George Starostin's Reviews



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Regan Tyndall <> (24.03.2004)

Just a couple of minor points.  I don't know that LP is particularly overlooked -- it's normally written of as his best album. This LP is not really Donovan's "breakthrough" as you put it, except (to some extent) in the USA.  He was already a household name in the UK by spring 1965 (see him in Dylan's 'Don't Look Back' movie, for proof). "Mellow Yellow" hit number 2 in the USA the same year as the "Sunshine Superman" single, and I'm sure most people know that one much more than "Season of the Witch."  You're right about the harpsichord.... that's a great sound.

Irving Preston Freely <> (19.04.2004)

To be honest, I'm surprised that it's rated this high. I like Donovan and I like psychedelia, but this is a mix that doesn't really work. About 2/3 of this album is somewhere between quite good and fantastic; it's the other third that's a bit thornier. My biggest problem is that the track order sucks the life out of the album. Following up the title track with "Legend of a Girl-Child Linda" (although I love that track to death) is a bit of a questionable move, but not as bad as following THAT track up with dated psychedelic bullshit ("Three King Fishers" and "Ferris Wheel"). Part of Donovan's appeal is the timeless sound; even when the album screams 1968 (like A Gift...), his music is usually set far away from the swinging London of Pink Floyd and the like, in the back-gardens and story books of another time. Maybe that's why this is one of his most successful albums; when he withdrew from the real world, he's got much more of a cult appeal (such as in A Gift... or, my favorite, HMS Donovan, which didn't begin to crack the charts). Tracks like "Three King Fishers" and "Ferris Wheel" really drag down the experience for me. Thankfully, the flip side of the album is much better. Donovan was never a convincing rocker, but "Season of the Witch" and "The Trip" really work (I actually prefer the latter, with the groovy shuffle and great chorus). "Guinevere" works much better, even if it's in the same style as the crap on the first side. Maybe it's just because it's a breath of fresh air? "The Fat Angel" is neither here nor there, and "Celeste" is just a fantastic closer. The album's a bit frustrating to listen to, but the good material gives it a ten (of fifteen), maybe eleven on a good day. His later albums in the same style (Wear Your Love Like Heaven and The Hurdy Gurdy Man) are better.


<> (07.04.2004)

The title track is McCartneyesque for a good reason...Paul's on it. (Listen to the shouting in the background during the middle break with the horns.)

Andrew Fisher <> (24.04.2004)

My three year old son sometimes asks for 'the fair one' when 'they call me mellow yellow' finishes when we're in the car.  He means 'Writer in the Sun', and as I drive along if I look out of the corner of my eye and keep an eye on the road so we don't crash, I can see him very quietly singing along to the chorus.


Tom Mitchell <> (15.04.2004)

Just as a jump-off here, I think Donovan is one of those rare examples when history and popular opinion have served the artist justly. Donovan is remembered, at least in popular career summaries, as a gentle folkie who loosely incorporated Celtic and Eastern sounds into his straightforward and often pensive songs. He had some hits ("Sunshine Superman" "Mellow Yellow" "Hurdy Gurdy Man") and generally contributed to the popularity of folk or folk/pop or folk/rock (whatever). Usually, these kinds of broad sketches are inadequate, but in Donovan's case, what else can you add? Is he under-appreciated? That's a stretch...Is he over-rated? Not really; he made some legitimate contributions that most writers mention and many music fans are aware of.

I think "okay" is the perfect description for Donovan. His catalog isn't particularly large, but it is uniformly adequate. He was great at conveying a mood and he was a reasonably competent guitarist. His voice was kind of slight, but good enough. His songs could be fragmentary, but he wrote enough good ones to earn respect as a writer. (And, incidentally, I think Donovan is another artist who unfairly suffers "the Dylan comparison"--see my comments about Bruce Springsteen.)

I would say that Donovan's biggest contribution to *my* world was teaching Lennon the clawhammer fingerpicking technique. He also contributed the line "sky of blue/and sea of green" to the song "Yellow Submarine." There's a bootleg floating around that features Donovan and McCartney jamming on acoustic guitars, playing tunes for each other and briefly harmonizing. On this recording (which provides a contrast to McCartney in folk-mode), you can simultaneously hear Donovan's attributes and failings. Attributes: intriguing melodies and decent lyrics (usually about nature). Failings: nothing grabs me melodically with any degree of immediacy. Donovan is almost too laid back. And his lyrics get to be a little same-y after a while. And I think it's worth mentioning that McCartney doesn't even play his A-list stuff during this exchange (except for "Blackbird"--as if Donovan's song about magpies even came close!) Donovan is knocking himself out playing "Lalena" and such, which McCartney is besting Donovan mostly with stuff that never saw the light of day. I realize that it's quite unfair to compare Donovan (in these areas) to McCartney--who was a showman at heart and a super-skilled, projecting singer and melody-writer. But you routinely hold 60s artists to the Beatles/Dylan/Stones standard and (guess what) some of these artists can stand up to the challenge. Or maybe they bring something else to the party that the "rock gods" do (or did) not. Either way, I think Donovan brings something to the party, but it's understated and kind of nebulous.

