk, and crispy satire all in one.

Best song: CHANGES

Track listing: 1) Changes; 2) Song For John; 3) Curry Land; 4) Joe Bean's Theme; 5) People Used To; 6) Celtic Rock; 7) Riki Tiki Tavi; 8) Clara Clairvoyant; 9) Roots Of Oak; 10) Season Of Farewell; 11) Poke At The Pope; 12) New Year's Resolution.

Being the quintessential Sixties elf-symbol and all, it's no wonder people pretty much stopped paying attention to Donovan in the post-Altamont period, and, just as in the case of so many artists, happened to do him a lot of injustice. Talent doesn't just go away together with the social vibes and ideals. And Open Road is good proof, as it is nothing less than another near-stellar charming pop offering from Mr Leitch. Exactly the kind of charming pop offering, in fact, that you can always find rated rather high on this site.

I haven't done much research here, but I seem to remember hearing something about Open Road actually being the name of Donovan's new "band" and the album thus being self-titled, suggesting a radically new beginning here at the start of the new decade. In all senses, this looks a bit too far-fetched: not only are all the songs written by Donovan as usual, but even some of the "band"'s members are old-time Donovan regulars (the trustworthy Mike O'Neill on keyboards), and stylistically it's not that much of a departure from anything. Well, maybe not quite; what I mean to say is that the hand of Donovan is recognizable on every one of these tracks, but certainly there's a lot of attempts to branch out, cover a lot of different ground, be it complex or simple.

The result is that Open Road is one of, if not the most diverse-sounding of Donovan's albums. Mainstream pop, roots-rock, rock'n'roll, tricksier artsy forms, and, of course, his trusty folk roots, everything makes an appearance. It's natural that you probably won't like everything on here, and yet it's highly unnatural that I do happen to like everything. I know Donovan's limitations - naivete, lack of substance (or, rather, that which we normally take for "substance", because, to tell the truth, substance comes in many ways), not-too-bright melodies - and I've learned to cope with them all right. But each and every song on here carries some kind of ultra-positive or ultra-fun charge with it, and when it's so different every time, do you really expect me to... well, you know.

It's a bit weird that the main single from the record, and one of Donovan's last hits (and a pretty minor one at that), was 'Riki Tiki Tavi' - a one hundred percent novelty pop tune which uses the metaphor of Kipling's mongoose to complain about the evils of social-darwinism or something like that. For some reason, it's also set to a naggin' ska beat with Donovan occasionally trying out his Jamaican accent (maybe he got his West and East Indies mixed up, you think?). It's certainly inoffensive, and the repetitive chorus hook ('Riki Tiki Tavi, mongoose is gone! Riki Tiki Tavi, mongoose is gone!'), although it's hammering itself inside your head in a rather crude way, is hilarious. But it functions far better in the overall kaleidoscopic space of the album than as a single. People could have easily made the decision that Donovan had finally gone from "psychedelically batty" to just batty, and I'd bet you anything most of them did.

Whereas in the context of the album, it's just one of the funny pieces. In fact, I cannot exclude that the second side of Abbey Road had been a serious influence here - and how would people ever feel had the Beatles decided to issue, say, 'Polythene Pam' as a single? Now, if it were up to me, my choice would certainly lie with 'Changes'. Nothing less than a perfect three-minute pop song with a positive, ardently optimistic message, great melody lines, and instant memorability. Maybe a bit lightweight, since Donovan never really tried to go the "power pop" route, but hey, there's something to be said about quietly sounding guitars as well. In fact, too much bombast would only destroy the song, naive and innocent as it is already.

