STRAWBS – Settlement

Like any band with a long history, Strawbs have gone through many changes over the decades. Musicians have come and gone; they’ve seen dozens of members come and go since their inception in 1964 – including legends Rick Wakeman, Sandy Denny and Curved Air’s Sonja Kristina – with each one bringing something different to the band. Through it all, Dave Cousins has been there to steer the ship. In fact, aside from very occasional silences, Strawbs have always existed in one form or other even though a lot of people would believe they threw in the towel some time during the mid 70s.

Their 21st studio album ‘The Ferryman’s Curse’ gained the band some of their most positive press in a long time, and justifiably so. By the time you adjusted to the fact that Cousins no longer possesses what you’d call a traditional “singing voice”, the album featured some fine performances – particularly the folk derived ‘Bats & Swallows’ and a couple of proggier sounding tracks. ‘The Familiarity of Old Lovers’ and ‘When The Spirit Moves’, especially, showcased some wonderful guitar playing that often evoked the glory days of 80s prog with strong echoes of Steve Rothery’s early work. It wasn’t a perfect record by a long stretch, but there was enough goodness within to suggest the veteran band weren’t done just yet.

Like most bands, Strawbs found themselves sidelined by the Covid pandemic and 2020’s ‘Settlement’ features recordings made in isolation at different home studios. Its best material comes together in such a way, though, that you’d still believe that long-serving members Dave Cousins, bassist Chas Cronk and guitarist Dave Lambert had met, planned and jammed in the conventional way. Unfortunately, on at least half the album, the arrangements seem to fall victim to this less than ideal set-up, meaning their work here – made in collaboration with drummer Tony Fernandez (an on/off Strawbs man since the 70s) and keys man Dave Bainbridge – often falls short of the best bits of the acclaimed ‘Ferryman’s Curse’. That isn’t to say it doesn’t offer a few gems for the bigger fan, of course.

The album’s best side isn’t necessarily presented straight away, as the title track opens the record with some really live sounding acoustic guitar work and the kind of scratchy vocal that makes Cousins sound like a goblin. His voice has been past its best for a while, of course, but it seems especially jarring here. Thankfully, things improve a little by the time a rockier riff takes over. That’s partly due to taking a little more of the focus away from Cousins, but mainly because the arrangement’s natural punch eventually becomes this number’s most memorable aspect. That hard, but simple impact is a perfect fit for edgy lyric concerning being “nobody’s fools” and “a time when consultation is a lie”, and as the band throws themselves into this opening performance – somewhat ungracefully – it seems that there’s a lot about this track that is quite unsettling. If you’re a more forgiving and long-time fan, this can actually be seen as a good thing; Strawbs – for better or worse – don’t seem to believe in a comfort zone or phoning in a new work for a quick quid. And as the moments pass, if any of this track’s rougher elements continue to irk, a brilliantly played organ solo and some fine slide guitar at the death do a lot to save face. In fact, these lead breaks more than suggest that this is an album that’ll provide some great music along the way, even if the songs don’t all hold up.

During the much better ‘Each Manner of Man’, a few melodies appear to hark back to ‘Ferryman’s Curse’. Strident acoustic guitars take the weight of a fine melody, over which Dave Lambert is able to sing out with clarity. Moving into a second verse, things get a little rockier: the drums hold a pleasingly rigid melody; the vocals intensify and then – finally – a strong organ melody glues everything together. Despite working remotely, the band sound assured and by the time Lambert launches into a fine and prog-ish solo, this becomes an easy highlight. Also enjoyable, the short instrumental ‘Flying Free’ will provide a welcome distraction where a world of jangling acoustic guitars come together on a timeless sounding folk melody, overlaid with a simple mandolin riff. Although brief, it’s nice to hear Strawbs unleashing something akin to their inner Fairport. Of particular note here is Cronk’s contribution: he offsets the simple and repetitive main melody with a flurry of notes working around a descending scale. His upfront and busy style allows an all too brief glimpse of a very gifted musician; a man who was always a thousand times better than the crude end of the pier tat Roy Hill dragged him into as one half of Cry No More. A second instrumental, ‘Choral’ provides another standout by not shying away from the band’s proggier side, with a massive organ solo and a busy rhythm that pulls the very best from the Genesis and Yes catalogues while clinging onto a world of massive semi-acoustic strums that seem almost uniquely Strawbs,

‘We Are Everyone’, meanwhile, fares less well. It tries very hard to whip up a darker atmosphere with violin sounds, a moody Hammond organ and some brilliant distorted lead guitar, which all works out reasonably. The downbeat nature of the arrangement definitely helps the simple refrain take on a weird spookiness when heard in three part harmony but, unfortunately, these fine features aren’t quite enough to sustain any long-term enjoyment. The track really suffers for having a clanky, repetitive strum throughout – the core of the music starts in a non-committal manner and never really changes, leading to somewhat of a dull plod. This is a pity, as guest vocalist Cathryn Craig – previously a guest on Strawbs’ ‘Blue Angel’ back in 2003 – deserved much better. The clarity in her voice, although underused, sounds like the perfect contrast to Dave’s world-weary grumble. …And this seems to sum up the essence of ‘Settlement’s most flawed material: the ideas seem solid enough, they just rarely seem ready to be given the send off they deserved. The seven minute ‘Champion Jack’ presents another massive misfire when a quieter arrangement calling for vocal perfection is held back by Cousins’s very worst mumble-wail, making everything very hard to listen to for any more than a minute at a time. This is a pity since the narrative driven lyric seems crucially important to making the first half of the number fly. A mellotron sound and booming drums take the focus away from Cousins somewhere around the 5.30 mark, but chances are, most people will have lost interest by then. That’s made more unfortunate by the fact Lambert turns in the album’s greatest solo within the final bars. Sounding like Steve Hackett playing the music from the end credits of The Young Ones episode ‘Flood’, he doesn’t hold back. In terms of grandiosity, beauty and a feeling of timelessness, this is ‘Settlement’s finest moment.

Lambert also shines throughout ‘Strange Times’ by tapping into some very Ant Phillips inspired acoustic work. His strings seem to audibly shimmer throughout the entire four minutes. The best musical throwbacks to Ant’s ‘The Geese & The Ghost’ and Genesis’ ‘Trespass’ are joined by an equally pastoral lyric where Cousins sings of “air from windows” and “sounds of marching bands”. Underneath it all, the feelings of pure reflection and longing for the outside world seem very much inspired by the pandemic and lockdown – something that should be incredibly touching. Instead, a particularly horrible wailing vocal lets the side down, and chances are you’ll find yourself increasingly trying to tune it out in an extra effort to appreciate Lambert’s fine playing. For the Strawbs apologist, the pastoral melodies and wistful nature will surely make this a favourite; for the casual listener, the vocal will certainly be a massive turn off, to say the least. Although some fans will make excuses for Cousins and his lack of vocal finesse being due to age, it’s worth remembering that David Crosby was almost 80 when he recorded ‘Sky Trails’ and his voice still resembled the honeyed perfection of his youth.

Closing the CD, the six minute ‘Liberty’ finally unveils something that sounds more like a true callback to the previous album. Taking a rockier approach, the track finds Cousins and Lambert in fine harmony on a number that seems instantly familiar. Almost echoing the moments in the late 80s when Jethro Tull became prog’s answer to Dire Straits – albeit with less of an energy – Lambert’s lead guitar work shifts between simple soaring sounds and angry slide touches in a way that threatens to become the dominant feature at a couple of points, while Bainbridge drops in a couple of Don Airey-ish keyboard flourishes. It’s great to hear the band rocking out a little more and definitely helps finish a hit and miss album on a more positive note. [Vinyl fans should note that they will miss out on this gem by not buying the album on the supposedly inferior CD format.]

If you’ve held onto fond memories of albums like ‘From The Witchwood’ and ‘Grave New World’, but have not bought a Strawbs album in a while, this probably won’t be for you, no matter how much positive press regarding the later albums might have swayed you. ‘Settlement’ is very much an album geared towards the long-term fan – someone more forgiving of their flaws and more ragged elements. It’s an album that seems unafraid in reminding the listener of a road-worn band, valuing naturalism over everything else. It doesn’t come close to being as good as ‘Ferryman’s Curse’ – perhaps due to the restrictive nature of its creation – but three or four tracks certainly make it an interesting collection filler.

December 2020/January 2021