Though he doesn’t have the name recognition he deserves, Jansch is as supremely talented as those in the know say. Peppering his arrangements with all manner of trills and turns, he moves melancholy folk into ground more ornate than much of what came before.
Is that why I also find this a tad dry? I’m fully open to the (not unlikely) possibility of further nuance revealing itself, but right now, some of this strikes me as too distant, as if the subjects in the songs are trying to hide their pain. Emotional restraint (or even repression) can work musical wonders for some; I just don’t know if Jansch’s buzzy, easily-taxed voice is up for it.
All that said, the man’s debut is pivotal listening. The first half is quite consistent, “Needle of Death” is a harrowing tune exempt from all prior complaints, and there are few contemporary guitarists capable of covering Davy Graham’s “Angie” this proficiently.
One step forward and two steps back. In the first half, Jansch shines with more focused material and more confident vocals, successfully branching out into styles forceful (opener) and off-the-cuff (“A Man I’d Rather Be”). (Not to mention “Anti Apartheid”, a worthy follow-up to “Needle of Death”‘s crumpled ache.) The instrumentals are impressive, too, especially when he’s tucking breathtaking harmonics into clockwork patterns (“Tinker’s Blues”).
But then the man gets sidetracked with aimlessness (“So Long”) and general timidity. Most of the songs are still decent; they just don’t hum like the earlier tracks.
Jansch is awfully restless here. Aside from a few tracks (most notably “My Lover”), he has rarely put his skills to such exploratory ends, now—more often than not—bringing fellow guitarist John Renbourn aboard to wind trails through the fog. Similarly, the material emphasizes bleak, churning patterns and dire vocals that take Bert’s predilection for gloom to sometimes stifling levels.
That said, his approach offers the listener a wide degree of agency; winding through the nine-minute title track, you’re free to direct your attention to Bert’s voice, accompaniment, Renbourn’s lines, or some combination of the three. Pair that with the most consistent selection of songs yet and you’ve got ample reason to look beyond the abundance of grey—especially with “The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face” and “Black Water Side” as such lovely comfort.
A troubling album on numerous fronts. The orchestral additions are terrible, with a total lack of chemistry veering into shoddy synchronization (“Woe Is Love”‘s trumpet), and the smileyness rings hollow, leaving Donovan far ahead with little to worry of the Scot he surpassed. The vocals are sour, too, causing me to wonder whether It Don’t Bother Me‘s flexibility was simply a fluke or Nicola is just that uninspiring.
A shame about the guitarwork, then; Jansch’s technique has never been tighter.
With just its opener, Birthday Blues singlehandedly achieves the plucky cheer all of Nicola failed to, and though only “I Am Lonely” can top the tune, “Come Sing” certainly sets the tone for much of what follows. Flutes, double bass, and gentle drums abound, and the arrangements are far more sensible (and competent) than their predecessors.
When left alone, Jansch digs into the baroque so heavily as to make his rootsier beginnings seem rather distant. Perhaps that’s why the blues cuts are so tiresome. “Poison”‘s dour clouds aside, Bert chafes against the R&B sax honks (“I’ve Got a Woman”) and overactive drummer (“A Woman Like You”).
By the end, I’m pining for the fragile ac(r)idity of yore; but as a recovery from Nicola‘s folly, the album’s pretty spot-on.
Now he’s done it. Jansch has improved upon the one common fault I find—his voice—and undergone a subtly radical reworking of his style. No more accompanists (Birthday Blues), no more bitter dread (Jack Orion), and no more emotional distance (Bert Jansch)—just a dewy, mannered calm flexible enough for undertones tragic (“M’Lady Nancy”), smitten (“Tell Me What Is True Love?”), and serene (“Bird Song”). He’s had the instrumental skill to pull this off for a while (though “Reynardine”‘s fluttering chords, pauses, and bends set a new benchmark); just never its vocal complement. This time, he dazzles with an opening performance nothing short of breathtaking, even earning a wordless coo amid “Silly Woman”‘s downy comfort.
A hard nut to crack, mostly because I have difficulty spotting exactly why it lets me down. After all, “The January Man” and “Yarrow” are lovely, what with their blossoming harp or pulsing flutes serving as apt extensions of Rosemary Lane‘s intricate gentleness. But somewhere between his reversion to coldness and the often chattery arrangements, Jansch gets crowded out, leaving the melodies to flounder from the lack of space.
If Rosemary Lane and Moonshine were Jansch’s “returns to his roots” so in vogue at the turn of the decade, L.A. Turnaround is the bridge to what Stateside strummers were up to. Moony pedal steel arpeggios subvert the expected twang while casual vocals ride freight trains and other symbols of the U.S. West; and yet the whole affair doesn’t reek of compromise. Maybe it’s the flash of a dreamy smile (“One for Jo”) or the general tidiness of the tunes, but Bert sounds quite comfortable here.
The wrong set-up for the wrong man, Santa Barbara Honeymoon slicks up and greases down Jansch with backup singers, steel drums, and the occasional synth, crafting an atmosphere stifling in its plasticity. Perhaps a stronger singer could sell the gloss, but without Bert’s usual guitar intricacies, his high-register strains have nowhere to hid; a real shame, because some of these—“Lost and Gone” in particular—would be beautiful in simpler clothes.
Although most any return from the sterile Santa Barbara Honeymoon would be welcome, it’s gratifying to see Jansch bounce back from his worst album yet with what may be his best. Much of this expands on its predecessor’s highlight, “Lost and Gone”, unfurling open vocals and deliberate choruses over natural imagery without the oversweetenings of before. If Jansch and his guitar are accompanied at all, it’s usually by drums, bass, and hillside violin, with the occasional mandolin or harmonica to keep things varied. The concluding three tracks’ off-the-cuff cool seems a less successful bid for diversity, but they’re hardly enough to sink the overarching warmth.
The cast is different, but the richness of A Rare Conundrum carries over, altered by stronger jazz influences and the simple fact that this is Jansch’s first voiceless LP. As startling as that is to realize, he too seems aware of the ground being broken, opening with an 18-minute opus far more ambitious than anything previously released. Despite an overabundance of harsh violin saws, “Avocet”‘s a success, featuring a rich concluding pulse and remarkable guitar/bass interplay—which makes sense given Danny Thompson’s status as fellow Pentangle founder. Other pieces take deep, meditative grooves further, helped by heavy phasing (“Bittern”) or an aching violin melody (“Kingfisher”), while Jansch’s solo piano debut uses slightly shifting repetition to hypnotic effect (“Lapwing”).
The Rhodes upsets previous albums’ instrumental balance, and just when it seems Jansch has boxed himself in, he brings out material more directly romantic (sometimes confessional) than before. “Down River”‘s wooing accordion, “Where Did My Life Go”‘s portrayal of indulgence, “Ask Your Daddy”‘s exasperated hair-tugging—there’s a refreshing casualness when compared with, say, Rosemary Lane. And while it may be mere preference, “Bridge”‘s gentle steps and pauses suggest it may indeed be time to strip the sound back to just guitars.
As I hoped, Jansch pared his arrangements back to guitars and rhythm section. Problem is, only his voice—and not his muffled guitar—takes center stage, leaving little respite from incessant melodic repetition (“Sit Down Beside Me”).
His first misstep not due to problems with production or instrumentation.