Not that there ain't any bombast on the record. On a few tracks, Donovan tries denser production and revved-up emotions, as well as somewhat more complex song structures and chord changes. 'Curry Land' and 'Roots Of Oak', in particular, are his tribute to the pretentious art-rock movement, and although in terms of sophistication they're closer to the Moody Blues/Barclay James Harvest level than to Yes/Genesis, both attempts succeed because of his still workin' pop sensibilities. In 'Curry Land', the transition between quiet piano-led dramatic verses and the all-out pomp of the chorus (actually, a bit of orchestration couldn't hurt here) gets me every time. And the slow vocal crescendo on 'Roots Of Oak', despite using these really simple means, plunges you into the damp ominous atmosphere of a dreary mistletoe-covered Druidic forest nevertheless. Oh, and there's also the defiantly titled 'Celtic Rock' itself, where Donovan actually tries imitating real tribal chanting of the ancient Celtic tribes itself - and it sounds a bit obnoxious ("Look! Look how hard I'm trying to prove my origins to you! This is Celtic! Celtic! Spells C-E-L-T-I-C!"), but Mike O'Neill's frantic piano pumping saves the song (well, actually, it's more a sonic experiment than an actual song) from collapsing anyway.

And then there's the old Donovan, simple, charming, moderately catchy, and always irresistably cool. Or maybe irresistably UNcool. This stuff wasn't cool in 1970, the year of Black Sabbath. But 'People Used To' is a great pop song regardless of Black Sabbath, excellent to sing along to ('people tell me that it's so - I don't know-wow-wow' is a terrific hook, despite hardly looking so on paper). 'Season Of Farewell' is softer and squishier than jello and sweeter than bubblegum, but makes great use of a grumbly harder-rocking mid-section to counterbalance the sweetness, and, to hell with it, it's hardly sappier than 'Here There And Everywhere'. 'Song For John' is Donovan doing country with his music-hall-bred vocals (the only explanation I can offer for the number sounding so drastically differently from the Flying Burrito Brothers despite being essentially the same stuff. Well, there's no slide guitar in there, too). Charming as usual. 'Joe Bean's Theme' is sort of like a reject from the A Gift era - perfectly fine by me, just one more piece of mosaics that may not seem to fit in at first, but wait until you get used to it. 'Jasmine fills the air' indeed.

A couple tunes, for no apparent immediate reason, offer a few innocent jabs at Catholicism ('Clara Clairvoyant' and especially 'Poke At The Pope', of course) - unsurprisingly, they have the "grittiest" (by Donovan's own standards) sound on the album, and they're also the most melodically unassuming ones, but don't really manage to spoil the impression that much. There's a little bit of rock'n'roll at the end of 'Poke At The Pope' which comes on at just about the right moment, when you just can't get on without at least a tiny bit of ass-kicking. This helps you get in tune for the closing anthem 'New Year's Resolution' - another proof of Donovan's talent, because few people can make a song with a chorus like 'get on your bike and do what you like' (two most overabused cliches of the hippie era joined into one of the lamest rhymes imaginable!) sound so utterly believable and convincing.

My apologies for going through this on an almost song-by-song basis, but that was necessary. Trying to evaluate a record like this from a bird's flight will inevitably lead to underrating it, the same way people tend to underrate everything starting from McCartney's Ram and ending with Dylan's Selfportrait (funny, all three albums were actually released within the scope of one year! Coincidence? Not necessarily so): albums whose parts, upon immediate consumption, work better than their wholes upon further reflection. In these cases, to hell with reflection, I say. Get on your bike and do what you like. Put the heart forward and the (un)healthy scepticism back.



Year Of Release: 1971
Overall rating =

If only I were fully aware of the exact audience this album is targeted towards...


Track listing: 1) The Walrus And The Carpenter; 2) Jabberwocky; 3) The Seller Of Stars; 4) Lost Time; 5) The Little White Road; 6) The Star; 7) Coulter's Candy; 8) The Road; 9) Things To Wear; 10) The Owl And The Pussycat; 11) Homesickness; 12) Fishes In Love; 13) Mr Wind; 14) Wynken Blynken And Nod; 15) Celia Of The Seals; 16) The Pee Song; 17) The Voyage Of The Moon; 18) The Unicorn; 19) Lord Of The Dance; 20) Little Ben; 21) Can Ye Dance; 22) In An Old-Fashioned Picture Book; 23) The Song Of Wandering Aengus; 24) A Funny Man; 25) Lord Of The Reedy River; 26) Henry Martin; 27) Queen Mab; 28) La Moora.

