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Class ?

Main Category: Prog Rock
Also applicable: Folk Rock, Art Rock
Starting Period: The Artsy/Rootsy Years
Also active in: The Interim Years, The Punk/New Wave Years



Disclaimer: this page is not written by from the point of view of a Strawbs fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Strawbs 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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Year Of Release: 1970
Overall rating = 10

Folksy-pretty, but is this ever SLEEPY TIME TIME throughout.

Best song: zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz... what? oh, sorry. Uh, can we play it again?

Track listing: 1) The Weary Song; 2) Dragonfly; 3) I Turned My Face Into The Wind; 4) Josephine For Better Or For Worse; 5) Another Day; 6) 'Til The Sun Comes Shining Through; 7) Young Again; 8) The Vision Of The Lady Of The Lake; 9) Close Your Eyes.

I like Robert Burns. Or, rather, I like Robert Burns in theory, because I haven't read that much of him, and what I have read of him has been mostly translations into Russian - beautiful translations that tell us much more of the translators than of Robert Burns myself. Still, the idea of romantic pastoral-oriented visionary poetry is a good idea. In this respect, I can probably relate to David Cousins of the Strawbs. Where I cannot relate to David Cousins is in the desire to become Robert Burns. If I could, I would eventually end up spinning long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long [END FUCKIN' LOOP] sequences of very derivative, if not very offensive, panoramic poetry, an occupation that would probably take up most of my time and then instead of George S. gently sneering at the lyrics of the Strawbs, you'd have somebody else sneering at the lyrics of George S. - and the "somebody else" certainly might not be anywhere near "gentle", either!

The lyrics, yes, but the music on Dragonfly is very much the same. By the time of their second album, the Strawbs had a great sound worked out, but they hardly knew how to utilize it perfectly. They just go ushering in layer after layer of the same mantraic, lulling, slowly unfolding sonic bliss on you, all steeped in Cousins' quiet, monotonous, harmless vocal style. Hey, if you want me to tell you there's BEAUTY on here, right, I'll go ahead and say it. It isn't that crucial to me. It's beauty for sure. But, like Elvis Costello would have said, it's useless beauty - to a large extent. There's even no need to go further than the first song. The aptly titled 'Weary Song' says everything it has to say during the first thirty seconds and then goes on for three and a half more minutes. The Strawbs' main weakness, at this point, is that they're decent, but never ever outstanding; they can't divert you with a tremendously great solo, and they can't really tune in on to that kind of wave where the listener just goes 'whoah!' and starts grooving along - never mind if it's funk, jazz, or folk. So they just keep droning and droning along.

Okay, they probably realized it themselves, which is why smack dab in the middle of 'Weary Song' they suddenly introduce an ugly distorted guitar tone to go along with the gentle acoustic. I don't actually mind such contrasts (at the very least, I'm never offended by them like some people seem to be), but I'll be the first to admit that you do not dilute a pretty acoustic tune with a wild electric background unless you have a darn good reason to do so. And they don't - the only reason, so it seems, is that somebody took a listen to the near-final version and said: "Hey guys, cool tune and all, but where's the pizzazz?" and they had to throw something in on the spot to justify the length.

Even more lethargic is the title track, which is slower, far more close to generic mantra atmosphere (even the lyrics about how you shouldn't really harm dragonflies are somewhat Buddhist in nature), and - yes! - longer. A great remedy for all those jokers who dare accuse 'Within You Without You' of being boring: play the two songs back to back and George Harrison's gift to psychedelia will sound like Minor Threat in comparison. Again, I'm not saying 'Dragonfly' is a piece of shit. I'm just saying that once they get the idea, they have no idea of how to properly develop that idea. And no, piling up recorders and "Chinese pianos" and dulcimers isn't enough. It simply isn't!

This approach reaches its apex on the ten-minute long epic ballad 'The Vision Of The Lady Of The Lake'. Listening to Dave Cousins bellow his way through that naive, but fairly convincing lyrical stylization reminds me of a young Peter Gabriel circa 'White Mountain' on the Trespass album, and guess what? Both records were released the same year! And that's hardly coincidental, either - 1970 was just about the perfect year for these stylizations. With the demise of prog-rock and folk-rock in its Seventies' stage, we've come full circle and begun treasuring "authenticity" again; these days, it's all about personal interpretation of true folk wisdom, not personal wisdom disguised as folk interpretations. In 1970, it wasn't like that. Oh, you could always pull a Fairport Convention, of course, but most people preferred to indulge in mannerism - and that wasn't always a bad thing. Some good did come out of it.

Anyway, returning to the Strawbs, I want to give out a positive remark about the song, but again, I can't quite tell whether it really needs to exist in such a decidedly unabridged version. I, for one, don't need to know that much about the boatman and his adventures on the lake. There's a cool spot out there when the originally calm acoustic ballad suddenly switches gears and becomes "folk-rock" in the major sense of the word, and it's fun to see them sonically imitate all the animals that the boatman has to cope with, and it's nice to know that the piano was played by an unsuspecting, but soon-to-become-member Rick Wakeman, but... but but but.

For my money, the real good stuff on this album, the stuff that not only has potential but actually realizes it in an adequate manner, all comes in the middle, with a bunch of similar, but short ballads, where the lethargic atmosphere never gets the chance to overwhelm the lushness of the arrangements. The cellos lend a majestic air to 'I Turned My Face Into The Wind' and then, two minutes after, a homely, cozy scent to 'Josephine, For Better Or For Worse'. Then 'Another Day' brings the sole upbeat note to this generally somnambulic experience - there's even a little bit of a jig somewhere in the middle, provided you can still feel your legs after everything you just sat through.

