BARCLAY JAMES HARVEST: ONCE AGAIN (1971)
1) She Said; 2) Happy Old World; 3) Song For The Dying; 4) Galadriel; 5) Mocking Bird; 6) Vanessa Simmons; 7) Ball And Chain; 8) Lady Loves.
Only their second album, and already they are taking steps in the wrong direction. Granted, the result no longer sounds like a bunch of easily guessable tributes — something more uniquely their own is starting to congeal in the middle of the bubbling broth. But what is it? Is it juicy, or even eatable? Does it stand competition? Does it show taste? Can we put a finger on it?..
Judging by how much Mellotron and strings there are out here, the band has finally pitched a stable tent somewhere right next to the Moody Blues' bastions — dumping their rootsy-rocky avatar (ʽTaking Some Time Offʼ, ʽGood Love Childʼ) for good. In a way, they had their reasons: the band's overall «wimpy» visual appearance and overall predilection for artsier material did not agree well with attempts to «rock out». But on the other hand, John Lees was a capable rock guitarist who knew how to swing an axe, and now that he had decided to only swing it in «epic» mode on ambitious symph-pop compositions, the band clearly lost something.
This time, the heaviest rocker on the album is actually a blues tune — a Wolstenholme original, somewhat incompetently sporting the quite unoriginal title of ʽBall And Chainʼ. Actually, I am not sure what exactly is original about the song's blues progression, unmemorable vocal lines, or angsty vocals, but all the guitar work is good: they can play generic blues with plenty of technicality and energy, it's just that in 1971, if you wanted the latest and greatest in the blues, you went out and bought yourself some Led Zep. Or Layla, if you were still scared o' the devil.
Naturally, much more interesting is the band's latest batch of symphonic art-pop songs with an epic sweep — Les Holroyd coming out on top with ʽShe Saidʼ, which has that good old-fashioned «stately desperation» feel, greatly aided by Lees' distorted wailing guitar parts, also in the blues vein even though the song itself is written well within the British folk tradition. The chorus tries very, very, very hard to overwhelm — falling very, very, very short of the mark, because "and I will always love her, and I will always care" neither qualifies as a great lyric nor as an unforgettably chanted tagline, but overall, still quite impressive.
The sad, solitary atmosphere is carried over to the aptly titled ʽSong For The Dyingʼ and, most importantly, to Lees' ʽMocking Birdʼ, which would go on to become a signature tune for the band and one of their most frequently performed numbers. The song is said to have begun life as an acoustic folk ballad in 1968, but now it has matured into a full-scale epic, with strings, brass, Mellotrons, and guitars that keep building up and up and up until you start suspecting the boys of having ingested one too many Mahler symphonies — not that this really sounds a lot like Mahler, more like Max Steiner or something, still, they do have a feel for this kind of thing to match the ambition. The lyrics are, again, the weakest part: "there's a mocking bird, singing songs in the trees" as the central vocal hook is something that not even James Taylor would probably allow himself in 1971, and this here tune aspires to so much more.
Lees is also responsible for the shorter folksy ballads, such as ʽGaladrielʼ (a Tolkien title was imminently unavoidable, I suppose, even if there are no direct elfish references in the lyrics) and ʽLady Lovesʼ (which could just as well have been called ʽGaladriel IIʼ, for that matter) — on the whole, writing approximately two-thirds of the album and consolidating his grip on the band, but, like I said, mostly at the expense of hard rock ambitions. On the whole, they clearly intended Once Again to be less «pop» than the Moody Blues — but in their nobly motivated attempt to put aside not only hard rock riffage, but also any sort of upbeat, mid- or fast-tempo pop-rock, they created a record that is... well, you have to be in a very lazy, relaxed mood to benefit the most out of it. Otherwise, the monotonousness might quickly wear you down.
Still, there is no denying neither the complexity of the occasional arrangement, nor the catchiness of the occasional vocal flourish or guitar shriek, nor simply the fact that, «once again», it works — the band's combination of folk, blues, pop, and symphony may be a far cry from the reckless experimentation of their «progressive» contemporaries, but it is melodic, involving, and manages to combine pomp with a certain humility of character that was not at all typical of most of the active players on the scene at the time. Thumbs up.
Check "Once Again" (MP3) on Amazon