STRAWBS - THE MAGIC OF IT ALL - REVIEWS
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STRAWBS MAGIC INDEED - review by Dick Greener
A very creditable album indeed – repeated listening brought out a few tracks which I originally didn’t click with, which have now gone up the list. There’s some fabulous lyrics and some good melodies to go with them
A shout out for Blue’s production and lovely to hear the accordion back in Strawbs repertoire (a favourite moment on that Bursting At The Seams tour was when Blue came out from behind the keyboards for an encore of “Will You Go”) and welcoming saxophone as a new Strawbs instrument. There is a party style atomosphere to some of the songs, reflecting the new influences which Dave has embraced (is this the Strawbs’ Graceland?).
Also, some of the best recorded Cousins vocals ever, hats off to Dan Lucas the UK engineer in Kent at the Joplin House.
Ready (We Are Ready) - Classic modern day Strawbs – a very strong opener. Muted drums and mobile bassline underpins nice power guitar and Blue organ playing. Great echo on Cousins vocals – what I originally thought was vaguely 80s, quite strident keyboard sound - but Dave has corrected me: it is his electric dulcimer which picks up with a riff riff after the second chorus, with guitar interjections. Third verse some classic Cousins emphatic vocal mannerisms (“we are like wolves!”) Fourth verse drums and organ with vocals over the top, then swelling organ, leading to power guitar for final choruses. Closes with the keyboard riff.
The Magic Of It All - Guitar figure starts this retrospective of Strawbs’ career. Piano and choral vocal sounds, then fragile DC vocal with choral backup on the chorus phrase. Drums and bass join for second verse. Some nice choral backing for verse 3. Tastefully understated guitar solo. Verse 4 then “I’m Not In Love” style choral sounds for final verse “the waterfront at Cape Town the latest port of call”.
All Along The Bay - Unusual brass opening for Strawbs against funky shaker-driven beat. DC vocal mainly spoken rather than sung, almost a Strawbs rap. You can hear him chuckle at one point. “Always rhythm in the air, all along the bay” … saxophone to close and the sound of running water.
Everybody Means Something To Somebody - More emotional heartfelt DC vocals over guitar figure. Drums picking out a rhythm. Tinkling piano joins with guitar for verse 2. Massed vocals on chorus. I saw Dave perform this one in Chiswick in 2022 – very emotional for him.
Our World - A Cousins/Ford collaboration, which works well. Guitar figure. A few rattles of drums, then mellotron flutes join for verse 2. The chorus has many voices. Another guitar figure with nice choral vocals, then some more mellotron over the guitar. Nice echoey doubled guitar figure to end.
The Time Has Come For Giving Back - Choppy electric guitar and bass, then drum and rolling deep organ growing till riff leads to verse. Other voices join for chorus. Quite political lyrics. Rhythm and lead guitars over organ in middle eight and in coda, along with some great drums and soaring electric guitar soloing.
Slack Jaw Alice - Again an unusual sax-enhanced rhythm for a Strawbs song, and accordion gives it a sort of Cajun feel. Cousins talky-style vocals, lots of humour. Sax solo in middle eight. Abrupt end.
Paris Nights - A slow and heartfelt ballad. Parisian accordion to open and gentle acoustic guitar. Vocal style reminiscent of “Face Down The Well”, some in English, some in French. Accordion definitely the dominant instrument on this track.
Wiser Now - Acoustic guitar figure opens. Descending chords, gentle drums. Guitar over strings sound. Lyrics talk about friendships fading, “locking away the old stage props, but making music never stops” Piano comes to the fore and the chorus “you live forever in my dreams” plays out, with a nice piano/bass and guitar solo section, with a bit of bassy synth thrown in for good measure. The a gentle acoustic guitar coda
The Lady Of The Night - Syncopated bass and rat-a-tat drums, with African high voice “bap, bap” vocals. Some cracking wordy DC lyrics “there are clowns, there are jugglers, there are pegleg one-eyed smugglers”.. “there are duckers, there are divers, there are unremitting skivers, all night long the music ebbs and flows”. Later: “there are sorcerers, there are comics, there are scaled down philharmonics” there are finances, there are dances, there are secret necromancers”. Marimba middle eight with more “bap bap” vocals. Great abrupt end.