It may have been a nice, endearing idea, but it was really pushing things a bit too far. This entire record reads like one giant development of the concept of For Little Ones: a huge double album filled with barely anything but acoustic tunes, most of which are kiddie/pseudo-kiddie lyrics by famous English poets set to Donovan-composed melodies.

Frankly speaking, I'm not a big fan of this approach. Much too often, it implies that the lyrics will be dominating and the melodies will be rudimentary, and when you have twenty-eight tracks to choose from, you don't even have to guess. I never underrated Donovan's melodic skills, and if his melodies were 'light' in attitude, he more than made up for it when designing the actual chord sequences; but at least fifty percent of what I hear here is just your basic strumming - Donovan-style strumming, of course, meaning it's distinguished, but it's only strumming after all - whose only purpose is to accompany the lyrics, nothing else. And the five or six genuinely excellent compositions just get lost in this barrage of material.

Another problem is that I'm not quite sure what it is we're supposed to experience here. The antiquity, complexity, and, frankly speaking, sterileness of many of the poems won't really make this album a true kids' favourite, and yet the style is way too childish to make the album equally appealing to grown-ups. In other words, this is sort of a compromised release which wouldn't find that many grateful listeners, and predictably, it didn't. Besides, For Little Ones, despite the title, had a certain mystery shroud to it. The songs were composed by Donovan himself and represented part of his hippie-like vision, whatever that was. HMS Donovan is Donovan paying tribute to the old masters, nothing more, really.

So why the relatively high rating? Well, for every other possible reason. Just as I find it impossible to dub this a chef-d'oeuvre, so do I find it impossible to dismiss the record as a silly failed experiment. Well, the entire record, I mean, because the first track on here is just that: a silly failed experiment. What I mean is Donovan's whacky interpretation of Lewis Carroll's 'The Walrus And The Carpenter': eight minutes of absurdness where the main point is that he slows down his voice to imitate the walrus, speeds it up and overdubs it to imitate the oyster choir, and assumes an unfunny cockney accent to imitate the carpenter. While sort of fun upon first listen, it becomes totally unbearable by the second one.

It's a good thing he immediately redeems himself in Mr Dodgeson's eyes by offering a classy rendition of 'Jabberwocky', which he sets to the melody of 'Celtic Rock' from the previous record - and watch out for the arrangement as well, arguably the fullest on the record, with string quartets and pianos and drums gradually stepping from out of the blue to give the track its required epic flavour (after all, it is an epic poem, is it not?). From there on, the album never really lets go apart from the already mentioned flaws: there's too many similar-sounding tunes, and too many that you will never remember once they're over, unless you've got a good memory for child poets, of course.

Not surprisingly, the best songs on here are mostly the ones that are credited to Donovan in their entirety, lyrics and all. For instance, do not miss 'Can Ye Dance' - gone in a one-and-a-half minute flash, it features him at the top of his finger-pickin' game and manages to be as energetic as a prime rock'n'roll track with just a simple guitar-'n'-bass arrangement. Then there's the uplifting, slightly martial-styled 'Celia Of The Seals', which in parts sounds like one of those classic Jethro Tull acoustic ditties - but, in case you're alergic to Ian Anderson's voice or flute, sung by a beautifully traditional singer and backed with crystal clear guitar and some keyboards in the background. 'Mr Wind', with more tape manipulation in regard to Donovan's voice, is totally kiddie-like, but puts the melody before the lyrics, for which I am eternally grateful anyway.

