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(Ba Da Bing Records 078 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 12/12/2012)
The English folk scene of the 1960s has proven to be influential decades later -- more influential than popular at the time, at least on this side of the Atlantic. Some of the artists and bands did enjoy a degree of commercial success in the UK, but the scene had more of what I suppose could be called a cult following in the US. Nevertheless some of the artists who came out of the scene, like Richard Thompson, and the late Sandy Denny and Nick Drake, are still having an effect on the music especially of younger artists.
There were three main groups on the English folk scene who appeared almost simultaneously in the late 1960s with somewhat different approaches. But all had penchant for blending elements of British Isles folk with American rock or sometimes jazz influence. And each of the those three, Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and Pentangle had distinctive female vocalists: the late Sandy Denny with Fairport Convention, Maddy Prior with Steeleye Span, both of whom were dusky altos who could seem to evoke misty castles with the voices, and Jacqui McShee of the Pentangle, who is a soprano who also has that timeless quality to her voice.
Those groups left big footprints, and since then there have been few new groups to take up the style -- June Tabor and Kate Rusby are two vocalists who have emerged but not really as part of a regular band.
Now, more than 40 years later, we have a group that has plunged into the classic English folk style, and a with young and already impressive female lead vocalist. The band is from Scotland and they call themselves Snowgoose. They have just released in the US their debut album called Harmony Springs, which had been issued earlier in the year in the UK on vinyl.
In style, Snowgoose probably most resembles the Pentangle of the Big Three, though lead vocalist Anna Sheard can also evoke bits of Sandy Denny and Maddy Prior. While Ms. Sheard is a newcomer, other members of Snowgoose have been on the scene for a while. Co-founder Jim McCulloch was in the Soup Dragons, a Scottish alternative rock band that formed in 1985. Ms. Sheard, McCulloch and bassist Dave McGowan were initially a trio, but expanded to a quintet with the addition of guitarist Raymond McGinley from the band Teenage Fanclub, a kind of retro folk-rock group that formed in Scotland in 1989, and drummer Stuart Kidd.
Snowgoose can be reminiscent of the sound of the Pentangle with their occasional jazz waltzes, big acoustic bass sound influenced by the Pentangle's Danny Thompson, and even a little glockenspiel. But the group performs all original material, mostly by McCulloch, and lyrically they don't make references to traditional songs. And one interesting historically concurrent musical twist is the way McCulloch sometimes plays fuzzed up electric guitar in the style of the psychedelic scene of that same period, though that kind of guitar was not often heard among the English folk-rockers of the day. Snowgoose also admits in their biography to an attraction to West Coast American pop of the Sixties, including some of the vocal harmonies and melodic sound of groups like the Byrds and Beach Boys. The result is an appealing combination that is respectfully, but in some ways, playfully retro and fresh in the sense that this is not the kind of music one hears from contemporary groups these days, especially done as well at this.
Leading off is a track called Crawl Out Your Window which shows the rockier side of the group. Snowgoose adds a few distinguishing touches setting them apart from the English folk groups of the past, including hammered dulcimer and the fairly prominent electric piano. <<>>
Snowgoose's 1960s American pop influence is on full display on the CD's appealing title track Harmony Springs. The lyrics are suitably upbeat as well. <<>>
The band channels the Pentangle on one of its best track Shifting Sands, a jazz waltz in the Pentangle tradition. Ms. Sheard's vocals rise to the occasion. <<>> But McCulloch also throws in his psychedelic-era style electric guitar solo. <<>>
Snowgoose includes a wordless vocal called Migration Season which puts the band's nice sonic colors on display. The rest of the group gets to add vocal harmonies. <<>>
The more contemplative side of the album comes out on The Apple Sun with its more melancholy texture, given an atmospheric sound with the hammered dulcimer. <<>>
Another highlight of the album is I Will Wait for You which combines elements of 1960s rock with the some English Folk scene hallmarks. <<>> McCulloch even adds a little surf guitar in his solo. <<>>
The first music video posted by the band is of another of the CD's best pieces. Sycamore again borrows from the Pentangle with the jazzy 11-beat rhythm in the verses. Lyrically it's a kind of old-fashioned metaphoric love song. <<>>
The CD closes with Whispers and Echoes which in its sound is a kind of a tip of the hat to Fairport Convention. It's also nicely done with Ms. Sheard's performance showing the understated but evocative quality that marked the best of the women of the British folk scene. <<>>
Harmony Springs, the debut CD by the Scottish band Snowgoose is an impressive recording by a group that has recaptured the musical spirit and qualities of the best of the English folk bands from forty years ago. It's the first group to appear in many years in this style fronted by a female lead vocalist who can evoke the style of Sandy Denny, Jacqui McShee or Maddy Prior. Snowgoose's Anne Sheard is young and I think still developing, but she has the potential to be another of the great voices. While Snowgoose certainly draws on influences from the big three English folk bands, especially the Pentangle, they also add an interesting touch with the Sixties American pop and psychedelic influences they throw into the mixture, and they pull it off very well, adding enough of the own musical personality that it does not come off as too slavishly retro or derivative.
Our grade for sound quality is about an A-minus. The mix has everything in about the right place, but the recording seems a bit dark in sound, and Ms. Sheard's vocal could have had a bit more clarity, but that's quibbling a little on my part. The dynamic range, how well the recording handles the differences between loud and soft, is better than average, but hardly at an audiophile level.
I'll admit to being a big fan of the Pentangle. They were one of my very favorite groups back in the day, so for me, it's great to hear a band that evokes their sound. The Pentangle also set a very high standard, and Snowgoose, on their debut CD are already a contender for being a 21st Century successor.
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