06 August 2010

CD REVIEW: Strawbs - Dancing to the Devil's Beat (2009, Witchwood Media)

Last week we took a look at Strawbs’ 2008 release The Broken Hearted Bride, the second reunion album from the Hero and Heroine lineup of the band. We’re going to continue this week with Dancing to the Devil’s Beat, the band’s 2009 release and most current studio album.

The first thing to note is the change in lineup. As mentioned in the review for The Broken Hearted Bride, John Hawken departed the band, leading to his credit on that album being more of a guest slot than full member of the group. For Dancing to the Devil’s Beat, he has been replaced by Oliver Wakeman. Obviously the surname looks familiar; Oliver is former Strawbs and Yes keyboard player Rick’s son (in fact, Oliver is also playing for Yes these days). Frighteningly, Oliver even looks like his father to a frightening degree. I have to admit that while he is a technically proficient player, I am still not sure how well he fits the Strawbs. Its difficult to tell after just one release, and perhaps he is laying back a bit to try and find his place. He does offer up a different set of sounds and methods of playing to Hawken, and time will tell what his future contributions will add to the band.

Dancing opens with the bitter and cutting ‘Revenge (Can Be So Sweet),’ a dark little piece that sees Dave Cousins lyric writing skills as caustic and au currant as ever. It is the next track however, ‘Beneath The Angry Sky,’ that presents us with the first modern Strawbs classic for this release. This is a song that could have been released on just about any album dating back to Grave New World; Cousin’s lyrics express the concerns and frustrations of the modern world, bring to the fore the fears of war and death and the place of man in all of this as victor and victim both. ‘Beneath the Angry Sky’ is a powerful song, one I could see the band playing for years to come, and one which will likely work very well in the acoustic trio format as well.

‘Copenhagen’ is by far a sweeter piece, with violin and acoustic guitar the dominant instrumental colours. It’s a nice little respite after the lyrical and musical intensity that follows, and is one of the most sweetly sad pieces Cousins has crafted in quite some time. Some of the guitar playing, especially nearer the end of the piece, feels very Steve Howe-like, which was a nice and surprising little flourish.

‘Pro Patria Suite’ follows on from the sweet ‘Copenhagen. Lest one think that Dancing would be a set of shorter form songs, this three part composition is a nearly 8-minute epic that carries on from the themes Cousins has been exploring lyrically for the past two Strawbs albums. A tale of war and the men who fight in them, it moves through three disparate moods and styles:

1) ‘Back Along (We Were Young)’ is the calm before the storm, setting the stage, introducing the players in the play.
2) ‘All For Each Other’ is a far more intense section, with heavier guitar, martial drumming, and pulsing bass work. Wakeman adds flourishes of piano here and there, while Cousins lyrics at times remind of some of the trench poetry that came from the soldiers in the first World War. I can’t help but feel affected by the lyrics here; the fact that Cousins sounds angrier than he has in years only adds to the gravitas and intensity here.
3) ‘Home Is Where the Heart Was Ever’ closes out the suite, and feels almost sacred. This is a style the band has returned to time and time again throughout their career. In a time like this, where boys and young men return home draped in flags rather than to cheers, ‘Home Is Where the Heart Was Ever’ hits hard.

‘Where Silent Shadows Fall’ carries on the themes of the album quite well. In a lot of ways, it feels very much like an extension of ‘Pro Patria Suite,’ with a sad, disappointed twist in the lyrics that is a hallmark of Cousins’ best writing. One gets the sense that the driving force here is two-fold; a general disgust with the state of the world today, and a desire to make sure that the men on the lines are the ones getting attention and glory, not the ones with stars on their shoulders. Musically, the song builds wonderfully, with a huge, symphonic ending with layers of synth strings and vocals that really works incredibly well.

Things take a very different direction for the next two pieces. Dave Lambert offers up a song titled ‘The Man Who Would Never Leave Grimsby.’ Compared to other Lambert tracks in the past, this is certainly a change for him. There’s little of the heavier rock sound that seems to typify his previous contributions, while the lyrics are every bit as sad and wistful as Cousins in his more romantic moods. I wish I could say, after the darkness that opens up things on this album, that this is a jaunty little tune that’ll put a smile on the listener’s face, but I’m left feeling a little sad by the song. Thankfully, things are lightened up a good bit by ‘The Ballad of Jay and Rose Mary,’ which sees the band playing music unlike anything else you have ever heard from them. Shuffling, busking, slightly jazzy, I don’t know that this is something I’d like to see the band doing all the time, but it’s a cool little change from them, and sees the old dog showing off some new tricks.

