Thursday, May 23, 2024

Deep in the Woods – Psych Folk in the Undergrowth

Various Artists – ‘Deep in the Woods – Pastoral, Psychedelic and Funky Folk 1968-1975’

Three discs of psychedelic folk is quite the proposition – how long before it descends into acoustic beigery, finger-in-the-ear po-facedness and jangle fests? In all honesty, it comes close by track three but don’t let that put you off. What this collection actually presents is how US psychedelia affected a land thousands of miles away with a much longer musical tradition. It’s all very well hearing a band in the vastness of Texas describing visions filling a huge open sky and adventures in canyons and on beaches but when you live in St. Albans, you run the risk of looking both daft and an outright plagiarist. What many musicians did was to take the essense of psychedelia – whether that was altered consciousness, adventurous recording techniques or blurring the lines between where one genre ends and another begins – and sit it on a blanket under a tree whilst tucking into scotch eggs and Tizer.

British culture had already started acting like a naughty schoolboy before Flower Power had raised its head – the blues, with its po-faced, maungy, bed-wetting, had been given a new haircut by The Stones; art school was now a place for everything except drawing and painting and American bands like The Byrds and Jefferson Airplane (and Bob Dylan, of course) had already taken very different directions to their original course. At a time of enormous cultural and political change, the acoustic guitar-wielders of bed-sits nationwide were eager to document the moment in time when it was they who had made a lasting impression on society and not a fisherman 200 years ago. Folk venues sprang up everywhere, an outrageous 400 hundred in London alone. It wasn’t long before Donovan, Fairport Convention, Marc Bolan and Led Zeppelin had brought traditional musical story-telling to the masses but before then…there was this lot.

We kick off with a track which encapsulates exactly where folk was heading in 1967. Fat Mattress are not a household name but future Jimi Hendrix Experience bassist, Noel Redding’s early venture (as guitarist) is pretty much a full house at psych-folk bingo in the featured track, “Leafy Lanes” (trees – check; ethereal voices – check; dreams – check; colourful skies – check). Following the remarkably-named Knocker Jungle comes the somewhat surprising figure of Duffy Power, whose so-so acoustic jangle shows another entry point for psych dabblers – skiffle. Mike Hurst’s “Face from the Past” is a splendid UK take on West Coast easy living, easing from a baroque opening and spidery keyboards to full-on horn parping and funky drum patterns. In truth, the box set may already have peaked at this point but let’s press on for old time’s sake.

Once you’ve hoiked your wellies out of some really rather stodgy acoustic ramblings, there are some particular stand-outs. Alan James Eastwood has an easy-going Van Morrison-esque wandering guru schtick which is significantly less grumpy than his Irish counterpart. Linda Hoyle has an impressive Grace Slick wail backed up with some strident, tumbling neo-jazz and some razor-sharp lyrics on “Hymn to Valerie Solanas”, the leader of The Society for Cutting Up Men (SCUM), later to be jailed for the attempted murder of Andy Warhol. Peace and love etc.

All of which pales into insignificance when you arrive at Mellow Candle’s “Silversong”. A band I’m happy to declare I’ve never heard of, they formed in Killiney, Ireland, an alliance between singers Clodagh Simonds, Alison Bools and Maria White, having met at convent school. A false start of a single and some line-up changes eventually led to Simonds and Bools being joined by guitarist Dave Williams, bassist, Frank Broylan and drummer, William Murray, with Thin Lizzy manager and Ace Records head, Ted Carroll, guiding them to recording their debut (and only – not counting outtakes) album, ‘Swaddling Songs’. Those music fans who enjoy gorgeous agony of Weyes Blood will revel in this – heart-wrenching and slightly evil.

It’s great to see Kevin Coyne included, slightly subdued on “Flowering Cherry” but still gritting his teeth and seething in a way which is largely lacking in this set. Disc three sees us largely treading water, revisiting artists we’ve already heard or through oddities like The Deviants into the mix, though in fairness, “Bun” does sound quite like Zep’s “Bron-Yr-Aur”. It would be easy to say this compliation ends on a whimper but at the end of the day, ‘psychdelic folk’ could easily be renamed ‘psychedelic whimpering’. It’s notable that the one other track which shines beacon-like across the three discs is Yvonne Elliman on the track,  “Hawaii”. It’s emotional, intelligent, memorable and daring. She’s American.

Daz Lawrence 

Buy ‘Deep in the Woods’ here

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