STRAWBS – The Magic Of It All

The Strawbs’ 2021 release ‘Settlement’ featured some fine music from the veteran musicians. Decades into their journey, it was possible for fans to experience Dave Lambert channelling Ant Phillips via some fine acoustic work, and moments where floaty, prog-ish arrangements lent the best material a thoughtful quality that really suited the band. Unfortunately, most of the album was rendered borderline unlistenable due to terrible vocals from Strawbs main man Dave Cousins. At best, he sounded like a ravaged old folkie – his voice worn by the years of musical storytelling; at worst, an asthmatic goblin, gargling with intent to sabotage the work laid down by his musical cohorts. It was the kind of album that all but the most diehard of Strawbs fans would spin three times and move on.

Thankfully, ‘The Magic of It All’ (the band’s 23rd studio album, released in 2023) is a step above its predecessor. It’s still rather rough around the edges, but the variety within the arrangements is much broader than before. More importantly, the live sound of the recordings makes the band sound really natural, and that really helps Cousins sound a little better throughout. Yes, he’s still long past his prime, but the material’s tight but loose feel suits him well when the musical wind is in the right direction, and a couple of the guitar solos are especially lovely.

‘Ready (We Are Ready)’ opens the album with a soft rocker that sounds like a sedate latter day Jethro Tull number. It’s arrangement features some very understated organ work underscoring a rhythmic shuffle, whilst Cousins embarks on a narrative that tells of a journey of people having escaped the “ruins of a city” for pastures new, and of how they settled by the sea, before the arrival of wintry storms. Aside from a couple of lead guitar interjections and the arrival of a very simple hook, very little happens until the two and half minute mark, accentuating any feelings that this is a suitable soundtrack to a tale of vast landscapes. As it happens, some of the more exciting moments derail the mood – there’s no excuse for the presence of parping, synthesized horns in 2023 – but even with its obvious flaws, there’s something quite likeable here, albeit in a slow burning way. In an interesting shift, ‘All Along The Bay’ finds the current Strawbs working through a jazz inflected tune with a Latin lilt. Its blend of acoustic twiddles, sultry horns, female vocals and brushed drumming veers towards the sound of a lounge band in places, but as before, some subtle organ flourishes draw a little further from a retro rock source, and the very natural production sound helps it to sound like the same band. Cousins, meanwhile, takes the opportunity to turn in a very relaxed performance, speaking his way through moody verses, and only really attempting to sing on the chorus. Unfortunately, the tones required are a little beyond his talents at this point, and he warbles and wobbles, almost killing the tune. Why a greater focus wasn’t placed upon the well rounded backing singers for this job is anyone’s guess, but for the more forgiving Strawbs fan, this tune will seem rather fun, nevertheless.

For lovers of acoustic Strawbs, ‘Wiser Now’ will have a pleasing musical backbone, as softly strummed guitars sit naturally against a slow bassline. As a mellow melody slowly unfolds, the track also brings some equally soft electric guitars which moan with a jazzy lilt. It’s the kind of easy listening blend of prog, folk, jazz and pop that you might expect from a band so long in the tooth, but all the smoothness in the world – unfortunately – just highlights another poor vocal. Even so, there will be fans who love this, and they’d have a point, since the instrumental second half is lovely, with an obviously Floydian colouring. There are a couple of piano moments that are distinctly derived from the Rick Wright school, and that’s (just) enough to forgive Cousins and his average mumbling. Moving into a mix of jazz and world music, ‘Lady of The Night’ combines a busy rhythm and choppy acoustic guitars in a manner that could be a distant cousin of an old Rusted Root tune. Cousins joins the upbeat arrangement with a tale that involves “peg-leg smugglers” and other characters occupying “bedraggled streets” in a brilliant folky tradition, whilst the rest of the assembled musicians go even deeper into a great arrangement. It’ll be the kind of track that’ll connect with the biggest Strawbs fans immediately. ‘Everything Means Something To Someone’ brings the album a genuine highlight when the music takes a definite backseat, and an array of gentle acoustic strokes are joined by a couple of soundtrack-like musical peaks. The quieting disquiet of the piece – right down to Dave’s mumbling vocals – is very reminiscent of Paul Buchanan’s ‘Mid Air’ album with its focus on a brilliant minimalism. It’s one of those tracks that no amount of words will do justice; being absorbed by its sad mood is an experience in itself, and despite not having much connection with The Strawbs’ folk rock musical past, it’s great to hear something this thoughtful coming from Cousins in his twilight years.

The title track isn’t quite as immediate as a few of the numbers here, but continues a rich vein of acoustic sounds and grand piano flourishes. Despite his performance not being melodically strong at this point, there’s something in the vocal lilt that suggests Cousins has been a little inspired by early Genesis, with a flowing melody that occasionally leans towards ‘The Cinema Show’, before another very retro sounding lead guitar takes centre stage. This is more about atmosphere than energy, or any kind of instant gratification, but it’s definitely another track that lends this album a quiet strength. Also very enjoyable, ‘The Time Has Come For Giving Back’ is particularly 80s influenced. The presence of a muted guitar beavering throughout the track lends a vaguely U2-ish flavour, and a busy-ish drum part where the hi-hat rattles against the snare also harks back to a mid 80s landscape. It sounds quite different to the bulk of ‘The Magic of It All’, but the arrival of a vocal choir – putting in a great performance on the chorus and swelling coda, where the lead guitar rises with some great soaring sounds – really helps it to fit with the rest of the material. Sadly, despite having far more claim to the Strawbs name than anyone else on this record, Cousins sounds like the weak link in his own band once more. It’s good, but the melodies and guitar work deserved something great. In an alternate universe, the idea of this strongly narrative piece being left in the hands of Chris Rea at his peak or covered by a thoughtful blues musician would be something to savour…

In yet another musical twist, ‘Paris Nights’ might provide some entertainment with its intricate acoustic work and lilting melodies. The soft guitars and floaty melodies could have led to something very folky, but true to the adventurous spirit that runs through this record, those understated musical sounds are used to create something very European. As the title suggests, this is a retro ballad in the old French style, and wheezing accordions and a jazz inflected vocal melody play well in tandem throughout. Other than the vocal, there’s nothing here that relates to the bulk of the Strawbs’ catalogue, and in some ways, its actually all the better for it. Love or hate ‘The Magic of It All’, it really isn’t a record that rests on any musical laurels. At the album’s tail end, ‘Christmas Ghosts’ offers something a little busier. The mix of organs and festive bells filling the intro might remind some listeners of the pastoral sounds of Big Big Train, and the core of the track sounds a little like older Strawbs with its use of harmonies. That’s enough to make it enjoyable, but there’s no excuse for sticking a seasonally dependent track on the end of this album – it’ll have no place in regular listening rotation for most. In terms of enthusiasm, it’s one of this album’s best tracks, but it feels very out of place.

Maybe it’s the fact that ‘The Magic of It All’ is essentially the soundtrack to a film of the same name that gives it that little extra something that ‘Settlement’ really lacked, but it is definitely a step back in the right direction for the band. Although it could never be held up against their classics – or even their best, overlooked works like ‘Nomadness’ (1975) and ‘The Ferryman’s Curse’ (2017) – its best bits are a welcome surprise. Whilst never top tier Strawbs, there’s just enough good stuff within to please the long standing fan, and even if it never reaches its full potential, it shows the band aren’t quite the spent force that the previous album all too often suggested.

Buy the CD here: STRAWBS – The Magic of It All

June 2023