Steeleye Span, |
Please to See the King
(1971; Shanachie, 1990)
Steeleye Span's second album, Please to See the King, was recorded in 1971. The lineup of the band for this project consisted of Maddy Prior, Martin Carthy, Tim Hart, Ashley Hutchings and Peter Knight. Even at this early point in the band's recording career, their sound has solidified to something unique and unmistakable. It is earthy and powerful, never ethereal, yet capable of delicacy.
All selections on this album are traditional, and most are English. The opening song is "The Blacksmith." To my mind, this track encapsulates all the elements of the classic Steeleye Span sound: electric instruments, fiddle, passages of a cappella harmony, and a truly stunning vocal by Maddy Prior (who sings lead on six of the album's ten tracks). She delivers the song with all the majesty of betrayed innocence, as if denouncing her seducer in the village square.
"Cold, Haily, Windy Night," which follows, is another tale of seduction and betrayal. Although the male vocalists are not credited individually, it sounds like Martin Carthy singing lead. This is one of those "pleading-at-the-window" songs, in which a soldier complains of the bitter weather as he begs his sweetheart to let him into her room. In this sort of song, when the girl gives in, she generally regrets it -- and this is no exception. It's a fast, minor-key song arranged with spare, open harmonies over a winding fiddle line and pounding bass beat.
Next is the album's only instrumental track, a set of jigs ("Brian O'Lynn" and "The Hag with the Money," a.k.a. "Si Do Mhaimio I"). The jigs do not so much dance as gallop, with a good ensemble feel to the playing.
In "Prince Charlie Stuart," the next track, the prince's military exploits take a back seat to his physical charms, which are detailed with unusual sensuousness (including descriptions of his "soft skin" and "bonny round leg"!). Maddy Prior delivers a langorous vocal over a droning bass line, punctuated in the last verse by ringing accents from the guitar.
"Boys of Bedlam" is a real tour-de-force. It begins with two singers, recorded with a curiously muffled sound, singing the song's angular, archaic-sounding melody as they describe a visit to watch the inmates of Bedlam and Maudlin (hospitals for the insane). Then the full ensemble enters with a splendid, clear sound and the perspective apparently switches to a narrative by one of the madmen, with imagery that might have come from a painting by Hieronymous Bosch. Aside from the jigs, this is also the only track to feature percussion.
"The False Knight on the Road" tells of how a "wee boy" encounters the devil disguised as a knight, and the clever replies with which the boy outwits him. It is performed with breathless haste, the two (male) vocalists frequently overlapping each other's lines in their eagerness. The devil's frustration is palpable as the song whips to a handclapping conclusion.
Next is "The Lark in the Morning," a celebration of love and springtime, and one of the finest tracks on an album with many standouts. Over a walking figure on the guitars, Prior's voice enters solo with the first verse. She is joined over the next two verses by one male voice line at a time, the harmonies spreading and thickening with each addition. Then the voices drop out for an instrumental verse which adds the bass and fiddle. This is repeated with a variation, then all the elements come together in a joyous yet restrained climax, the texture of which reminds me of the Beatles' "Dear Prudence": the guitars continue the walking figure, complemented by a jazzier underpinning on the bass as the fiddle line twines around them both. The effect is of something open, translucent, and yet extremely strong, like lace woven out of fishing line.
Next, the group swings into a jaunty, swaggering rendition of "The Female Drummer." There are so many delights in this track that it is with a start that the listener realizes it features ... no drums! Prior delivers another fine vocal, all cheekiness and bravado, on this tale of a Yorkshire lass who runs away from home, disguises herself as a boy, and joins the army. However, an even bigger standout is Peter Knight's coiling fiddle line. Knight does not try for a pretty sound from his fiddle: it growls and scrapes as if played with a 20-pound bow. Yet, with this technique the fiddle becomes a powerhouse instrument, able to match the drive of the electric guitars.
It is so easy to think of Steeleye Span purely as an electric band that it's always a pleasant shock to hear them abandon their instruments altogether. On the next track they do just that and demonstrate their amazing depth of vocal talent with an a cappella, harmony rendition of "The King." This is the Welsh cousin to the Irish wren-hunting songs, and the performance captures the flavor of mummers standing outside the door in the frosty air.
The closing track, "Lovely on the Water," takes on the time-honored theme of a sailor's farewell to his sweetheart. Classical music fans may know this song as "The Springtime of the Year," which Ralph Vaughan Williams arranged. Steeleye Span's setting is considerably bleaker, as well as longer. The young man is joining the navy to fight in a war, and as he sombrely exchanges mementos with his beloved and arranges his finances, there is strong awareness that he may not return. The tale unfolds against a pointillistic backdrop of plucked notes complementing Prior's vocal. At the end, another voice joins in with a stark, open harmony, slightly distanced, as the perspective pulls back to show that similar scenes are taking place all across Tower Hill. It never fails to send a shiver down my back.
Please to See the King is a powerful album, dark in tone overall but relieved by moments of warmth and humor. The performances are uniformly excellent, particularly the vocals.
Note: I understand that some versions of the CD release contain a bonus track, "Rave On." My own copy does not, so I have not included it in this review.