Christmas Ghosts - Another Ford/Cousins song – John taking the vocals here. Strawbs’ first Christmas hit, with all the Christmas tubular bell and sleigh bells you’d expect. Some nice organ playing from Blue. Christmas choir voices.
CHRISTMAS IN JULY - review by Dennis Lazor
Christmas came early this year in two ways, let’s start with the first. The Magic of It All, if it indeed becomes the last gift given in the Strawbs canon of work (and based on recent interviews by Dave Cousins I doubt this will be the case), the album is a fitting end, a tender goodbye. Wistful without being overly-sentimental, nostalgic without being maudlin, clever without being cloying, both the lyrics and the playing by this current lineup delivers the magic promised in the album’s title. Strawbs fans all have their favorite lineups and many may wonder how these songs would sound with Willoughby’s twiddly bits added, Lambert’s powerplaying, Cronk’s bass work, but the Strawbs have always been mercurial as to membership, and that has been part of the appeal and the curse - the newness, the freshness personnel changes bring, the lack of continuity that leads in some fans to disappointment. The Strawbs sound has always morphed since their bluegrass beginnings, but had cemented around the view the band is primarily a progressive rock outfit, with signature epic three-part songs. If you are expecting that version of the Strawbs on this album, you will be among the disappointed; if you are one to move with their changes, you will love the album.
The album opens with “Ready (Are We Ready),” one of the more overtly political songs Cousins has penned, and one that would have easily been at home kicking offthe album Settlement. The call to arms against a political order no one can trust is propelled at first by bass and drum, leading to a rousing flourish of electric guitar and Blue Weaver’s keyboards to finish it off. A solid opening track, and of all the songs on the album, most characteristic of the Strawbs’ sound.
The album then turns gentler with the title track, a simple, delicate song of shimmering acoustic guitar, light-touch piano fills, and hesitant pauses of reflection. The vocals are delivered in a near whisper, adding to the mood of quiet reflection, each measure full of relish at the band’s journey through the last sixty years - from the days where they were “Young pretenders hungry for a break, Dreamers in a game of chance, Few others dared to take” to the present moment, “The waterfront in Cape Town, the latest port of call.” A standout track, and I doubt I’m not the only one happy to see the lyric wasn’t written as “the last port of call,” indicating more music may be anticipated down the Strawbs’ musical highway.
The true departure on the album from Strawbs of the past is “All Along the Bay,” with its ghoema rhythm native to Cape Town, a beat based originally on a single-headed, barrelshaped drum that is used to fuel songs that are both energizing and joyful. The song not only captures the rhythm perfectly, the lyrics recount a jaunty trip along the bay in Cape Town, and like The Magic of It All, the pleasures of that journey. Byron Abrahams’ saxophone launches the song, a rarity in a Strawbs tune but common in the music of Cape Town, and his solo is exceptional. The joy of both Kevin Gibson’s drum beat and the vocals is infectious, and the chorus of vocalists is rousing, joining in with the singing becomes impossible to resist, and it is hard not to bounce along with the melody, proving the truth of the opening lines, “Never was a time so good, Music as it should a-should, Ghoema, Mango Groove, Anything that makes you move.” Here, Cousins recites the lyrics co-written with Blue Weaver, at times chuckling as he delivers them, something I don’t recall occurring since a naked Rick Wakeman played in the studio during the recording of “Tokyo Rosie.” Reciting, half-singing, the lyrics makes the song more direct and conversational, engaging the listener, pulling them into the moment - a repeated strategy in this album from the opening chorus call and answer of “Ready, Are We Ready?”, here with Cousins at our side guiding us along the bay, and later, with “Everybody Means Something to Someone,” where the song breaks and he speaks the final line. There’s even the feigned disgust at a nearly spoken vulgarity in “Slack Jaw Alice.” I initially found these direct, spoken moments off-putting on first listen, but later realized they perfectly suit this conversation between the band and their fans, making the music more direct, a one on one experience.
The tempo shifts gears again with “Everybody Means Something To Someone,” a song that reminds us all to bridge the distances that come between us, caused by time or self-induced isolation, through making even the simplest gesture to reconnect with someone. As with the title track, the song is decidedly unhurried, forcing the listener to slow down, take a breath, contemplate those important relationships that had meant so much. The song ends with an a cappella coda that rises to the level of a mantra, in its truest terms - a sacred utterance, a numinous sound, that everybody means something to someone.
