Some things just stick in your mind
by Ian Simmons
[ cdreviews ]
I find it fascinating how the past mutates. Until recently, the faux-naïve psychedelic folk of the late 60s that found its most visible form in the Incredible String Band (before they became Scientology bores) and Pentangle was pretty much a forgotten cause. A rant about Dr Strangely Strange or The Sallyangie (a pre-Tubular teenage Mike Oldfield and his sister Sally) was guaranteed amused non-comprehension from most quarters. Nonetheless, there remained enough interest in this forgotten corner of musical history that its most obscure manifestation, Vashti Bunyan’s one album Another Diamond Day (a late 60s zero-seller) could fetch significant sums on the collector's market. The alert might have read as the sign of things to come.
Next thing you know, there’s a whole movement based on this stuff, with Devendra Banhart singing Vashti Bunyan’s praise all over the place and Another Diamond Day sound-tracking a mobile phone ad. Not only has the album been re-released, but Bunyan is back recording and is generating enough heat for FatCat to raid her archives for earlier material, all lovingly compiled on 2 CDs here.
Though legend paints Vashti Bunyan as some kind of fey, frail spirit, too delicate for the music business (an idea probably entirely constructed from the sound of her voice, which is a reed-thin ethereal warble, forever on the edge of evaporation), this double CD paints a different picture. The second disc contains early demo recordings, made when she was about 19 in the mid-60s; they sound solid and confident, the work of someone who knows exactly what she wants to do. Shorn of 60s production, they are timeless and could have been recorded yesterday, underlining her strength as a songwriter. The first disc consists of various singles Bunyan recorded in the mid-60s and their B-sides, plus a variety of other tracks, some released, some not. It is easy to see from these why her career at this stage spluttered and faltered: her earliest work (in 1965-66) was recorded with Andrew Loog-Oldham in full English Phil Spector mode, loading the songs with bombast, all blasting horns and swirly strings. Her delicate voice is splattered across this like a hamster on a truck radiator. It is not a formula that suits her, and no wonder she ducked out to wander the countryside in a gypsy caravan before returning to the more conducive atmosphere of the late 60s to record Another Diamond Day.
While Vashti Bunyan’s later music has been contextualised as part of a retrospectively-revealed psychedelic folk 'movement', this set leads one to think about another neglected 60s axis, Andrew Loog Oldham and the people he used in his attempt to become a Phil Spector, and to realise why he largely failed. Loog Oldham chose a head-spinningly bizarre spectrum of women to front his efforts. As well as Bunyan, they included Nico and Marianne Faithful, of course (and even Alma Cogan), many of whom he fitted out with songs by Jagger and Richards songs, who could have made a reasonable living writing fluffy girly pop if the Stones had folded early - think 'As tears go by'. None of them particularly suited his overblown orchestral productions. While he was aiming at Phil Spector, he didn’t quite have his genius for arrangement, and most of his backings tend towards brassy MOR rather than wall of sound. The end result is a collection of oddly shaped curios, few of which bothered the charts much. Even Marianne Faithful only really got there due to her Stones association, her voice being the least characterful of the lot back then. It hadn't developed the lived-in-by-derelicts bark she touts these days which makes her possibly the only living woman to give Tom Waits a run for his money.
This is by the bye though. Many archive trawlings - particularly from relatively minor artists - are sorry affairs, curios for completists at best and one-listen wallet-leeches for the rest. This one, though, is surprisingly entertaining, demonstrating that Vashti Bunyan has been a quality songwriter from the start and remains a class act today... mobile phone ads aside.