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3 April 2017

Roy Harper - 'Sophisticated Beggar' (Big Ben)

For the fist time (I think) in Dislocated Underbite's eight+ year history, I happened to buy an LP that was exactly the next one to be listened to alphabetical. So this is both the next LP in the gauntlet and also its newest addition. Sophisticated Beggar is Roy Harper's first album, and one of the three I was missing (out of the ones I want, not his entire discography - FYI contact me if you want to unload a cheap copy of Jugula or Ghenghis Smith). Harper wrote some cute liner notes on the back explaining how he used to dislike this record but didn't mind it so much anymore, and singled out his favourite songs. For a man who's not always left the most comfortable body of work in today's woke/PC times, 'China Girl' is a hell of a way to open his first album. It's wistful and slight and built around 'oriental' melodies, which is somehow more cringeworthy than the concept; but then again whenever I hear 'Turning Japanese' I don't mind it so what's the difference? This is way before Harper started writing epic seventeen minute songs, and also before he really started to flesh out his instrumentation - Sophisticated Beggar is remarkably unsophisticated in terms of arrangement, built around his guitar fingerpicking and voice, a classic late 60s folk record with the influence of rock and British counterculture. But the fingerpicking is fantastic - during parts of this, such as the title track, I realise how fucking great his guitar-fu was, which I tend to forget in the glow of his songwriting. 'Committed' and 'Mr. Station Master' feature a full electric rock band, recorded in a wooly, almost lo-fi way, the latter built around a languid shuffle and dominated by thick organ chords. But both songs are kinda throwaway, closer to bubblegum than the dirgey, intense lyrical dumps he'd become notable for later. The other throwaway stuff ('Big Fat Silver Aeroplane and 'China Girl') at least fit the era, and the album congeals nicely. Rather than being a Dylan copy, theres way more of a Bert Jansch influence (heard most evidently on the instrumental 'Blackpool'). 'Forever', 'Legend' and 'October the 12th' stand out as songs that would linger into Harper's subsequent live career; the latter could be a more colourful analogy to Nick Drake's work, except Harper's voice has the undeniably cheekyness that works well with his more extravagant lyrics. 'Forever' is fucking gorgeous, with his singing earnestly mellow ('drawing into an eternal horizon of time' blends with the hypnotic guitar pattern and is one of my favourite Roy Harper songs in his whole catalogue). With Come Out Fighting Ghengis Smith he really takes a step forwards towards the frustratingly idiosyncratic and mostly brilliant artist he would be over the next decade and eight or so albums. Hang on, cause we're in for a lot of Roy Harper in the next few days.

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