Cousins and John Ford share writing credit on the following song, “Our World,” another song in the vein of “Ready (Are We Ready)” and the song to follow, “The Time Has Come For Giving Back.” All of these songs have a retro-vibe to them of the summer of love, a more innocent time of belief in progress, the ability to change our natures and protect the many from the few who have co-opted power. While “Our World” starts gently (think “Sunday Morning” from their Deja Fou album), in the chorus it becomes a congregation of worshippers singing at full voice. “The Time Has Come” is much more direct and rock oriented from start to finish, ticking with anxious energy at the start, carried along on the eddies and swirls of organ, and emphatically punctuated with power chords. The final electric guitar solo to end the song is rapturous.
There is a real emotional and thematic variety to these songs, plenty of gear shifting from song to song, but still, subtle segues occur throughout, as in the next three songs that bring to a close the streaming versions of the record - “Slack Jaw Alice,” “Paris Nights,” and “Wiser Now.” The first of these three is one of the most fun tracks on the album, an unlikely but nonetheless genuine dance tune waltzing through Alice’s life in Paris of masquerades, rock and roll, and the jet setting life, whose selfish approach to living ends on a “vacant set.” The song hints and winks at more than what the lyric reveals, but the esoteric lyrics are part of the charm, as is the fine bass work by Schalk Joubert and Jonno Sweetman’s drumming, Abrahams’ saxophone winding its way between the lyrics mirroring the desultory and aimless life of Alice. This song has all the charm, humor, and joyful energy of Paul Simon’s “I Know What I Know” from his Graceland album - with the playing just as tight.
”Paris” continues its influence in the song that follows, Blue Weaver’s accordion transporting us to a seat within a Parisian cafe, the somber mood suggestive of both night and rain fall. Cousins is at his mournful best, reminiscing before the time when “Sunday morning, hear the bells, Paris bids its fond farewell” - continuing the focus upon goodbyes, the recollection of older days. Those themes continue into “Wiser Now,” another Cousins/Weaver co-write concerning the wisdom gained from the mistakes of the past, coming to terms with them, resigning to the march of time. With one exception - “Backstage the curtain drops, Lock away those old stage props, But making music never stops.” To this point, Cousins treats the song like a French chanteuse, soft guitar and piano, the melody light and diffuse, but the whole song turns on the word “stops” which Cousins stretches and extends defying the word’s very meaning.
That unwillingness to come to the end continues in the following lyric of “You’ll live forever in my dreams” a sentiment that can easily be extended to Cousins’ fans as well as those friends found and lost along the way. The whole band seems reticent to end the song, and there are multiple moments when it seems the song is indeed about to end but then guitar joins in, breathes life back into the melody, rising and falling like leaves in a swirl of wind, then the piano (is there an intentional or unintentional call back to “New Beginnings” from Deadlines?) on an ascending climb just to the point of stopping, before resuming with a heavier hand on the chords, insinuating the song is coming to a conclusion when the electric lead, now playing over the piano, soars and reaches again - and then a pause ultimately broken again, this time with acoustic guitar that takes the song to its hesitant close. Mauritz Lotz’s lead at the end is as fine as any you’ll hear, especially in a song with such an otherwise mellow and contemplative tone, Sweetman’s soft touch on the drums providing the song its tender rhythmic heartbeat.
“Wiser Now” is a fitting climax to the album, but this is Christmas in July, and for those who purchased the CD, additional surprises await. First, the CD came with a hand-signed postcard from David Cousins, continuing that sense of intimacy, connection, and gratitude that is the whole album’s focus, a gesture I assume cherished as much by the giver as the recipients. The CD also contains two additional songs, the first of which, “The Lady Of The Night,” which I suspect refers to the fans since they are the ones that Cousins may “have crossed paths, but never ever met” and are the ones to which he remains “ever truly yours.” The song is relaxed, breezy, full of clever lyrical lines and wry coming to terms with the past.
The final song, “Christmas Ghosts.” Is as the title suggests, a Dickensian Christmas song brought into the modern digital age. Ford provides the vocals (can it be a Strawbs record without someone else taking over the vocals on at least one song?), and he provides a festive end to the melancholy of many of the previous tracks. The song will easily find a place in many Christmas playlists. The song concludes with the lines, “There’s hope for the future, Let’s celebrate”, yes, both this recent release, and the hope for future Strawbs records to come - especially when they are this varied in style, theme, emotional richness, and artistic quality.