On Side B, 'Til The Sun Comes Shining Through' is a song that would probably appeal to Nick Drake lovers, with an arrangement similar to the man's works on Five Leaves Left, although, of course, the Strawbs never had anything even remotely close to Drake's amount of sadness, nor had they any desire to have that. And guitarist/percussionist Tony Hooper's only contribution to the album, 'Young Again', is a charming little ditty, optimistic, fresh, and starry-eyed as they come.

It's hard to call Dragonfly an "objective" failure; it more or less achieves its goals, and I can even envision the kind of audience that would far prefer its 'unwavering sway' to any forms of folk rock more 'dynamic' in nature. But when you were in a folk rock band in 1970, you did not usually set 'modest' goals; you had to have the world lying at your feet now, even if the 'world' consisted of no one but nerdy college dropouts (but even then, you had to have all the nerdy college dropouts or just admit defeat and get back to college yourself). And the trio of Dragonfly doesn't really seem fit to qualify. At no point are they dazzling: adequately playing their instruments is not enough. This would all change pretty soon with the addition of Wakeman, but that doesn't make Dragonfly any less of a snore.



Year Of Release: 1970
Overall rating = 12

One of the best prog-folk mixed bakes of its epoch, and an album that should be dear to the heart of Rick Wakeman.


Track listing: 1) Martin Luther King's Dream; 2) The Antique Suite; 3) Temperament Of Mind; 4) Fingertips; 5) Song Of A Sad Little Girl; 6) Where Is This Dream Of Your Youth; 7) The Vision Of The Lady Of The Lake; 8) We'll Meet Again Sometime; 9) Forever.

This album really broke the Strawbs in the States, and for good reason - it's truly excellent. Their preceding two or three records were mostly folk or folk-pop, but on this album, recorded live in July 1970 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, they start moving towards the 'prog' edge of things, with electric guitar much more prominent than before and, most importantly, the addition of a crucial member (for about one and a half years), Rick Wakeman. Yes, this is the very band that fostered the quintessential forefather of symphonic prog, and even if Rick didn't last long in it, he sure left a vital trace.

But let's forget about Rick for a while. This is a live album, as I just said, and the track listing includes both some of the band's regular standards that had been previously issued on studio albums and some new and exclusive compositions; in any way, the record is deemed essential for both Strawbs fans and prog/folk lovers in general, and while I know too little of the band yet so as to (dis)agree this is the best way to get introduced to their sound, on my second listen I was totally thrilled by this stuff.

The band plays its material with verve and dedication - and considering that their folksy (but self-penned) compositions usually follow a relatively simple (but fine) pattern, all the material is accessible, yet complexly and tastefully arranged at the same time. And they don't run for too long. The original release includes but one lengthy workout, 'Where Is This Dream Of Your Youth?', which is a total gas due to Wakeman's wonderful improvisations - at this time he hadn't expanded his horizons to the synthesizers yet, and, just like Keith Emerson, mainly displayed his talents on the Hammond organ (which he didn't play that often on Yes records, on the contrary). My impressions: Wakeman - at this point, at least - has somewhat less impressive technique than Emerson, but he has a better grasp of the actual instrument than Keith, producing weird "wah-wahed" and other sounds that I don't really remember on the Nice or early ELP records. The way he tortures his instrument in the middle of 'Where Is...' is simply breathtaking, and when he gets to the point where he changes tempo and launches into a rondo-like melody for a few tacts, it can simply blow your mind.

The only other monolithic extended piece isn't really extended because it isn't intentionally extended - it's the band's live version of 'The Vision Of The Lady Of The Lake', tackled onto the new CD re-release. As has already been stated in the previous review, I don't like the song much - folk ballads with weird twisted stories can be my thing, but not when they're ten minutes long - but still, it's pretty nice in general, although whenever Dave Cousins actually raises his voice to shout out some particularly climactic part of the story I just want to strangle him. Maybe it's just me, I'm so used to gorgeous vocalists (or at least vocalists who aim for gorgeousness) on folk records that the idea of an ugly-voiced guy singing Celtic folk songs just gets across my throat.

Actually, though, there's a third extended piece which isn't really intentionally extended because it's a medley - it's 'The Antique Suite', which consists of 'The Reaper', 'We Must Cross The River', 'Antiques & Curios' and 'Hey It's Been A Long Time'. And I choose this puppy as best song because it packs so much in one twelve-minute uninterrupted moment of bliss - starting from the ominous majestic balladeering of 'The Reaper', dominated heavily by Wakeman's harpsichord, then going into the gentle chime-dominated balladeering of 'We Must Cross The River', continuing with the dark intimate dirge of 'Antiques & Curios' and finally culminating in the singalong swaying stupendous chorale of 'Hey It's Been A Long Time'. The songs are very well interpolated and while they're all different, the careful ordering really makes them look like they'd been made for each other.

And that's not all - you also get the funny-titled 'Martin Luther King's Dream' which, well, has something lyrically to do with the subject but is set to a tune Martin Luther King probably wouldn't really relate to (how well did he know his Celtic basics?), the wierd (and somewhat rude) 'Fingertips' with a sitar part, and, of course, the classic Rick Wakeman showcase 'Temperament Of Mind', an excellent classical piano improvisation which definitely draws on tons of different sources that I'm ashamed I can't quote but which pleases me to no end, and much more so than any bit of Rick's selected wanking on his solo albums - mainly because here it's short, refined, and actually innovative in a sense, heck, it's the thing that got Rick into the papers, after all.

And finally, the album ends with a studio recording that formally does not at all belong on the album, but boy am I glad it's there! It's 'Forever', a lush orchestrated ballad with - for once - an actually gorgeous vocal part. In short - nothing short of a minor masterpiece, although, of course, it's bound to be slightly neglected by most record collectors due to being a live album. Well - some live albums are essential.


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