30 July 2010

CD REVIEW: Strawbs - The Broken Hearted Bride (2008, Witchwood Media)

The last 10 years, give or take, have seen a pretty radical re-energisation of the Strawbs. While the Acoustic Strawbs trios (first Cousins/Lambert/Willoughby, then Cousins/Lambert/Cronk) did (and do!) an admirable job of recreating Strawbs music for their still hungry fanbase, the fact that Dave Cousins reactivated electric touring bands for both the UK and US markets has seen a big increase in ‘new’ material coming out…new in quotes because the new songs recorded often sit next to a remake or two of classic folk-era Strawbs songs.

The dam was breached in 2003 and 2004 with the release of Blue Angel (mostly featuring the 1990’s UK line-up of the band) and Deja Fou, the long awaited reunion of the ‘classic’ Hero & Heroine line-up. That album was far folkier than most people might have expected, given their pedigree and C.V. (Hero and Heroine and Ghosts are the furthest thing from the band’s folk roots). On this side of the Atlantic, the H&H line-up mounted fairly reasonable annual tours, playing smaller venues and impressing audiences with their dramatic, slightly orchestral tinged songs. A selection of live albums (including one from NEARfest 2004 and one from the Calderone Theatre in 1975) helped tide over a fan base eager for more new Strawbs music. Finally, in 2008, the band released their long awaited ‘second’ album with the H&H line up, Mark II…The Broken Hearted Bride.

A couple things jump out upon first looking at the album. First, the cover is more traditionally Strawbs-esque…no neon blue and pink Strawberry line art here; instead we get a Victorian looking bride against a ghosted backing of text on parchment. Looking over the track listing, a few longer track times jump out, which is always nice to see, as this iteration of the band really excelled with longer, more expansive tracks. But then eyes follow down to the band listing, where we see John Hawken not listed among the main band, but rather under the ‘with’ category.

Yes, sometime during the recording of the album, Hawken and the band parted ways. His sublime playing is still heard and felt through the album’s tracks, but his departure was a hard one for some Strawbs fans to take; myself, he was a major part of my enjoyment of the Hero and Heroine and Ghosts albums, as well as the live shows that surrounded the release of Deja Fou and their performance at NEARfest.

Unlike Deja Fou, The Broken Hearted Bride is pretty much a full on rock album; Dave Lambert’s guitar playing fills each one of the album’s 11 tracks, and his tone is as rich as ever. The rhythm section of Chas Cronk and Rod Coombes is, I think, one of the most unheralded ones in rock music in general, not just progressive rock. Coombes is a powerful percussionist, and yet he can lay down light grooves where needed with equal deftness. Cronk, on the other hand, is a rock steady bassist with a punchy sound and the ability to lay back and propel the song along. He’s also a very good acoustic guitarist, and contributes fine harmony and backing vocals.

This brings us to Dave Cousins, founder member, singer, songwriter, guitarist, dulcimer-ist. His songs are obviously the centerpiece of the Strawbs, and his voice is one of the most memorable. I know a lot of people have issues with his voice these days, and even as far back as 2004 at NEARfest, I heard people saying ‘I liked the songs, but that guy cannot sing.’ Well, Dave does not have the classical, trained voice that many people seem to expect in prog. What he has instead is an honest voice, a voice that has become weathered with years. When he sings a song like ‘The Hangman and the Papist,’ or ‘New World,’ you have no choice but to believe in the intensity and honesty of his delivery, because he sings each word, each line as if his life perhaps depended on it…or that yours did. He has a folk singers voice, filled with experience and a life lived searching where the muse led him. A willingness to accept this, and follow along on the journey, is essential for discovering all the pleasures inside a Strawbs album.

As I mentioned before, The Broken Hearted Bride is more of a rock album than the more placid, folky Deja Fou, and songs like the seven plus minute ‘The Call To Action,’ which open the album, are exemplars of this. Lambert’s guitar bites, the rhythm section plows forward, and Cousins’ vocals, while somewhat buried in the mix, intone the lyrics with passion. In a lot of ways this is a sort of ‘New World’ for the 21st Century, as relevant to the world today as the former was in its time. If Deja Fou didn’t contain any new Strawbs classics (and I still think it might have), then this release offers up a statement right from the start that the Strawbs are back, and no mistake.

One theme that runs throughout the release is religion; ‘Christmas Cheer’ alternates cynical verses with huge choruses of ‘Everything’s gonna be alright.’ ‘The Broken Hearted Bride’ reveals itself, at the end of the song, to be about a suicide bomber, and the pain that his actions inflict not just on the victims but the innocents they leave behind. Dave Lambert gets a solo writer’s credit on ‘Shadowland’ (one of two tracks he contributed to this release), handling vocals as well as offering up a hot little solo. His song ‘’Cold Steel’ was one of the highlights on Deja Fou, and ‘Shadowland’ is every bit as strong a track.

‘Action Replay’ is a track similar in direction to ‘NRG’ off the oft-mentioned Deja Fou. An instrumental, this piece offers up a bit of a reprise of ‘The Call To Action.’ Considering what follows this track on this release, it closes out the ‘current’ portion of the release nicely. It’s interesting to see this band dabbling in electronics and sequenced stuff like this, and while it may not be a direction for a full album, it’s a nice diversion here and there.

The Broken Hearted Bride closes out with ‘We’ll Meet Again Sometime,’ a song originally released on Cousins’ 1972 album Two Weeks Last Summer. The acoustic trio played this piece a lot, but this is a fuller band take on the piece, the entire ensemble showing grace and subtlety in their arranging and playing.

Is this album the equal to Hero and Heroine or Ghosts? No, but then again, neither are those the equal to this release. They are all products of the time in which they were recorded, influenced by the events swirling around the band as the songs were formed. Exhibiting a bit more restraint than those earlier albums, but adding in more maturity and lyrical currentness, The Broken Hearted Bride is a stunning exemplar of a band rediscovering their fire decades after making their biggest mark on music.

David Cousins - Vocals, Guitar, Keyboards
Dave Lambert - Vocals, Guitar
Chas Cronk - Vocals, Bass, Guitar, Keyboards, Pre-production, Programming
Rod Coombes - Drums

John Hawken - Keyboards
Ian Cutler - Fiddle
The Big Deal Choir - Steve Grant, Vince Martyn, Gordon May, Chris Tophill, Howard Werth, Sophie Morrish, Charlotte Tophill, Elizabeth Tophill, Frances Tophill
Track listing

1. The Call To Action (Cousins)
2. Christmas Cheer (Everything's Going To Be Alright) (Cousins/Cronk)
3. Too Many Angels (Cousins/Cronk)
4. The Broken Hearted Bride (Cousins)
5. Shadowland (Lambert)
6. Through Aphrodite's Eyes (Cousins/Cronk)
7. Deep In The Darkest Night (Cousins)
8. You Know As Well As I (Lambert)
9. Everybody Knows (Cronk)
10. Action Replay (Cousins)
11. We'll Meet Again Sometime (Retro Track) (Cousins)

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