Friday, June 12, 2015

Steeleye redux

In preparation for my first live Steeleye Span concert in nearly two decades next month, I've finished listening through the band's albums from the intervening period, some of which I hadn't paid much attention to and the most recent two of which I hadn't even picked up until now. I'd been a close and devoted follower of all this electric-folk band's earlier work, with the epically memorable classic period of 1972-77 and the sizzling Silver Age of 1990-97 being particularly dear to my heart, but when beloved lead singer Maddy Prior left the band (temporarily, as it turned out), I kind of lost heart. Not that I had anything against the remaining female vocalist, Gay Woods, but it wasn't Steeleye for me without Maddy.

Too bad I took that attitude, because Horkstow Grange (1998), the first of two albums from this period, is a pretty good one. Very quiet and subdued by Steeleye standards, it has some lovely songs on it. However, Bedlam Born (2000), the follow-up, I don't care for at all. It's far too unbridledly noisy, especially in those songs where bassist Tim Harries takes over the electric guitars: the new melodies are dull (a problem that would continue) and the arrangements uncontrolled and tasteless.

This period ended in a complete meltdown - at one point Steeleye consisted of nothing other than fiddler Peter Knight managing a lone website - but a reunion band containing some returning old members, including Maddy Prior, got together to re-make the old favorite Steeleye numbers that had won a readers' poll on that website. This was called Present (2002). A studio re-make of songs we already had in their classic original versions was kind of superfluous, but these are good performances, plus the album has the stark acappella "Lyke Wake Dirge", a concert favorite they'd never recorded before.

And then they carried on. The next new album, They Called Her Babylon (2004), has two songs I really like: a long ballad called "Heir of Linne" and the title song, the only tolerable one of new guitarist Ken Nicol's wordy historical songs. The rest I find forgettable. It was followed by Winter (2004), a Christmas carol album, much better overall mostly because the folk material is so sturdy and the new songs in their spirit, and with some clever arrangements, like the light pop/swing version of "Hark the Herald Angels".

That was the high point. Bloody Men (2006) seems rather lacking in appeal, with only one really good song this time, the ballad "Lord Gregory", and even that isn't truly up to Steeleye's best. Its successor, Cogs, Wheels and Lovers (2009), has nothing really outstanding, but it's altogether more agreeable all around, with some clever steampunk-mechanistic arrangements.

That leaves the two newest albums. Now We Are Six Again (2011) is a track-for-track re-make of one of the classic-period albums (and not one of the best of those, either): a great idea for a concert, which this was taken from, but entirely superfluous as an album.* (There's a second disc of other miscellaneous concert performances.) Terry Pratchett's entirely un-folky lyrics for Wintersmith (2013) generate a stupendously mediocre rock album of the kind by famous rock bands that my college friends in the 70s entirely failed to convince me were masterpieces. By abandoning its folk roots entirely here, Steeleye has lost any reason I ever had to listen to them.

Let's hope they bring some of it back to the concert.

*This is the second time I've used that word, so let me add that I don't always consider remake albums of previously-recorded material to be superfluous, not if they bring a verve and immediacy to the music beyond the original's. By that standard, by far the best Steeleye live album is something with the confusing title The Collection Steeleye Span in Concert (1994, from the Silver Age).

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