I also happen to like the sole "rock" song on the album, the weird bluesy ditty 'Homesickness'. It doesn't fit in with the rest of the material one iota, but isn't that a positive quality when we're talking seventy four minutes of monotony? Besides, it sounds like an outtake from Open Road and at the same time like a prime time Marc Bolan glam rocker, so count me in on it, and I don't give a damn about it breaking up the album's sequencing or some other theoretical crapola like that. I only wish it were located closer to the very center of the album.

At the same time, once you get near the end of the album, it becomes painfully clear just how inane and amateurish all of Donovan's attempts at "domesticating" child poet material are when compared to real traditional ballads. By the time the five-minute monster of 'Henry Martin' comes along, you'll be begging for sweet mercy, but that's one song that will help you forget all the trouble - suddenly the energy and the passion and the sense is back, and Donovan's funny-but-alarming vocal imitation of the quivering guitar strings is an inspired touch. Just one of those moments that helps you remember how efficient Donovan had always been as a roots-based folk singer. Too bad he never had the opportunity to pair up with Richard Thompson.

In the end, it's the stupid, pedestrian factor of length that sabotages the record, the same length that helped A Gift reach masterpiece status. Double albums are good when they cover a lot of ground, or at least when they make several different points. They are definitely not that good when all they do is hammer at that one particular spot. And HMS Donovan is at the same time more and less than the sum of its parts: more, because when they're all together they form an actual Event instead of a lot of actual Trifles; and less, because if you don't happen to fall madly in love with the Event, it'll be too late to see through the amazing beauty of some of the Trifles. In other words, overkill.

And just for the record, here's my perfect one-record HMS Donovan: 'Jabberwocky' (epic!), 'Lost Time' (catchy!), 'The Little White Road' (romantic!), 'Coulter's Candy' (gotta have something for the really little ones), 'Things To Wear' (accappella, he does it great), 'Homesickness' (rocks!), 'Mr Wind' (tap your feet!), 'Celia Of The Seals' (tear-jerking!), 'The Pee Song' (gross!), 'The Voyage Of The Moon' (gallant!), 'Lord Of The Dance' (jiggy!), 'Can Ye Dance' (air-guitar comes in!), 'Lord Of The Reedy River' (hypnotic!), 'Henry Martin' (enthralling!). Hmm, look now, plenty of solid material! Maybe I was a bit too harsh in those opening paragraphs. But then again, there's always the other half, too.



Year Of Release: 1977
Overall rating =

Even typical 70s soft rock can be alright when it's steeped in charism-o-plenty.


Track listing: 1) Local Boy Chops Wood; 2) Astral Angel; 3) The Light; 4) Dare To Be Different; 5) Brave New World; 6) Lady Of The Stars; 7) International Man; 8) Sing My Song; 9) Maya's Dance; 10) Kalifornia Kiddies.

The oddest thing about Donovan, as it seems to me, is that he's always good even when he's bad. Take this album, for instance. In 1977, Donovan had about as much 'relevance' and 'actuality' as King Louis XIV, maybe even less so because at least Louis was time-tested and Leitch was not yet. In 1977, Donovan had about as much desire to do something radically different with his music as the late J. S. Bach and Jimi Hendrix, maybe even less so because we can't exactly vouch for what these guys were doing out there above the stars. And in 1977, Donovan's music was about as inspired as your nearest IKEA exhibition, maybe even less so because the IKEA guys can at least draw inspiration from thinking about possible profits, whereas this album is thoroughly unprofitable.

And yet, this modestly self-titled record is still perfectly listenable. It ain't folk and it ain't psychedelia - it's essentially generic mid-Seventies soft rock very much in the Crosby, Stills, & Nash vein. Guitars, soft squishy orchestration, pianos, sentimentalism, dreaminess, muffled intonations of the "rockier" tunes, it's all there. (A quick stab at the All-Music Guide - apparently somebody found a 'punkish' intonation in some of the tracks. Now I know the number '1977' always works its magic on people, but aren't we living in the age of rationalism after all?). Even more so, I daresay every one of these tracks took at most ten minutes and at the least thirty seconds to compose - the melodies are standard as they come. But the general feeling is still positive!

