AMAZING BLONDEL: THE AMAZING BLONDEL (1970)
1) Saxon Lady; 2) Bethel Town Mission; 3) Season Of The Year; 4) Canaan; 5) Shepherd's Song; 6) Though You Don't Want My Love; 7) Love Sonnet; 8) Spanish Lace; 9) Minstrel's Song; 10) Bastard Love.
There used to be a little-known British band called Methuselah, whose musical philosophy consisted of merging hard rock, folk music, and gospel and whose thinly veiled intent must have been to last for nine hundred and sixty nine years. (Not) coincidentally, their first album was released in 1969, and was named after the original four members of the band: Matthew, Mark, John & Luke. Oh wait, that was a different band. Anyway, instead of carrying on for 969 years, the group, having failed to attract anyone's interest, fell apart in less than one, and out of its ashes rose Amazing Blondel.
The original members were John Gladwin and Terry Wincott, both singers and multi-instrumentalists, and the original purpose was to cut down on the hard rock side of Methuselah (which never stood any competition with the real hard rock bands of the day) and emphasize the folky side, digging way deeper into Britain's musical past than the average folker of the day would usually dig. Many bands had previously borrowed elements of medieval and Renaissance music, but none of note had yet been formed around those styles — meaning that Blondel were not even competing with the likes of Fairport Convention, so very much a rock band despite all the folk influences. The niche was free, and Gladwin and Wincott were there to take it.
Had they been talentless nincompoops, the taking would not have mattered. Fortunately, Gladwin also turned out to be a first-rate composer (pocketing the lion's share of credits on all of the band's albums prior to his departure, and, unsurprisingly, the alleged decline of Blondel started exactly around the time of that departure), and few artists of the XXth century managed to prove the viability of Elizabethan and suchlike music more convincingly than Amazing Blondel did over the three or four years of deep inspiration that were granted to them.
The self-titled debut, also known as The Amazing Blondel & A Few Faces («Blondel», after all, is just one person, and the band always positioned itself as a collective force, despite Gladwin writing most of the music), is arguably Blondel's «lightest» and «most accessible» record. With no extended instrumental suites and not as much academic purism as the band's ensuing output, it is a perfect introduction for all those who prefer to wade in slowly than to dive in head first. Ten songs that range from gallant pastoral balladry to what may pass for 19th century barroom entertainment, with shades of gospel and even a little R'n'B — each one built around a catchy, friendly, sing-along chorus and embellished with thick, well-varied «multi-instrumentation».
It can very clearly be seen, though, that the band's strength tends to increase in direct proportion to the archaicness of their influences. Stuff like 'Though You Don't Want My Love', which can easily be imagined as gracing some second-rate Atlantic artist's country/R'n'B crossover record, is tolerable, and sung with as much fire as possible, but still sort of useless. The gospel wave of 'Canaan', although delivered with enough sincerity, is hardly all that exquisite. 'Bethel Town Mission' is a generic «lowbrow» folk tune, performable by just about anybody etc. etc.
It is the courteous trouveur thing at which the band really excels, starting with the opening 'Saxon Lady' and continuing with such fragile beauties as 'Season Of The Year', 'Shepherd's Song', and 'Minstrel's Song'. The arrangements weave together guitars, mandolins, pipes, subtle orchestration, and sometimes even «extraneous» elements, e. g. sitars and tablas on 'Saxon Lady', which somehow manage to fit in perfectly with the atmosphere. The instrumental melodies are not so much original (for the most part, they must be little more than variations on older themes, although I have no expertise on that) as they are highly «unusual» in a 1970 setting, and the vocal melodies are sung in a nice compromised manner between XVIth century mannerism and XXth century heart-on-the-sleeve style.
However, on the whole I would still classify Amazing Blondel with those records on which the «so-so» material is ennobled and illuminated by the first-rate compositions rather than the opposite (first-rate compositions dragged down by the filler) — because the band is fully committed to making their sound work, regardless of whatever it is they are actually playing. There is not one truly «weak» moment here, and, in a way, the diversity of approaches may be easier to stand than the much stricter «mono-channelling» on some of the more classic records. Thumbs up; had I begun my acquaintance with the band ten years earlier, it would even have been possible for A Few Faces to be rated above everything that followed.