England - Full Moon 170 - 07/26/10
Sandy Denny & The Strawbs
All Our Own Work - The Complete Sessions
Strawbs might be most famous for being the first band Sandy Denny and Rick Wakeman joined and recorded with. But Dave Cousins and his Strawberry Hill Boys (except Sandy and almost Sonja Christina - later of Curved Air fame) have a lot more to offer. I was introduced to the band by a school friend in the mid 1970s. I guess Nomadness was the most recent album at the time, one of their weakest in retrospect. We worked our way backwards from there, but didn't get further than Bursting At The Seams, even when we tried to order older albums from England. It wasn't until I moved to a bigger city a few years later that treasures like Grave New Word, From The Witchwood and Just A Collection Of Antiques And Curious were unveiled. And the first two ordinary albums didn't surface for another couple of years until a visit to some of London's secondhand shops, along with the original All Our Own Work LP. It was recorded at the stage of Vanløse cinema in Copenhagen during the daytime on three tracks of a Tandberg reel-to-reel tape recorder in 1967, but not released until 1973 to surf on the successes of both Sandy and The Strawbs at the time. I bought a compilation of Fairport Convention a little later than my first Strawbs albums, but wasn't profoundly struck by Sandy's songs and voice until the mid 1980s. Well, she has been a legend for a long time by now and her best songs can hardly be surpassed by anyone.
In recent years and with a few exceptions (of course) I have the impression that the albums by Strawbs grow more and more interesting the older they are. When Preserves Uncanned, a double CD with demos recorded in 1968 or thereabouts before Strawbs secured a contract with Herp Albert's A&M Records, was released in 1991, it soon turned into one of my favourites of that year. Strawbs has developed through several stages, from bluegrass and folk to folk-rock, progressive folk-rock, progressive rock and symphonic ditto. For me today, most of the songs seem to work better in simple and acoustic arrangements. All Our Own Work was recorded even earlier than most of the songs of Preserves Uncanned. Does it mean it is an outstanding work by all parties involved? Well, I'm not completely convinced by that, but the album surely includes some mighty fine songs somewhere between folk, singer-songwriter stuff and pop. The original LP included 12 tracks. In 1991 Joe Boyd, Sandy's manager and producer for Fairport and Sandy's first solo album, put out a collection of 13 songs from the same cinema sessions on his Hannibal Records, to expose the Sandy side of the recordings, called Sandy Denny And The Strawbs. It included one previously unreleased song and five with different instrumentation or vocals. It seems three of the original songs were recorded with a string arrangement and "Tell Me What You See In Me" with a sitar that was omitted from the 1973 LP but included on the 1991 CD. On the new expanded album they're all here, 24 tracks in all, including six more tracks, three of which are previously unreleased.
For Sandy fans that haven't heard the 1991 CD there is a lot to explore. The album only includes one song written by her, but then it is the first recording of her signature song "Who Knows Where The Time Goes". One might discuss if it is a better version than the one on Fairport's album Unhalfbricking from 1969. The latter is hailed as the one by most connoisseurs, but I'm not quite sure. The later recording includes a country flavoured guitar by Richard Thompson that doesn't quite fit in my ears. The version on All Our Own Work is simpler with only one (or two?) acoustic guitars. Sandy may not sing as well as on Unhalfbricking but it still is a very moving version. The second version here with strings doesn't add anything; I can understand why they didn't make it to the original album. The strings make some sense on "And You Need Me", the song sounds slightly sweeter with them although Sandy's touchy and seducing voice and Dave Cousins' acoustic guitar are the songs main attractions. This is as good as it gets, the highlight of the album, but it also includes several other of Cousins' numbers sung by Sandy, not least the almost as sweet "All I Need Is You", the American folk-sounding "On My Way" (a bit Peter, Paul & Mary there) and an early version of "Two Weeks Last Summer" that later surfaced as the title track on Dave's first solo album from 1972. The aforementioned "Tell Me What You See In Me", especially the version with sitar and tablas and all, is another goodie, but is taken even further with a full Arabian orchestra on Strawbs' debut album two years later.
For Strawbs' fans there are quite a few songs that are not available anywhere else and a few fresh and young versions later to pop up on Preserves Uncanned and the self titled debut album. For those of us that can't have enough of the early Strawbs of the 1967-70 era with Cousins and Tony Hooper on acoustic guitars and Ron Chesterman on double bass, there are even three previously unreleased demos, including the first version of "Pieces Of 79 And 15", a gem off the A&M debut album. The other two are Cousins numbers never released in any form earlier, as far as I know. "The Falling Leaves" and "Indian Summer" may not rank along Dave's greatest melodies, but especially the latter is another fine observation from the British society of days long gone along with old favourites like "How Everyone But Sam Was A Hypocrite" and "Poor Jimmy Wilson", both incuded here. The two instrumentals "Wild Strawberries" and "Strawberry Picking" shows another side of the male trio with Dave's banjo on fine form.
For fans of Danish rock we might add that the late Ken Gudmand keeps the rhythms straight on several songs. He was one of the most reknowned drummers in his time, later a member of Culpepper's Orchard anwd Mo-I-Rana and played with lots of the most well-known Danish artists of the 1970s and 80s, including Trille, Peter Thorup and Kim Larsen.
Well then, All Our Own Work works very well and is far more than 43 years old archival recordings of two of English folk-rocks most respected artists for a few fanatics. My only regret concerns the booklet that could've included far more information surrounding Sandy's time with the Strawberry Boys and the recordings. Sandy didn't stay long after they came back from Copenhagen, and she was never a permanent member of the band as such, it seems. The drawing of the members from a Copenhagen sidewalk depicted in the booklet says Sandy & The Strawbs, not only The Strawbs. But there is an article from Denmark's biggest paper Berlingske Tidende from 28 June 1967 about the program of Vise Vers Hus in Copenhagen's famous Tivoli that says a bit about the exciting new British act that will arrive later in the summer. They played there in the evenings to finance the stay. And extracts from Dave's diary reveal that the recordings started on 26 July. I read somewhere that there were some troubles with the original tapes that made the songs run too fast both on the original LP, the Hannibal album and the new version. The three songs taken from the Copenhagen sessions on the great Sandy compilation A Boxful Of Treasures, on the other hand, should've been ajusted down to the correct speed. This is bullshit. The songs don't run faster on All Our Own Work and sound even crisper here than on A Boxful Of Treasures as far as my ears are concerned. And only three songs off All Our Own Work on the five CD box A Boxful Of Treasures is too little. At least "And You Need Me" ought to have been included.
Copyright © 2010 JP