Maybe it's because everything is so catchy and singalongable and permeated with Donovan's usual sense of goodness and friendship. 'Dare To Be Different', when you come to think of it, is almost offensive in its preachiness - where does this guy find the guts to praise the worthiness of 'being different' when not only is the song itself perfectly ordinary, but its main melody is taken directly from Family's 'Hey Mr Policeman' at that? But there's enough subtle charm in the arrangement and especially in his vocal delivery to overcome the hostility, even when the silly synthesizer solo comes in. In fact, I can't help but find myself humming 'dare to be different, dare dare dare come on dare...', even right now as I'm typing these words in.

And the "rockers" on here are all extremely similar too, standard blues-rock fare. And I know it is moronic for Donovan to present himself as "the ladies' man" in the - lyrically - almost Stones-like braggard ditty 'International Man', but it's moronic and hilarious at that. It's in the "so stupid it nears genius" category ("I like a marvelous Martian, a vivacious Venutian" - what do you think about those lyrics?), yes, totally forgettable, but harmless silly fun while it's on. Add to this a few particular touches like the soulful falsetto background vocal harmonies and the ominous-sounding harmonicas in 'Brave New World', and the harmless silly fun miraculously transforms into creative harmless silly fun. Actually, 'Brave New World' is not exactly as harmless and silly as it seems within the context of the album - it's a pretty menacing song to come from somebody as squishy as Donovan, as he takes on a prophetic look for a second. 'Ignorance be gone from this brave new world' - nice try, Mr Leitch, and here's a subject people won't get tired of for many more years to come.

I'm also quite partial to the opening number, 'Local Boy Chops Wood', possibly the least "standard-sounding" number on here (one of the least bluesy, too) and one that'd deserve to be a minor pop classic for Donovan were anybody still paying attention to his music in 1977. A few aggressive lead guitar lines mesh well with the strings arrangement and the funny, but slightly melancholic vocal melody, and there you go. On the other hand, the closing track is the most peaceful and bubblegummy one, the innocent, cutesy 'Kalifornia Kiddies', which ten years ago would have seemed to be an anthem to the whole hippie movement, but in 1977 is more like a certain "coming to terms" with the fact that hippiedom has become tame, homely, and totally harmless for the establishment in general. Sad if you happen to be anti-establishment, deeply philosophic and humanistic if you happen not to give a damn. Me, I don't find this puffy-fluffy-teddybearness offensive if it's at least backed with a nice melody and a suitably humble atmosphere, and that's what 'Kalifornia Kiddies' is.

Oh yeah, there's also plenty of ballads here. Good ballads, bad ballads, decent ballads, so-so ballads, you name it. Mostly overproduced in a typically 70s way, and overproduced ballads are usually much worse than overproduced rockers, which is why 'Astral Angel', 'The Light', and 'Lady Of The Stars' just don't seem to leave any imprint. There's a Barry Manilow way about this kind of material, and while Donovan himself is never particularly overbearing with his approach, the sacchariney strings are, meaning that the best romantic tune on the entire album is 'Maya's Dance' - a stripped-down acoustic ballad that does rank along his best solo acoustic material from his folksy albums. Unfortunately, that's just one song.

In any case, whatever the final judgement be, Donovan fans and historians can't do without this record, because it does happen to be one of Donovan's most typically "pot-bellied Californian" albums, despite being recorded in France in its entirety, and it's interesting to see what the man can actually do with this style, and it's nice to see he doesn't exactly fall flat on his face with it. Everyone else may decidedly pass, but not if he sees it lying in some used bin for a laughable price. Donovan is such a nice and charming little guy he's always believable and lovable even at his worst. And I'm not sure this is Donovan at his worst, but it's definitely nothing to write home about.

Oh, and, of course, a special "fie" for the album cover - Donovan's cheapest (in the figurative sense; those pants must have cost a fortune!) yet. As if we didn't know the reasons that decade was called "the 'me' decade" for already. Ranks up there with Caribou, I guess, except that Donovan probably dislikes sun baths.



