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Thursday, May 30, 2013

Barclay James Harvest: Baby James Harvest


1) Crazy (Over You); 2) Delph Town Mom; 3) Summer Soldier; 4) Thank You; 5) One Hundred Thousand Smiles; 6) Moonwater.

I used to think this was a «bad» album, and a real downer of a closer for the first and best period of BJH's presence on the scene. But a more just and balanced look would rather suggest that this is merely a «problematic» album, one that reflects pressure on the band from within (creative bickerings — something that inevitably creeps up when almost everybody in the band writes his own material) and without (apparently, some or all of them were exhausted from touring). And when Barclay James Harvest have problems, they don't beat around the bush: they simply fall back upon their influences and become even more derivative than usual, which is their own trade­mark way of being «uninspired».

The first «problem» is the name of the album itself — clearly alluding to Sweet Baby James. Not a smart move: it's bad enough to make a pun on a James Taylor album if you are going to make something that sounds like a James Taylor album — it is completely incomprehensible if you are not going to make anything that sounds like one. At best, the album opener ʽCrazy (Over You)ʼ may be said to sound like Crosby, Stills & Nash — in fact, it does sound very much like Crosby's ʽLong Time Goneʼ in its chorus — but overall, it wobbles between art-pop and progres­sive structures, never truly attempting to toy with the «California sound» or any other introspec­tive schools of soft rock. And the wobbling seems a bit out of control.

The album returns to epic format: side A is dominated by Lees' anti-war suite ʽSummer Soldierʼ, and side B is ruled by Wolstenholme's orchestral suite ʽMoonwaterʼ — apparently, the two were recorded separately, with Lees and the rest of the band working in Stockport while Woolly was rearranging the different pieces of the «Barclay James Harvest Orchestra» in London. The former is decently sewn together, and features at least one highly memorable «symphonic guitar» theme in the middle, one that probably wouldn't be refused by a Steve Howe — however, on the whole it just doesn't have enough muscle to convey the anti-war sentiment properly (and the straight­forward lyrics with their rally-like structure and clichéd imagery do not help much). The track's heavy use of sound effects at the beginning, with church bells, marching feet, gunfire, and looped tapes of "kill, kill, kill", may have been inspired by ʽThe Unknown Soldierʼ — but as far as my nerve centers are concerned, the Doors achieved much, much more over that song's three and a half minutes than Lees does here in ten.

That said, the Lees opus is still enjoyable and mildly touching, which is far more than could be said of ʽMoonwaterʼ — who on Earth wants to hear Woolly Wolstenholme do a straightforward Mahler tribute, particularly if (as usual) it comes out sounding like Max Steiner instead? This is neither proper Barclay James Harvest, nor proper progressive rock: just a lot of romantic melo­drama, aping late 19th / early 20th century masters without any major purpose.

Of the remaining songs, ʽDelph Town Momʼ is pleasant, well orchestrated folk-rock with a jazz streak; ʽThank Youʼ is a pleasant, upbeat rocker combining elements of «power pop» with a brawny «pub» attitude, although its repetitive looped riff is promoted a bit too heavily; and ʽOne Hundred Thousand Smiles Outʼ is a rather strange tribute to ʽSpace Oddityʼ and ʽRocket Manʼ at the same time (the freshly released ʽRocket Manʼ must have been the stimulus, but "can you hear me there below?" is way too similar to "can you hear me major Tom?" to be a coincidence — granted, Les Holroyd's singing is also at times highly reminiscent of Lennon's style, so the song is a real crazy mishmash of influences).

Overall, except for ʽMoonwaterʼ, which is simply an important-sounding waste of time, each of the songs has something to offer for the not-too-demanding art-pop lover. The album's major problem is that the band is once again short on genuine creativity — for their self-titled debut, this could be excused, but now that they had almost begun coming into a style of their own on Short Stories, Baby James looks «regressive» in comparison: solid if judged exclusively on its own merits (and ultimately deserving of a skeptical thumbs up), but somewhat disappointing when viewed in context.

Check "Baby James Harvest" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Baby James Harvest" (MP3) on Amazon

1 comment:

  1. George: You have been way nicer to Barclay James Harvest than I could be. I just finished finally getting thru all of their HARVEST YEARS best-of, which covers their 1st 4 albums you reviewed here -- & most of it was pretty bad. Occasional good songs -- "Mocking Bird," "Brother Thrush," "Taking Some Time On," "Ursula" -- but most of it sucked. They had some talent, but not too many ideas, & most of the time they just weren't very inspired, as you said. There was a time I could've appreciated something like "Dark Now My Sky" just for the outrage of it ... but I'm not 16 anymore.
    I think there are some bright spots in their later albums ("Ring of Changes," "Hymn," "Poor Man's Moody Blues," "Spirit on the Water," etc.), but those later albums are also wildly uneven.
    Anyway, hope you continue with the BJH reviews, & it's nice to find your blog. I'd read a lot at your old website after seeing your comments at Mark Prindle's Reviews, & it's good to see you're still at it. Keep up the great work....