BARCLAY JAMES HARVEST: ...AND OTHER SHORT STORIES (1971)
1) Medicine Man; 2) Someone There You Know; 3) Harry's Song; 4) Ursula; 5) Little Lapwing; 6) Song With No Meaning; 7) Blue John Blues; 8) The Poet; 9) After The Day.
The key word is «short»: although ʽBlue John Bluesʼ almost reaches the seven-minute mark, the record consciously stays away from «epic sweep» this time around — almost defiantly so, what with progressive acts all around going in the opposite direction. Even if the decision was not set in stone (epic length would make a return on the next album, with rather questionable results), it was still important — BJH letting us know that they still pledge allegiance to the «art-pop» attitude of Moody Blues / Procol Harum in an era when the «art» and the «pop» components were beginning to get segregated once more.
And the results were worth it: most of the songs still work very well, on some level or other. Mellotrons, cellos, melodic vocal harmonies, a little baroque mixed in with a little gothic, and even the song titles and lyrics are somewhat improved, without any straightforward Tolkien references provoking accusations of cheap fanboyism or trend-hopping. At the same time, the entire album is permeated with a healthy sick world-weary spirit — nothing like a strong shot of intelligent pessimism to make a meaningful statement out of potentially empty art-pop hooks.
Of course, the Merlin-meets-Bradbury words of ʽMedicine Manʼ are not exactly a peak of «intelligence» per se ("oh what a cold surprise the flying horses cried"?), but the good thing is that they are vague enough to not warrant any direct analysis, just like Jon Anderson's blistering logorrhea (provided that the listener is not familiar with Something Wicked This Way Comes, which served as the chief inspiration for the song). The important thing is that the orchestral arrangements once again transform this dark folk ballad into something grand, stately, and ominous, and thus it sets the general tone for the album: softer and smoother than ʽShe Saidʼ (in general, Short Stories goes easier on screechy Lees leads, but the loss, for now, is compensated by many gains), yet just as retro-romantic.
On the other hand, ʽHarry's Songʼ, if you do not pay much attention to the words, may seem to be one of those «little man» tunes in a Ray Davies vein — actually, it is about the death of a parrot (no, there will be no gratuitous Monty Python references here), but parrot or person, it is a memorial song written without a gram of artificial sentimentality: in fact, it's an angry song, and the way they resolve the chorus — "something stirred today, and Harry he passed away", with the record's angriest riff echoing the pissed-off bitterness in John's voice — makes for one of the record's finest hooks. Arguably the best song about the death of a parrot ever written.
The «magnum opus» of ʽBlue John Bluesʼ is allegedly a lyrical swipe at the musical industry; it may take a few listens to sink in, since its basic structures are more «rootsy» than «artsy», but it moves quite self-assuredly from a slow piano ballad format to pub-rock energetics and back, as if illustrating the public demands of cheap entertainment over introspective depth — quite a clever song, really, that makes it all the more amazing how the band would very soon lose the ability to come up with such inventive moves.
In the meantime, Beatles fans — or, rather, ELO fans — will be mighty pleased with Wolstenholme's ʽSomeone There You Knowʼ, all of it built upon seductive Jeff Lynnian vocal modulations and power-pop guitar accompaniment; baroque folk lovers will welcome ʽUrsulaʼ and ʽSong With No Meaningʼ, two more contributions to the band's luvvable pastoral backlog; and ʽAfter The Dayʼ is «Armageddon-lite», way too melodic to properly reflect an end-of-the-world scenario, but moving all the same.
Overall, I would judge that Short Stories are tied with the self-titled debut as a solid proposition for BJH's finest half-hour: running a bit shorter on «major» hooks, perhaps, but without a single misfire or way-too-obvious rip-off — this here is a band that shows more than simply fanboy adoration of their influences, coming into its own as a markedly early 1970s guardian of markedly late 1960s values, so to speak. Too bad this homely magic did not work for long, but at least the tapes are still rolling. Thumbs up.
Check "...And Other Short Stories" (MP3) on Amazon