❉ David Cousins delivers a life affirming album that celebrates the Strawbs’ half-century, writes James R Turner.
“The album itself is a celebration of 50 years of the band, and while Cousins sounds older and wiser here, there is still plenty of fire in his belly proving he’s not lost any of his bite or his railing against injustice… As a songwriter Cousins has never stood still, and it is a pleasure to hear a band in their half-century releasing albums as vibrant, original, and powerful as this.”
Before we look at the new Strawbs album, there has been lots of chatter online about the fact the album doesn’t feature any of the core band that have made up Strawbs over the last 20 years. Since Settlement was released, David Cousins has had serious health issues that meant he had to abandon the idea of being part of a touring band, and as he posted on Facebook, he was given a golden opportunity to take part in a documentary about the Strawbs’ impact on South Africa both pre & post-Apartheid. The opportunity to record with South African musicians as part of the project was too much to resist and so, having reached out to band members who declined to contribute ideas or time, David Cousins went ahead with recording a whole new Strawbs album with the cream of South Africa’s crop, and as a result the band who make this album are a totally different beast to the band who made Settlement, with the obvious exception of Cousins himself.
So, what should we make of the new album?
In light of David’s health issues, we can safely say these will be the last Strawbs shows, and whilst there’s no mainstays of the last twenty years involved, the unique voice of David Cousins has always been the heart of the Strawbs, and with John Ford and Blue Weaver involved, this evokes memories of the classic ’70s line up, with continuity from Settlement in the form of vocals from Cathryn Craig and bass from Schalk Joubert. The impetus for recording this new album in glorious Cape Town with a hoard of multi-talented international musicians, was a documentary about the impact of Strawbs around the world, and part of the documentary highlights David Cousins recording new songs with some of South Africa’s finest, engineered by Peter Pearlson who worked on Paul Simon’s Graceland.
With Blue Weaver returning in the producers’ chair and bringing his inimitable keyboards to the proceedings, and John Ford contributing via New York, what you get is another global Strawbs record, displaying the best of both old and new facets of the band. With a couple of John Ford and Blue Weaver co-writes, there are echoes of the 70’s sound in here, and then the contemporary musicians bring it right back to the 21st century with sounds you wouldn’t normally associate with Strawbs albums – saxophone, funky salsa rhythms and female vocal harmonies – that add plenty to the album.
The album itself is a celebration of 50 years of the band, and we’re treated to the wistful reminiscences of Cousins on the title track, an autobiographical look back at the band’s history, replete with plenty of lyrical nods to previous albums, whilst the playful The Lady of the Night, (the first of the two bonus tracks on CD) shows Cousins at his most whimsical and not taking himself too seriously, with some tongue-in-cheek lyrics including the couplet “there are painters, there are plumbers, there are antiquated strummers”!
While Cousins sounds older and wiser here, there is still plenty of fire in his belly from the rousing opener Ready (Are We Ready) and The Time Has Come (For Giving Back) proving he’s not lost any of his bite or his railing against injustice.
We also get traditional Strawbs ballads in the form of Everybody Means Something to Someone and Wiser Now and the more intimate recording techniques on some of these songs suggest that Cousins is writing from the first-person perspective and singing the words to the legion of Strawbs fans that have kept the band where they are for the past 50 years.
Elsewhere the international flavour continues with Paris Nights and the music hall-esque Slack Jaw Alice, and this fabulous album ends with the Cousins/Ford co-write Christmas Ghosts which feels incongruous to listen to in the heart of summer but is vintage Strawbs, echoing the sound of Bursting at the Seams.
As a songwriter Cousins has never stood still, and it is a pleasure to hear a band in their fiftieth year releasing albums as vibrant, original, and powerful as The Magic of All.
If this is the final album released under the Strawbs moniker, then David Cousins does the band’s legacy proud and delivers a life affirming album that celebrates the band’s career, which musically is treading new paths with the arrangements whilst staying faithful to the band’s sound. This is an absolute delight from start to finish and a late period gem to join the band’s mighty catalogue.
❉ Strawbs: ‘The Magic Of It All’ (Esoteric Antenna EANTCD1098) released 14 July 2023 by Cherry Red Group, RRP £12.99. Cherry Red Records have been releasing and reissuing the most innovative and independent thinking music since 1978. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site. The documentary “The Magic Of It All” will be released later this year.
❉ James R. Turner is a music and media journalist. Over the last 25 years he has contributed to the Classic Rock Society magazine, BBC online, Albion Online, The Digital Fix, DPRP, Progarchy, ProgRadar and more. James lives in North Somerset with his fiancee Charlotte, their Westie Dilys & Ridgeback Freja, three cats and too many CDs, records & Blu-Rays.