The album’s title track nearly closes things out, and it’s a quick little rocker that shifts the music up several notches from the quieter sounds before it. It reminds me in a lot of ways of songs like ‘Heartbreaker’ or ‘Round and Round’ from an energy standpoint. Wakeman plays some very nice organ parts, while Lambert sounds great, whipping out a tasty little guitar solo to lead the band out.

One last track finishes things up; like the previous album, the band offers up a remake of one of their older songs. This time it’s a ‘cover’ of their first single ‘Oh How She Changed.’ As it opens, its easy to think that we’ll be hearing an acoustic rendition of this classic tune, complete with wonderful layered, harmonized vocals. This is shattered when the full band kicks in, rolling bass, chiming acoustic guitar arpeggios and crunchy chords, this is an interesting rendition that really shines a different light on this warhorse of a song, refreshing it for a new time and a new generation of listeners.

The band is in fine form here, and it really seems the fact that they have been playing together so much over the past 6 or 7 years has brought them together and re-energised them. Cousins sounds better than he has in a long while, his voice seeming stronger with each passing album. Dave Lambert continues to be underrated as a guitar player, and while I do wish he’d get more chances to write for the band, it’s hard to do that when you have a prolific author like Dave Cousins working with you. Rod Coombes continues to blow away on the drums; I remember seeing this line up (with Hawken instead of Wakeman) at NEARfest 2004 and being gobsmacked at the power he brings to his playing on the kit. Chas Cronk seems to be such a secret weapon for this band, playing bass, acoustic guitar, singing…he can do so many things, and do all of them well. As for new boy Oliver Wakeman, he is less present throughout than Hawken had been, but when he steps to the front, his contributions are solid and impressive, and again, I look forward to seeing what he may bring to the band on future albums.

If I could make any criticism of the album at all, it would have to be the cover art. And I hate to say something as trivial as that, but honestly, the cover does absolutely nothing for me. I’m not sure what the concept was, nor who suggested ‘I’ve got it! A dog licking a strawberry ice lolly is the PERFECT cover for this album!’ but I really wish they hadn’t, especially after the romantic and appropriate cover for The Broken Hearted Bride. It put me off the album for a good bit of time, which is unfortunate for me, as my raving about the album shows.

In my review of the Strawbs previous album, I said “The Broken Hearted Bride is a stunning exemplar of a band rediscovering their fire decades after making their biggest mark on music.” Dancing to the Devil’s Beat is that band fully re-energised and offering up new classics that compare to their best work of the past. Look past the cover and listen to the music within…you’ll hear a band that is as relevant today as it was 40 years ago.

David Cousins - Vocals, Guitar
Dave Lambert - Vocals, Guitar
Chas Cronk - Vocals, Bass
Rod Coombes - Drums
Oliver Wakeman - keyboards

Ian Cutler - Fiddle
Vince Martin - Harmonica
Deal bandsmen - Cornets

Track listing
1. Revenge (Can Be So Sweet) 5:18
2. Beneath The Angry Sky 4:29
3. Copenhagen 4:46
4. Pro Patria Suite 7:44
1. Back Along (We Were Young)
2. All For Each Other
3. Home Is Where The Heart Was Ever
5. Where Silent Shadows Fall 5:45
6. The Man Who Would Never Leave Grimsby 5:01
7. The Ballad Of Jay And Rose Mary 4:17
8. Dancing to the Devil’s Beat 3:38
8. Oh How She Changed 2009 4:21

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ok, I read the entire review this time before commenting ...
Some strange things going on with the Strawbs, in my opinion ...
I have a Strawbs 1983 release on CBS/A&M Records in some foreign language, possibly Dutch.
Rick Wakeman is on it but like Oliver here isn't real noticeable on his playing, or doesn't seem to fit in with the songs, mostly written by Cousins.
Side B doesn't even list the songwriters, perhaps traditional songs. Side A has two other songwriters listed: Hudson-Ford.
I'm wondering, too, if Rick suggested to the Strawbs to try out Oliver, because, in the book "Close to the Edge" by Chris Welsh, Chris writes that Rick suggested to Yes to try out Oliver.
Just a couple of strange notes, may not mean a thing, but ... Also, my 1983 Strawbs cassette has some really different types and styles of rock, as in songs like "Part of the Union" and "The man who called himself Jesus." Pop-like, too!
But there are some nicer pieces, too, like "A glimpse of Heaven" and "Shepherd Song."
Admitingly, I'd not heard the two CDs reviewed here, sorry. Just sort of thinking to myself if their music has changed much since then ...
Also, I read the entire Fen review and enjoyed it as well!