This is an artful and compelling album, appropriate for our strange times…
Esoteric Antenna / Cherry Red Records
12 tracks 55:34
Half a century after their major label debut, Strawbs releases Settlement, a self-produced project that the band created remote from one another, working from home studios during the Covid 19 pandemic. Certainly not children of the digital age, the band has nevertheless coped with the strangeness of socially-distant recording by creating an album that is, in its own way, a bit strange and quite compelling. There’s a sense of foreboding that permeates many of the songs, but there’s also an underlying glimmer of hope, if you listen closely.
Dave Cousins (vocals, acoustic guitar, autoharp) has never sounded as wizened or prophetic as he does on the title track, which opens the album on a musically ominous note, at a deliberate, inevitable pace. “There comes a time when every settlement is due,” sings Cousins, “no compromise - no other point of view.” A timely song, “Settlement” conjures up images of a reckoning coming due, and is one of the more fully-realized band pieces on the album, featuring a stunning organ entrance by Dave Bainbridge (who’s also credited with keyboards, guitars, and bouzouki throughout the album).
Appropriately enough, “Strange Times” follows, and is the first of the half-dozen or so songs performed somewhat intimately, without drums (and, in this case, very little bass). The melodic, acoustic guitar and piano driven song has a world-weary vocal emotionally delivered by Cousins’.
One of the two songs on the project that clock in at just over seven minutes, “Judgement Day” is also one of the ‘fuller’ sounding band pieces, although Tony Fernandez’ usual visceral approach to drumming gives way to a more staccato, electronic texture. The over-all effect is of a more ‘assembled’ (yet still effective) track. Ironically, the lyric “seems like we need one another” might be most accurate on this very song. Still, the contrasts might be exactly what the band is going for.
“Each Manner of Man” seems to come straight out of the 60s British Invasion. Cousins sounds youthful and fresh, his vocal very up-front in the mix, singing lines like “the mercy is finite, the judgement severe” against a folk-pop musical backdrop. This leads naturally into the lilting Celtic folk story/song, “The Visit,” which features beautifully-layered harmony vocals and strummed autoharp.
“Flying Free” is the first of two instrumentals on Settlement (“Chorale” is the other), and it brings a celebratory mood, with much picking and strumming against a delightfully playful bass line by Chas Cronk. It acts almost like a coda to “The Visit,” and a contrast to the quiet lament-like “Quicksilver Days,” which follows it with acoustic instrumentation augmented by haunting synth sounds. The music takes a dark turn as the song segues into “We Are Everyone,” a sonically rich song with an otherworldly, plaintive vibe which is softened by Cathryn Craig joining Cousins on the vocals. Minor chords give way to a hopeful major mood as the song ends. “Chorale” follows as a rousing, inspirational coda to the song, ending in a churchy organ passage.
“Champion Jack,” like Gary (Procol Harum) Brooker’s “Symphathy For the Hard of Hearing,” is a tale about a young man’s journey into the armed forces, where he becomes a P.O.W. after being sent to the far-east in ’39. Brooker’s hero loses his hearing - Cousins’ war vet is a boxer, who loses his dignity. The song is a powerful and poignant tribute to quiet heroism. Salvation Army-like horn parts (synth?) and a repeating choral phrase under some strong guitar work at the end (as Cousins sings “I feel his strength inside”) add a degree of majesty to the song.
A hooky chorus and a very convincing south of the border horn riff introduce the hooky “Better Days.” The chorus declares, “Better days - we have all seen better days! Better Days will surely come again,” but a sudden shift out of tempo brings a minor section that reminds us not to count to heavily on those better days. Thankfully, the song returns to a more hopeful, chorus before it ends.
Once again, it’s back to a 60s vibe as “Liberty” ends the album on a somewhat resigned, but encouraging note. Once again, we get some tasty guitar licks by Dave Lambert and great organ work (reminiscent of Procol Harum) on the fade.
Settlement grows in each listening. What’s great about this virtually-produced project is that, even with some moments of awkwardness, somehow it retains a visceral feeling. Cousins’ vocals have never fit a moment in time better than it does on this album and Bainbridge fills in the gaps effectively with a Procol Harum-like organ approach. In many ways it’s a strange but delightful album - but as Dave Cousins says, we’re living in strange times.
- Bert Saraco
You can see pictures of Strawbs (and many others) in action by visiting www.facebook.com/express.image - the reviewer’s concert photography page