Strawbs started out in the mid-1960s as the Strawberry Hill Boys, a London-based trio headed by David Cousins, whose instrument was the banjo and whose interest was American folk music. Later, Sandy Denny, not yet famous, joined them on their first album as Strawbs, by which time Cousins and associates were moving toward a very British baroque-pop sound.
At least when Richie Unterberger interviewed him for his folk-rock history Eight Miles High (2003), Cousins was rejecting both "folk" and "folk-rock" as descriptive of Strawbs' approach. True, in the 1970s Strawbs ("The Strawbs" in those days) had evolved into a progressive-rock ensemble, overblown in the manner such bands -- unmissed by me and, I suspect, most -- tended to be; keyboardist Rick Wakeman played with them during this period, just prior to going off to form the iconic prog-rock Yes. But Deja Fou (full electric band) and Painted Sky (acoustic trio) are folk-rock albums by any definition. Not electric folk like Fairport Convention or Steeleye Span, but folk-rock as the Band might have sounded if it had grown on British soil. In other words, the "folk" is in the structure of the songs and in the melodies, less so in their lyrical content, and the "rock" is the modern, not-so-traditional rhythm-and-reference that drives it all.
Cousins and longtime Strawbs compatriot Dave Lambert, who share writing and lead vocals, do, however, sing in the voices of English folk musicians in the old-fashioned definition. Often lengthy and ambitious (and, once in a while, downright ponderous), their songs may recall ballads, Protestant hymns and Elizabethan court music but are rocked-up and, relatively speaking, up to date. Others might drop comfortably into albums by contemporaries Donovan, Cat Stevens or the Incredible String Band. Dylan's influence, inevitably, is easily discerned.
Still, if modestly derivative, Strawbs' music is alluringly impressionistic, set in realms populated as much by images, colors, moods and dreams as by breath-drawing, flesh-blood-and-bone fellow humans. It is a sensibility shaped by the more consciously arty -- and, one might add, intelligently rooted -- pop music of the 1970s. The melodies manage to feel at once spare and full, and they are frequently gorgeous.
Sometimes the songs achieve a kind of startling poignancy. Even with a chorus hobbled with the cliched phrase "march of time," Cousins/Lambert's "This Barren Land" (on Deja Fou) is one of them. Another, even better, is the anthemic "Benedictus" (Painted Sky), which Cousins composed (on the model of an antique British hymn) after Martin Luther King's assassination. Though Dr. King is nowhere mentioned, "Benedictus" evokes -- miraculously, without ever lapsing into schmaltziness -- struggle, nobility and hope. When I say it's unforgettable, I can attest to the literal truth of that assertion. Before making the acquaintance of the new version, I'd last heard it more than three decades ago, as the opening cut on Strawbs' 1972 LP Grave New World, and I'd never forgotten it. Now, that's what you want in a song.
by Jerome Clark
Buy Deja Fou from Amazon.com.
Buy Painted Sky from Amazon.com.