Year Of Release: 2004
Overall rating =

The XXIst century has little tolerance for dragginess, but let's make an exception for Sunshine Superman.


Track listing: 1) Love Floats; 2) Poorman's Sunshine; 3) Beat Cafe; 4) Yin My Yang; 5) Whirlwind; 6) Two Lovers; 7) The Question; 8) Lord Of The Universe; 9) Lover O Lover; 10) The Cuckoo; 11) Do Not Go Gentle; 12) Shambhala.

For all I know, the only people to have listened to this album may have been the Nine Riders Of and yours truly. (There's also a couple official reviews spread around, but who are we kidding - these days, listening to a record has little to do with writing an official review of it, which is why my review should be counted Strictly Unofficial). Not that I hold this up against anybody or, on the contrary, judge it as some sort of big cultural merit on my part. Let's face it, who needs Donovan today when we have the New Pornographers?

In fact, for the last seven years even Donovan himself didn't need Donovan. But apparently something clicked eventually, and the "something" was pretty big - Beat Cafe isn't a throwaway, nor is it just a piece of blunt Sixties nostalgia. If there's anything typical about it, it's the basic approach to the content: Donovan presents himself as a self-conscious "guru", too smart, of course, to actually preach and brainwash, but pretentious enough to proclaim the final product as one big tribute to the Beat movement with a certain pedagogic flavour to it. 'I want to encourage young players to experiment in the studio, returning to the root sounds', he himself admits at the end of his liner notes, which otherwise mostly just explain the meaning of "Beat Movement" - presumably for all the "young players" out there, because the old players need to be reminded about the essence of the bohemian lifestyle about as badly as they need to be reminded of who shot Kennedy.

The problem is, this professor-like attitude might simply symbolize a case of casting pearls before swine. Young players who need to be encouraged to experiment in the studio might buy the latest piece of shit from Mick Jagger because Jan Wenner tells them so; and even young players who don't need to be encouraged would probably rather replay their old trusty (and dusty) copy of Gift From A Flower to gain inspiration rather than waste their time on a brand new Donovan record. Too bad. Because it's a darn good record. Whether it really recreates the atmosphere of the quintessential "beatnik cafe" is hard for me to tell, having never really been in one; I daresay it does not, though. I'd say if you really wanted that kind of atmosphere and nothing else, you'd be much better off with something like Tom Waits' Nighthawks At The Diner. The one song on here that really shares that essence is, appropriately enough, Donovan's jazzy reading of Dylan Thomas' 'Do Not Go Gentle', which he just mumbles over a loud bass line; this is certainly nostalgia, and it's a good thing there's only one thing like that on here. (The concept-announcing title track also comes close, but it does have a memorable melody, and might even be considered too accessible by snobbier-minded people).

The rest of the record is... well, it is all seriously jazzy, which, undeniably, has to do with the emphasis always laid on the rhythm section of Danny Thompson on bass and rock veteran Jim Keltner on drums. But it isn't retro-jazzy. It's Donovan still trying to incorporate twenty-three brands of variegated musical styles inside this jazzy formula, acting like he's still a snotty twenty-year old boy that sort of acknowledges those extra forty years that'd accumulated since God knows when, but pretends not to notice that even if this costs him dearly in the sales department. (But he's got nothing to lose in that respect anyway). As a result, once you carefully peel off the drum'n'bass cover, you're ready to discover some drony raga, some folksy balladeering, some bluesy jamming, a bit of boogie, and even a little bit of funk bordering on hip-hop.

