Saturday, 18 March 2017

"From The Witchwood" by STRAWBS (1998 A&M 'ReMasterPieces' Expanded Edition CD Remaster with One Bonus Track) - A Review by Mark Barry...

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"...A Glimpse Of Heaven..."

After four albums of increasing musical strength and sophistication – England's STRAWBS (shortened from Strawberry Hill Boys) finally rewarded the patience of A&M Records A&R men with a big fat hit album in February 1972 - the fondly remembered "Grave New World". It peaked at No. 11 on the UK charts and following year's "Bursting At The Seams" did even better by going all the way to No. 2 in February 1973.

All of that chart-payoff was laid down in those now forgotten first four LPs – their Folk-Rock period as opposed to the more Prog leanings of 1972 and 1973. And speaking of overlooked musical goodies and masterpieces - I've already reviewed the criminally ignored "Dragonfly" album from 1970 and now want to turn my ranting on to 1971's equally beautiful "From The Witchwood" - a sweetheart of an album given a dinky digital dust off on this superb 1998 CD reissue (it even has a tasty Bonus Track actually worth owning). Here are the Glimpses of Heaven...

UK released July 1998 - "From The Witchwood" by STRAWBS on A&M 540 939-2 (Barcode 731454093927) is an 'A&M ReMasterPieces' Expanded Edition CD Reissue and Remaster with One Bonus Track that plays out as follows (41:39 minutes):

1. A Glimpse Of Heaven [Side 1]
2. Witchwood
3. Thirty Days
4. Flight
5. The Hangman And The Papist
6. Sheep
7. Cannondale
8. The Shepherd's Song
9. In Amongst The Roses
10. I'll Carry On Beside You
Tracks 1 to 10 are their 4th album (3rd studio) "From The Witchwood" - released July 1971 in the UK on A&M Records AMLH 64304 and July 1971 in the USA on A&M Records SP 4304. Produced by TONY VISCONTI - it peaked at No. 39 on the UK charts (didn't chart in the USA)

11. Keep The Devil Outside
An Hudson-Ford song outtake left over from the "From The Witchwood" sessions - it was originally slated for release as the non-album B-side to the March 1971 UK 7" single for "Witchwood" on A&M Records AMS 874. The single got as far as being pressed up on Demo but then withdrawn (a £30 rarity in the Record Collector Price Guide for 2018). The song eventually showed as the non-album B-side to the UK 7" single for "Benedictus" released December 1971 on A&M Records AMS 874. "Benedictus" was from their next album "Grave New World" – itself eventually arriving in 1972.

The 8-page booklet for this 'A&M ReMasterPieces' reissue gives us a very detailed and smart overview of their career and the album by noted writer JOHN TOBLER with new contributions from Strawbs founder member Dave Cousins. Recorded at Air Studios in London between February and march 1971 - there's a track-by-track playlist for the album with full musician credits and the beautiful 'Vision Of St. Jerome' tapestry from the Spanish Royal Collection that adorned the whole left side of the inner gatefold is also reproduced on Page 2. A bit of a bummer though and a let down is the lyrics which were on the left side of the inner gatefold on original copies - they're not reproduced here when there was obviously plenty of room (and perhaps a photo of the "Benedictus" 45). However what you do get is more than enough to get a lay of the land...

But the big news is of course the Audio - a new ROGER WAKE Remaster carried out at Bourbery-Wake Studios from real tapes with input from one of the group’s principal songwriters - Dave Cousins. This CD Remaster sounds glorious - the album itself awash with acoustic playing and instruments (dulcimer, autoharp, guitars) - all of it layered with Wakeman's piano and Moog flourishes. To my ears each song is improved and even more moving for it somehow - a compliment you want to pay to many a Remaster.

The Strawbs fourth outing was a case of Prog Rock leanings in the band line-up facing off against their Folk-Rock roots. This kind of direction confusion is very evident in the listen - Side 1 all Folky and trippy nice while Side 2's opener "Sheep" feels like Yes and King Crimson had an ugly baby they couldn't bring themselves to give up for adoption. From the opener "A Glimpse Of Heaven" - you'd be forgiven for thinking you'd stumbled on the new Incredible String Band LP complete with made-up fairy lore lyrics (Cousins had met Marc Bolan through Producer Tony Visconti and discussed made-up words/lyrics with the mighty dawn dart from T. Rex). Whatever way you hear it - there's great ideas going on here - least not of all from Rick Wakeman's keyboard touches that add so much (something he'd done on the "Hunky Dory" sessions with David Bowie).

The Strawbs shuffle off the ISB moniker and emerge on the next three songs - the impossibly pretty "Witchwood" and "Thirty Days" and the Fab-Four Acid-Folk of "Flight" - a song on which they sound like The Beatles in 1967 as they've just discovered Magic Mushrooms in a studio full of Acoustic Instruments. I always thought too that the hooky "Thirty Days" would have made a fair stab at a chart single - a sort of McGuinness Flint melody - catchy and warm - especially given the Folk-Rock movement so prevalent in 1971 (the "From The Witchwood" album went to No. 39 where the live set "Just A Collection Of Antiques And Curios" from early 1970 went to No. 27 - so the band's chart presence at this stage wasn't improving). Up next is the musically overwrought and historically loaded Fairport Convention Folk-Rock of "The Hangman And The Papist" - a drum-roll tale of woe of an old English rope-man forced to hang his brother and forever more beg forgiveness for his lack of moral bottle.

For me the Side 2 Prog opener "Sheep" is the worst offender on the album – while lovers of the genre will genuflect in its presence. I like Prog – always have done – but some of it (especially in the indulgences) is hard to take. You can so hear how Wakeman will jump ship for Yes in days - his wild soloing at odds with their sound. There's this strange juxtaposition on "From The Witchwood" with him - he contributes Organ, Piano and Harpsichord to the brilliant "Cannondale" and Mellotron/Moog moments on the pretty "The Shepherd's Song" - and in both cases he adds so much to the overall sound - yet on something like "Sheep" - for me it's out of control. I've always thought the Matthews Southern Comfort vocal beauty of "In Amongst The Roses" is a standout – again Wakeman delivering in the most-subtle way as he tinkles away on a Harpsichord in the background – complimenting exquisite Acoustic playing from Hooper and Cousins. The LP ends on the very Lindisfarne "I'll Carry On Beside You" – another 7" single contender if ever there was one. The convoluted history of the non-album B-side "Keep The Devil Outside" doesn’t stop the fuzzed-up guitar Folk-Rock tune from being a bit of a collector's prize – a nice way to end an excellent CD.

For me the preceding "Dragonfly" from 1970 is a better album – a genuine 5-star masterpiece that deserves rediscovery. But re-listening to 1971's "From The Witchwood" has made me love it again. And in this superb new Audio – like so much of the Strawbs under-appreciated catalogue - another genuine find from those halcyon years...

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