Pennyless are not a band to stand still. Their previous album, In The Park, was three years ago and was heading into folk-rock territory without trying to be folk-rock. I preferred it to its predecessor which I found a little light. Now, with Strange Dreams, they have taken half a step backwards, two to the left and one forwards so this album is not as quite heavy but more intricate. The line-up is the same: Penny Stevens and Les Woods, multi-instrumentalists who write most of the songs, master of aerophones, Graham Dale and Colin Benton playing bass and bouzouki. They are supplemented by drummer Pete Edmondson.
Strange Dreams might be described as pastoral but I think I prefer to say rustic. Yes, its themes are drawn from the countryside but it is the countryside of the farmer and the labourer: hard-working men who still have time to stand and stare once in a while. It begins with a setting of ‘Shepherd’s Tree’, a poem by John Clare who is the subject of a later song. ‘Broken’ takes us into the realm of witchcraft and after the title track comes a pretty little guitar instrumental, ‘The Wren’.
The first of the Palmer songs, ‘A Leaf Must Fall’, is rather lovely and then the album changes gear with the wild ‘Gypsy Camp (Dream Tune)’, a complex interplay between the players that stays just the right side of cacophony. The second song from the Palmer camp, ‘Sweet Slavery’, is rather more forceful than its predecessors as Strange Dreams continues to move into heavier territory – there’s some nice bass from Colin here. ‘Morning Haze’ is Graham’s flute almost solo and then ‘Eels’ is the “folkiest” song here, in the old-fashioned sense of the word – a jolly rural piece that could only have come out of Lincolnshire. The final ‘Three Suns’ takes us back into mystical realms or, to put it another way, I’m not sure what it’s about. It plays the album out with fiddle and flute and probably that’s what it’s for.
To look at the album cover you’d take Pennyless for a pretty pastoral folk band and sometimes they do drift that way a bit but you’re in for a surprise. Pennyless are a multi-instrumental quartet from the fens or thereabouts, expanded from the trio that recorded Hanging Moon by the permanent addition of bassist Colin Benton and supported by drummer Tom Savage and cellist Jo Hitchin. In The Park is their fifth album and it can get quite heavy.
In fact, it kicks off in full-blooded folk-rock style with ‘Merrie Dance’, a better song than title, and throttles back just a bit for ‘Angels In My Drink’ before the bird-song that introduces the title track. That said, there is no single style to the band and that’s a good thing. ‘Grimes Times’, for example, written by the composing core of the band, Penny Stevens and Les Woods, is really jazzy, kicking off with saxophone from Graham Dale. Graham is probably the busiest man in the band playing keyboards and percussion as well as flute which combines with Penny’s recorder to contrast with the bass and Les’ electric guitar on the heavier numbers.
The band’s virtuosity is their key selling point and there are some really good songs enhanced by great arrangements. There is one cover on the album and that is ‘Chain Of Love’ originally by C.O.B. (younger readers can look them up). That pleases me a lot. What pleases me even more is that In The Park has the edge and bite that I felt was missing in its predecessor
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