To me all these things eventually came as a surprise. Here I was sort of expecting Pop (which is, after all, the main thing that Donovan has written since he gave a solemn oath to part ways with Bob Dylan before the altar of the great Boognish), not at all being used to Mr Leitch running - seemingly entirely - on jazzy basslines and loose, relaxed, wishy-washy atmospherics. But it was all a question of time - that is, before the atmospherics suddenly started molding into acceptable forms and structures. At the present moment, apart from the vocal melody-less 'Do Not Go Gentle', only the album-closing ballad 'Shambhala' comes across as jello-like mush, and provided that it's to be taken as a semi-ambient atmospheric conclusion and not as the album's centerpiece, I can take it easily.

My sympathies, however, lie more in the 'Love Floats' department. Minimalistic psychedelic soul, a little reminiscent of the old Funkadelic vibe (but, of course, without all the fury of that band's guitar and brass onslaught), embellished with strange quasi-African rhythmic whispering from the respectable protagonist and a nice echoey effect on the 'don't leave me baby' chorus, if I'm transcribing correctly. The basic feeling you get is not entirely different from, say, 'Season Of The Witch', showing just how little has really changed from 1966, but the lack of freshness is easily compensated by the added depth - both in the vocal delivery and, of course, in the arrangement/production. I can't say the same about Donovan's lyrics, which, on this track as well as on most others, seem to be still stuck in the same fork as they were thirty years ago, but there's a positive side to that: it adds novelty and a sense of audaciousness. (Just how many people these days are able to use the mantra 'love floats in space between us' as the central point of any of their songs and get away with it, provided it's taken non-ironically and the band isn't a Donovan tribute one?).

Donovan as the great melody-writer emerges most clearly on 'Yin My Yang', whose title looks more suitable for a tongue-in-cheek Ween song, but that's sort of misleading: it's really a pretty romantic rhythmic ballad, so catchy that even the hopelessly "dated" chorus of 'there'll be music everywhere, flowers in your hair' looks forgivable (heck, looks enjoyable - anyway, I don't remember myself subscribing to the monthly hippie-bashing review, so why should I be tongue-tied on that one?). Another pretty ballad is 'Lover Oh Lover', provided you don't gag on lines like 'lady of the seven lights, administer love to me'.

But the one track that seems to have completely tipped the critics' position in his favour was 'The Question', the album's most danceable number. It was probably the easiest thing to play for the rhythm section on this record, which might just be why they launch into it with such vigour. Easy to understand: it's Donovan trying to do something a bit more 'hip', but consciously doing it without any help from modernistic technologies, sort of trying to take modern music and play it according to the standards of 1967. And it's a good thing. Had he merely jumped on the bandwagon, drum machines and techno rhythms and all, it would have been more pathetic than the latest piece of shit from Mick Jagger. As it is, he achieves a sort of future-in-the-past effect: sounding in 2004 like he were a wild revolutionary experimentator in 1967 trying to sound like he were recording in 2004. Get the picture?

He also hasn't changed for the worse in that his music, often somewhere in the middle between "serious" and "ironic", still retains plenty of the non-holier-than-thou attitude. 'Yin My Yang' is starry-eyed, but also mildly funny. Another song called 'Lord Of The Universe' is a blues shuffle that could have been forgettable if not for the quirky "underwater" organ courtesy of John Chelew and, of course, the refrain that goes 'I'm the lord of the universe, it's best you don't mess with me', a line so cool I want it to be classic. These pieces of self-directed fun, along with other "lightweight" numbers, like, for instance, the fast-paced cover of the traditional tune 'The Cuckoo', work great as breathers in between all the neo-psychedelia and all the beat exploration.

It is said that in concert, Donovan's band normally stretches out, expanding many of the numbers by means of jamming and extra soloing, making much more emphasis on jazzy instrumental textures than is actually captured in the studio. But this is perhaps appropriate. In a live setting, especially when playing small venues (and Donovan hardly plays big ones - he's got a long way to go to catch up with the likes of Britney Spears), it works to try and truly recreate the quintessential "beatnik cafe". But the album, regardless of the musicians' actual talent, is still a recreation of Leitch's personal universe rather than a tribute to somebody else's. Otherwise, it wouldn't have been nearly as successful.


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