The pay-off: Donovan is a package deal, and you have to be into the whole package. He requires some commitment from the listener in order for his music to be rewarding. In my opinion, the pay-off is greatest when you listen to A Gift From a Flower to a Garden. And you already mentioned the best example of Donovan's skills:

'Widow With Shawl (A Portrait)' (arguably the most serious and deepest song on the album),

I would wholeheartedly agree and I think that this is the best cut on either disc. Catchy melody, compelling guitar work, and character-driven lyrics. For once, Donovan writes about a person, not a tree or some kind of bird. (That was a mean joke. Sorry, Mr. Leitch.) These kind of songs are fairly common on the Gift From album/s and, in my opinion, this makes the collection easier to like. Also, Donovan works a mood musically--with gentle instrumentation/vocal and/or very stripped-down acoustic guitar work. It's meditative (and that's not for everybody) but not boring. I know this is a record dork cliche, but you have to listen to this album in sequence without interruption in order to maximize your enjoyment. And that is both a compliment and a criticism. Complimentary interpretation: The album conjures and sustains a melodic and emotional mood. Critical interpretation: There's nothing on this record (save for "Widow") that strikes me as "amazing and immediate" (musically or lyrically).

Maybe that's how Donovan manages to sustain the mood (no peaks, really). Gift From is a good place to enjoy him (especially with the original double LP in that cool box with the cool drawings and artwork). He's never going to bowl you over with his brilliance, but if you're into folk/rock, he's worth checking out and A Gift From a Flower to a Garden is the place to start.

Joe <> (17.04.2004)

I'm really happy you like this album as much as you do. I'm really happy you like Donovan in general as much as you do! I couldn't agree more, and it's one of my many favorites of 1967. I'm not sure if this or Hurdy Gurdy Man is my favorite from Donovan, but it's a beautiful album all the same. My favorite is the first half, because i love those folky psychdelic laid-back organ led arrangements on songs like "Mad John's Escape" and "Little Boy In Corduroy", but like you mentioned, Donovan sure had some balls doing a childrens stripped down folk album in 1967 and i respect that a whole lot. Donovan is a terrific songwriter that writes very touching and loving songs or just plain fun "feel good" classics and should be given more credit as such, rather than a 60's Dylan copy-cat.

CHRISTINA MACPHEE <> (17.04.2004)

I'm glad to see you reviewing this beautiful album. I had it in college, about 18 years ago. It was packaged in a nice box with mind-bending artwork, poetry, etc. inside. This was one of those albums that truly took you to another place and time, to me the true meaning of "psychedelic."  The second disc takes you to a place of childhood innocence that is hard to get anywhere else that I've seen. I lost the album along with the rest of my vinyl years ago, and I would love to see it on CD. To anyone who can get beyond what they think they know about Donovan, this will be a sweet and rewarding listen. Thanks.

Irving Preston Freely <> (19.04.2004)

Great album, spot-on review. I prefer the For Little Ones half myself, but you really can't go wrong here. If there's any particular weakness, it's that both sides would be later worked to perfection with The Hurdy Gurdy Man (the pop side) and HMS Donovan (the fairy-tale folkie side), plus there are some less-than-stellar tracks ("Song of the Naturalist's Wife" and "Little Boy in Corduroy" immediately come to mind; I've got a high tolerance for twee, but the "how many wishes can you wish in a day?" in the latter is a bit over the line). I'm also not too hot on "Wear Your Love Like Heaven" the track, but enough with the negativity: "Sun", "There Was a Time", "The Land of Doesn't-Have-to-Be" and "Someone Singing" rank with the best he ever did. There's too much great material on For Little Ones to even begin.

Isn't it weird how the culmination of his starry-eyed acid-child phase is the album with the "just say no" message in the liner notes? If your copy hasn't got them, they're included, but be warned that if you have any doubts of the guy being a total flake, they aren't going to help your position in the least. The 13/15 is spot-on.


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