One thing that annoys me, dear reader, is music critics. It’s a rather unusual confession considering that this is a blog devoted to music commentary, but hear me out. More specifically, it’s the lazy music critic that states that a particular band or performer plays “all styles ranging from rock to blues to folk to jazz” where it is plainly not so (one particular critic I’m thinking of is notorious for overusing this description). All it takes is for a rock group to occasionally play a strange sequence of diminished ninths using acoustic instruments and sing lyrics about having woken up this morning feeling strange, and this type of critic presumes they have all genres covered. AAAARRRGGGHHH.
I’m not saying there aren’t artists who haven’t accomplished mastery of multiple styles, but it’s not as prevalent as certain folks would have us believe. One group that I do believe had some valid claim towards this mastery was Pentangle.
Pentangle was something of a supergroup in its day. Not they were appreciated as such, but all had achieved some level of success and mastery in their prior endeavours. Guitarists John Renbourn and Bert Jansch had made a number of records separately and together (Jansch being looked up to by the likes of Neil Young and Jimmy Page no less). Renbourn was traditional in his outlook but could play a mean blues as was the case with Jansch. Singer Jacqui McShee is one of the great English folk singers from an era where contemporaries included Maddy Prior and Sandy Denny. Drummer Terry Cox and bassist Danny Thompson were a great working session jazz duo and had worked with Alexis Korner. Somehow, they could each play to the strength of their individual disciplines, and yet always sound like a cohesive unit working towards the same purpose.
Their third album “Basket of Light” was apparently their most commercially successful, due in part to the inclusion of a song written for a BBC TV show. Masterful playing alone wasn’t what made this band great. Whereas other groups of the day that were supposedly their contemporaries like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span – both bands that I love - for the most part delved into creatively arranging traditional folk music played with electric instrumentation (the case especially for Fairport post Richard Thompson / Sandy Denny), Pentangle truly offered something that sounded different in the songwriting department.
“Once I Had a Sweetheart” makes a concession to the era with the inclusion of a sitar, and yet it still sounds incredibly fresh. “Train Song” has incredible rhythm section work and a great bluesy guitar solo (all acoustic).McShee’s vocals are incredibly seductive on this song, and in fact on the whole album. “Light Flight” has serious jazz chops with time changes that never sound forced or clumsy. Danny Thompson’s bass is the leader on this song.
When I was 9 or 10, I found this record in my sister’s record collection and I wore it out. I was overjoyed when it go a CD release. It’s true that this album is tied to my childhood (I wonder how many other kids heard and loved it), but I repeatedly listen to this album now due to the combined strengths of great arrangements, great musicianship and great songs. It could have been released today by a young band that....well,...played all kinds of music from folk to blues to jazz. But don’t tell me they exist – that’d just give me the shits.