Fifty-seven years since their formation (and fifty-four since they shortened their name to Strawbs), the core of today’s line up dates back to 1973 when founder member Dave Cousins and recent recruit guitarist Dave Lambert were joined by Chas Cronk on bass, this, the band’s 24th studio album, Settlement, sees them being joined by Tony Fernandez who contributed drums on and off since 1977 and, having joined in 2016, relative newcomer Dave Bainbridge on keys while, among the guest musicians is Cronk’s predecessor John Ford. Each musician recording their parts remotely, it’s also produced by their former keyboardist Blue Weaver.
It’s a musically eclectic affair, opening with the heavy, foreboding and moody dramatics of the title track with its day of reckoning lyrics or, as Cousins puts it, the Sturm und Drung, and prog-folk keyboards, but then shifting to the quieter, more reflective prescient drumless ‘Strange Times’ with its fingerpicked acoustic guitar and strings.
Never ones to shy away from the portentous epic, there’s two seven minutes plus numbers, the first, carrying on the theme, is ‘Judgement Day’ with its steady brisk staccato drum beat, though this more about a sense of personal breaking down and loss of direction in the face of events, ending on a need for one another .
The second, which comes later in the running order as the first of three tagged under Off The Beaten Track, is ‘Champion Jack’, which tells the story of William Thomas Dupree who, born in New Orleans where was orphaned and adopted, learnt to play blues piano and box. Moving first to Chicago where he earned a living playing in bars and from there to Detroit, he met Joe Louis who persuaded him to turn pro, taking up the professional name of Champion Jack and winning several title fights. As the songs recounts, he served in the US Army and was a Japanese PoW on the Death Railway, eventually returning to San Francisco and from there to Halifax in Yorkshire where he met his future wife and, now too old to box, returned to his career as a bluesman.
Returning to the running order, another number anchored by Fernandez’s steady rhythm and a solo from Lambert, ‘Each Manner Of Man’ recalls the sound of the earlier vintage more folk-pop albums while, mandolin laying down an Irish air to the swayalong Lambert-penned ghost story romance ‘The Visit’ which segues into the bluegrassy instrumental ‘Flying Free’ with its gathering crackling percussion.
Spooked guitar and icy gothic piano notes and what sounds like shimmering autoharp bedrock the slow waltzing ‘Quicksilver Days’, a vaguely Gallic flavoured rumination on ageing and mortality that seamlessly slides into ‘We Are Everyone’ which, featuring harmonies by Cathryn Craig for some reason put me in mind of the mood evoked by Iain Matthews’s cover of ‘Woodstock’, again extending into a prog-folk instrumental, ‘Chorale’, providing a big orchestral and cathedral organ finale to the album proper.
It ends with the two other bonus tracks, first the joyous, upbeat carnivalesque Caribbean calypso ‘Better Days (Life Is Not A Game)‘and, finally, the nigh six-minute ‘Liberty’, seemingly channelling the dreamier side of ELO and further flying the flag of optimism carried over rooftops on the wings of song. Settlement pays in full.
Artists’ website: www.strawbsweb.co.uk
‘Judgement Day’ – radio edit: