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31 October 2017

Bert Jansch - 'Birthday Blues' (Reprise)

Promo issue with white labels and no liner notes. Skipping ahead a little bit from the last few records, we now find Jansch immersed in the Pentangle supergroup, whose extremely rewarding records we'll get to in due time, but for those curious and unfamiliar, there's a new CD box set of essentially everything available. Back here for a solo record (perhaps songs that didn't fit into Pentangle's prolific output?), Terry Cox and Danny Thompson from Pentangle join Jansch, and with Shel Talmy's production, this is an entirely different beast than the folky, traditional-leaning content that came before. It's a bit like Dylan's similar stylistic change circa Bringing It All Back Home, I'd say. Acoustic guitar still dominates, but Jansch is content to pull back from the firestorm of fingerpicking and give more space to the songs, focusing on his delivery and letting the first-rate rhythm section drive things along. As a songwriter, Jansch has a clearly expressed romanticism with a dark edge. 'A Woman Like You' is a driving, melancholy force that is followed by 'I Am Lonely', one of the record's more delicate songs; the juxtaposition of the two is Jansch in a nutshell. His voice is so convincing on both tracks, warbling with vibrato that isn't overdone. Similarly, 'Poison' grinds forward with a mean edge, Jansch striking chords or sparse riffs while the song pulses along, driven by the full band. There's the presence of flute and harmonica on a few tracks, and a big saxophone part on 'Promised Land', but it doesn't feel overproduced. This was Talmy's genius, perhaps. Folk moved into folk-rock, but these Jansch records feel slightly resistant to it, hence the jazzy presence of the Pentangle team. This is expressed most overtly on 'Blues', a 12-bar instrumental with some improvisation, but as an album closer it feels a little bit, well, off. A record with such great songs ('Tree Song' should also get a shout-out for its childlike and earnest vibe, which also utilises the full band instrumentation nicely) should conclude with a bigger statement than 'we also like blues and jazz records'. Still, it's overall finely nestled into that sweet spot where bigger, more pop-orientated production dovetails with quality songwriting and thus it feels like a step forward, not a desperate commercial reach.

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