What does it sound like?:
Colin’s recent mega posts on the Pentangle have persuaded me to finally polish up this review and stick it here. I feel like a rogue pupil who keeps neglecting his homework, because I offered to review this weeks.. er… months ago. Sorry for the delay folks.
Anyway, consider Colin’s magnificent essay the official Pentangle story. This the short version, based on me dipping in and out of this box set over many weeks.
Housed in a beautiful little box (I’m reviewing a download copy, but I checked out the physical version in Fopp) this efficiently titled collection just might be the most satisfying way to get a handle on this most wayward of bands. It feels like every couple of years there’s a new Pentangle “best of” or anthology in ever more ugly sleeves (and this band NEVER had great sleeves even at the best of times), so it’s a joy to find them so lovingly packaged for once.
The booklet has a wonderful little “in their own words” history (which I found rather moving – you really get a sense of how much these were just five plucky youngsters making it all up as they went along). Colin’s track notes and chronology show an endearing love of detail, especially in the history of the unreleased tracks.
Before I talk about the actual music, let me first confess my credentials (or lack of). I was never a Pentangle fan and I didn’t know much of their work until this bout of binge listening. I offered to review this because I thought it would be a good way to force myself to get into them. I’ve always loved the early Jansch solo records (especially Jack Orion) and the “Bert and John” album is an inspiration to guitar players. But expanding the Jansch/Renbourn duo into a full blown folk-rock-jazz-world quintet always seemed like a step too far.
But after listening to all this I feel as if I “get” them now.
How to describe Pentangle to someone who’s never heard them? Well, the core sound begins with the very distinctive twin acoustic guitars of John Renbourn and Bert Jansch. They snap and twang like no other guitarists you’ve ever heard – you can almost feel the bleeding fingers. This is guitar playing at its most physical and satisfying, and they are usually mixed hard left/right to maximise the impact of their weaving, complimentary patterns.
Underpinning that, you have a crack jazz rhythm section in Danny Thompson’s thunderous double bass and Terry Cox’s dancing, shuffling drums.
It’s a wicked brew. You basically have the groove of Kind of Blue and Mingus Ah Um meeting the British folk weirdness of the Incredible String Band.
And then, of course, you have lead singer Jacqui McShee warbling over the top of it all. Filling the oddly reversed position of being a lead singer who is the least striking and least flamboyant in the band, you either like this kind of strident, fruity folk singing, or you don’t. I’m not fan.
But then, without McShee it just wouldn’t be Pentangle, would it? She’s a necessary counterpoint to the boys.
The first couple of albums represent an astonishing splurge of product. What other band can you think of who in their first year of work had the drive to create a single and a double album, including a live set that doesn’t repeat any of the material? Clearly this was a band firing on all cylinders, each member capable of generating and fronting their own creative ideas. The energy and confidence of youth – it’s exhilarating to hear. I especially liked all the little odd corners, the solo pieces like Terry Cox’s Moondog that just wouldn’t fit with any other band.
In short, these early albums are sprawling and patchy, in a way that seems very 1968.
Basket of Light in 1969, however, suddenly feels more honed. The production is better, the material is more focused and the playing sounds more like successful musicians vindicated by mainstream acceptance, no longer hampered by the timidity of being outsiders.
There’s a reason Light Flight (Basket of Light’s opener) is their standout song – it captures all those elements I mentioned above, in a bite size form. It also has that headstrong refusal to fall into a recognisable rock groove or time signature (you sure as hell can’t dance to this band). I posit that a new listener to Night Flight will know in less than a minute whether they will like this band.
And after Basket of Light, the next few years represent the comedown.
The second half of their career is one of those bittersweet stories of a band not knowing what to do with themselves once they reach the top of their game. What exactly are they the top of? Are they folk, rock, progressive, easy listening? We music lovers like the idea of a band who can’t be pigeonholed, but in reality that makes for a messy listening experience and a group who can be admired but not loved.
The 19 minute long version of folk song Jack Orion, taking up the entire second side of 1970’s Cruel Sister, is the crux of Pentangle’s wayward tendencies. This pains me to say it (and I love Hergest Ridge, Close To The Edge, The Gumbo Variations, all that freaky long-form music) but reader, I skipped through this track without listening to it all.
That’s not to say there wasn’t great music in this lean years. One of the loveliest things to hear is the development of Renbourn as a singer/performer. Hands down the best musician in the group in terms of technical ability, on the first few albums he sounds fussy and unsure as a singer, his shyness coming through in his voice. But all of a sudden on material like So Clear, he seems to learn to properly use the softness in his voice – he suddenly morphs into the kind of sensitive singer-songwriter who would make the girls swoon (Don Maclean, Cat Stevens, David Gates). It’s a lovely little song, and a little glimpse of the mainstream career Renbourn might have had as a crooner.
But to be honest the folk-rock shtick didn’t have a massive amount of mileage in it. The songs got repetitive and Terry Cox’s drums in particular got lumpy and uninspiring in the quest for something new to do. Plus they all fell out and got drunk.
I’m kind of glad they stopped when they did. A handful of albums, an interesting little side alley in popular music.
What does it all *mean*?
The late sixties/ early seventies, were an odd time with many wayward bands and projects on the fringes of the mainstream. This is one of the more interesting diversions of that time. You won’t love it all but you’ll find something in here to invigorate you. The creativity, talent and dedication to the cause is quite inspiring.
Goes well with…
They don’t actually go with anything, which I think is part of the band’s problem. Played next to loud music, they sound too soft. Played next to simple music, they sound too fussy. A law unto themselves, this lot.
Might suit people who like…
This is an affordable way to buy Pentangle’s whole career (well, first career, before the reunion) in a nice little box. There’s something very satisfying about.