MUSICAL GOLD - Review by Ruben Swart
After reading some comments [on Strawbs Facebook Group] from people referring to the incredible new Strawbs album The Magic Of It All as a Dave Cousins solo album, I felt moved to share this quote from renowned producer and Strawbs cohort Tony Visconti, which sums up my response pretty well:
"All credit to Dave Cousins, who is the constant in all of the Strawbs' line-ups. He keeps reinventing himself and reinventing the Strawbs, consequently."
Dave has helmed this fantastic band through a myriad of marvellous line-ups from 1964 in London to 2022 in Cape Town. I love all of them in different ways and picking any one of them as a 'favourite' is frankly missing the point of Strawbs.
This album features members new and old. Blue Weaver and John Ford from 1973's illustrious Bursting At The Seams (something of a staple album in my family) are joined by mesmerising South African musicians Schalk Joubert, Kevin Gibson and Mauritz Lotz.
It is very much a Strawbs album. I invite anyone who calls themselves a fan to give it a solid listen (or two) before trying to make up your mind about the delightful contents within.
That is NOT to say that Dave Cousins solo albums are a bad thing at all either. His seven (if you count Old School Songs with Brian Willoughby and Hummingbird with Rick Wakeman) solo albums released between 1972 and 2008 all offer musical pleasures of a more reflective mood.
Thank you Dave from the bottom of my heart for the musical gold you continue to bring into our lives! We are so honoured that you came to record this in Cape Town, a special place now forever immortalised in “All Along The Bay”. Well done to this incredible group who have blessed the world with yet another diverse yet essential Strawbs album.
MAGIC OF IT ALL - Review by Pete Hartley
The Magic of It All is a memorable album. It is, quite deliberately, a retrospective, but cleverly and ironically, the retrospection is all new. Some of the lyrics look back, and the music from time to time resonates with previous recordings, but not in a laboured or indulgent way.
The satisfaction, melancholy, regret and celebration are tangibly there, but equally, there is the enthusiastic prompting to seize this day and make future ones more graspable. It is a retrospective with one eye firmly on the future. The message is sometimes blatant, sometimes enigmatic, never banal and nearly always meaningful.
The opening track has echoes of recent earlier work. It is solid and steady rather than innovative and it doesn’t quite capture the intensity of the call to arms of the Strawbs’ halcyon days. It is culturally narrow in comparison with the remainder of the album. The second track is on much more generally palatable ground and sets some of the fundamental moods and philosophies of the ensuing works. It is a song from the memory of the heart and as such it has a tenacious authority.
From the third track onwards, the album develops its individual texture. There is a pleasing juxtaposition of the allegorical, the philosophical and the joyful. Some songs have a style that is startlingly different to anything that has preceded this album due to the choice and mix of instruments and the timbre of the glorious female backing voices. There is a clearly discernible crisp, youthful, feminine, African tone to them which is exquisite in quality and ancient in authority. That vocal component is evident on several tracks and it is one of the absolute delights of this album.
Is it a typical Strawbs album? No – but then, find me a typical Strawbs album. The music has continuously evolved which is something Cousins has said categorises the band far more correctly than any genre label. I have to say, though, that if the lead vocal is removed, this assortment doesn’t really sound very much like a Strawbs album at all. It doesn’t sound like an album by a band – it sounds instead like an album by a collective of musicians and vocalists; a very good collective indeed. I really like it.
This album sits far more comfortably as a David Cousins collaborative opus than a Strawbs record. That is not a negative criticism. Two Weeks Last Summer and The Boy in the Sailor Suit rate very highly in my estimation, and much higher than some Strawbs albums. This is up there close to them. It is a really enjoyable assembly of quality music. With the exception of the opening track, the songs here will appeal to a much wider audience than any of the previous band-branded records.
Cousins’ creative canon can be thought of as a doppelganger in disguise. He draws deeply and honestly from his life experience which he then costumes with poetry and melody. He has always offered us truthful glimpses of heaven and hell as he perceived them, and those perspectives change as a person travels towards their journey’s end. The Magic of It All is the latest audible view. It’s lovely, thought-provoking and moving, and continuously rewards repeated listening.