Album Review Round-Up

Buried treasures from the British psych scene, songbirds Doreen and Irene Chanter, and American soul singer P.P. Arnold.

The releases in this review round-up all have something in common. All of them date from 1968-1971, and all represent opportunities missed, be it for reasons of music biz politics or just the wrong place at the wrong time.

Various Artists – ‘Looking At The Pictures In The Sky – The British Psychedelic Sounds Of 1968’

 Looking At The Pictures In The Sky – The British Psychedelic Sounds Of 1968 is a prime example of the latter, a lavishly packaged 3CD set that does very much what it says on the tin. Documenting the psych sounds from the year after the Summer Of Love, it’s comprehensive to a fault, and consequently a mixed bag. By 1968, it seemed that every beat group worth their salt had got Hendrix perms, nasty paisley shirts, and taken to psychedelia in pursuit of the gravy train. As a result, a lot of the set is less the doors of perception being opened by acid and a sweeping cultural shift than the door of a Top Rank ballroom being propped open by a wah-wah pedal.

For every gem like the Pretty Things’ imperiously mellotron-ed out Talking About The Good Times, Jethro Toe (Tull)’s genuinely odd Aeroplane, or The Move’s stomping Omnibus, there’s a lot of attempts by lesser-known bands to jump on the trends du jour with highly variable effect. Mirage’s clueless Hello Enid struggles to get much further than its title, while Turquoise’s obnoxious Sunday Best is a horrible pastiche of English Tea Psych that makes you wish you could punch sound.

Pastiche is very much the operative word for a lot of the set. Status Quo even succeed in ripping off their own Pictures Of Matchstick Men with Technicolor Dreams. There are however some real hidden gems from the likes of Orange Bicycle and future Bowie accomplices Junior’s Eyes. Perhaps the trippiest of all is Sunday Morning by The Five Day Week Straw People, which rewrites Scott McKenzie’s San Francisco into a hazy, gauzy, barely there strum that’s more Grantchester Meadows than Golden Gate Park.

❉ Various Artists – ‘Looking At The Pictures In The Sky – The British Psychedelic Sounds Of 1968’ is out now from Cherry Red Records, RRP £17.99

Wild Silk – ‘Visions in a Plaster Sky: The Complete Recordings’

In a similar vein is Visions in a Plaster Sky by Wild Silk, which rounds up the band’s 1968-69 recordings in a nifty package. A classic example of a band compromised by the agenda of a control freak Producer, they sat uncomfortably somewhere between baroque neo-easy listening pop and thumping hard psych. The Luton band led a confused existence under the aegis of brilliant but controlling Producer Shel Talmy, who chose their material, and refused to let them play on the records, making them basically a pretty nifty harmony vocal group on record. Some of Talmy’s choices were slightly rum, as the questionable lyrics to Break Down Juanita (“I paid for your donkeyyyyyy!”) testify. Also, as it turns out, Wild Silk’s recordings snuck out under a bewildering array of aliases in different countries, some unknown to the band.

Things improved once Talmy lost interest and handed over to the more sympathetic Hugh Murphy, and a tougher, rockier sound emerges as the band stretch out, clearly relishing being allowed to play on their own records. However, this came a little too late for Wild Silk, who didn’t last much longer. It’s a well-compiled set, documenting an intriguing band that never really took off, with the highlights being the harmony dream-pop of the title track, and harder later efforts Burn Down The Cornfield and The Man Who Knows.

❉ Wild Silk – ‘Visions in a Plaster Sky: The Complete Recordings’ is out now from RPM/Cherry Red Records, RRP £10.95

Birds Of A Feather – ‘The Page One Recordings’

Another, more striking bit of buried treasure is The Page One Recordings by Birds of a Feather, aka songbird sisters Doreen and Irene Chanter.

Stablemates of Elton John after a 1970 audition for Dick James Music, the sisters excelled in groovy, swampy gospel-soul-funk, topped off by their soaring vocals. The songs are a strident mix of covers (four by Elton himself, who helps out on piano and backing vocals) and five of Doreen’s originals.

DJM sadly doesn’t seem to have known what to do with the Chanter sisters, who drifted into backing singer work, but this collection is a strikingly confident body of work from a duo that should have made it bigger.

❉ Birds Of A Feather – ‘The Page One Recordings’ is out now from RPM/Cherry Red Records, RRP £10.95

PP Arnold – ‘The Turning Tide’

On similarly soulful and rare ground is The Turning Tide by PP Arnold. The irrepressible former Ikette and ‘First Lady of Immediate’ has had a long, colourful career since her 1966 arrival in the UK, and remains the only singer to have worked with Ike and Tina, Nick Drake, and the KLF. Recorded after her first run of UK hits and the subsequent implosion of original label Immediate, The Turning Tide is a ‘lost’ album made up of sessions produced by Barry Gibb from 1969, more tracks cut with Eric Clapton at the controls in 1970 (backed by the nascent Derek and the Dominoes), and a couple of ’71 cuts with Elton accomplice Caleb Quaye – and it’s an absolute gem.

The Clapton tracks are stomping Aretha-esque soul belters, while the tunes written by Barry and Maurice Gibb and arranged by Bee Gees arranger Bill Shepherd fall somewhere between gospel, R&B, and the peak baroque 60s Gibb action of Odessa. Arnold is astonishing, a breath of fresh air, soaring on the uptempo tunes, and a canny match for the young Barry’s tremulous white soul voice on his tracks. She’s not just a big voice, but her infectious personality shines through too. Some lovely audio verite is preserved at the end of Bury Me Down By The River, when Arnold sweetly calls out “Hey Barry?” and Gibb comes on the studio talkback to reply “Yes love?”

A lot of music that stays in the can for decades does so for good reason. The Turning Tide, held up by contractual wrangles is a glowing exception. With PP Arnold very much still with us, this album’s appearance after decades missing in action is something of a happy ending for both her and a true bit of buried treasure.

❉ PP Arnold – ‘The Turning Tide’ is out now from Kundalini Music, and is available from Amazon and other retailers.

❉ Martin Ruddock has written for ‘Doctor Who Magazine’, the ‘You And Who’ series, and is a regular contributor to We Are Cult. He lives in Bournemouth with a beautiful, very patient woman and teetering piles of records and nerd stuff. He loves writing, and may write something for you if you ask nicely.

❉ Martin Ruddock was recently a guest on Tim Worthington‘s podcast Looks Unfamiliar. You can find the episode here.

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