BRINSLEY SCHWARZ: BRINSLEY SCHWARZ (1970)
1) Hymn To Me; 2) Shining Brightly; 3) Rock And Roll Women; 4) Lady Constant; 5) What Do You Suggest; 6) Mayfly; 7) Ballad Of A Hasbeen Beauty Queen.
I like it how the band was named «Brinsley Schwarz», even if all the songs were actually written by Nick Lowe. But, to be fair, «Nick Lowe» sounds far less cool than «Brinsley Schwarz»; in fact, I don't even think that anybody's first reaction to the name of the band would be «oh, that's probably the name of one of the guys in the band», because there's just no way in hell that any single living person could have a name like «Brinsley Schwarz». Of course, guitarist Brinsley Schwarz had exactly that name, which makes it all the more exciting, and in 1965, he had formed a band called Kippington Lodge, which made the phrase «Hello, I'm Brinsley Schwarz from Kippington Lodge» the coolest thing on Earth since any number of lines from select Dickens novels. After the band's first singles flopped, though (they were written in the regular Britpop style after the Kinks and the Small Faces, and did not manage to be distinctive enough), Kippington Lodge was abandoned in favor of something more ambitious and less overtly English — and, after all, Schwarz is not much of an English family name, anyway.
Most people are introduced to Brinsley Schwarz by means of the label «pub rock», which was attached to them around 1971 and never really meant much of anything other than playing in pubs rather than large entertainment venues. Personally, I have always misunderstood «pub rock» as something down-to-earth, rowdy, and bawdy — anything from ʽHonky Tonk Womenʼ to Slade and Geordie — but even if you reject that definition and go along with just the «small scale» aspects of pub rock, it is still hard to view Brinsley Schwarz's debut album as anything of the kind, since it is clearly a very ambitious, if not a very successful, project.
In a nutshell, Brinsley Schwarz tries to combine country, folk, and «progressive» influences from both sides of the Atlantic — like a softer, smoother, subtler version of Traffic, largely avoiding that band's blues, rock, and R&B roots while still trying to hover in the air several feet above the label of «easy listening». They have this laid back, clean, professional, intelligent, if not all that exciting, sound going on, and sometimes they actually even manage to sound like early Yes — mainly on ʽLady Constantʼ, the first of the album's two epic pieces. At other times they manage to sound almost exactly like Crosby, Stills & Nash, which isn't actually that surprising if you remember that early Yes covered the Byrds' ʽI See Youʼ and that the distance between American folk- and country-rock and early British progressive rock actually used to be much smaller than its subsequent Tarkus-ization would lead us to believe.
This is all interesting in theory, but in the boiling-bubbling musical explosion of 1969-70 Brinsley Schwarz were not the only player in this game, and as nice as this album is, the songs just do not make that much of an impression. The band's harmony singing is pretty and sometimes downright angelic, but hardly exclusive, and both The Byrds and CS&N were there before. The hooks on the shorter songs are about as strong as on the average Traffic songs — variations on roots-rock themes with little emotional depth, since both the playing and the singing are usually kept in check and restrained (the fastest and most energetic song on the album, ʽMayflyʼ, is still played as if they were afraid to wake up the neighbors or something). And, worst of all, there is hardly any distinct personality behind the songs and the album in general — you can tell that they're really trying, but it is much harder to tell what they're trying or why they're trying it. The simple answer that they just like «soft rock» is no more going to cut it than if they just liked hard rock. I did spend some time trying to locate that one special angle, but no dice.
Actually, I do not want to put this record way too down, but it is hard to find kind words for pseudo-epic stuff like ʽBallad Of A Hasbeen Beauty Queenʼ, which simply has no reason to exist in a world that already has Van Morrison in it. After a brief and boring hard rock intro (for a change), the thing becomes a slow country-rock shuffle that tries to be psychologically deep and aims for a musical crescendo, but all they really have at their disposal is an organ player and a lead guitarist who are either too afraid or too shy to let their hair down, spending fruitless minutes trying out generic lead lines and finally just turning up the volume for the last «climactic» verse of the song. And the singer? Nick Lowe has a pleasant, intelligent tone when he is humming under his nose, and an ugly way of nasal screaming when he is going «all out», and by the time the climax has, you know, climaxed, he still has not convinced me that he just managed to tell me something important, deserving of ten minutes of my time.
In the end, it all boils down to a few nicely shaped country-pop(-rock?) tunes like ʽShining Brightlyʼ and a few moments when the sunny-day-laziness of the tune can actually seem like cynical wisdom (ʽRock And Roll Womenʼ). But only somebody who, incidentally, feels really tired of the insane, aggressive musical dynamics of the late Sixties / early Seventies could probably «love» this album — and even when I get those inclinations myself, I'd still rather take some guy who is very deliberate about getting away from all the hullabaloo, like J. J. Cale, over this half-hearted attempt to be «humble» and «progressive» at the same time, where the two tendencies just outcancel themselves rather than complement each other.
Thumbs down, then, if not necessarily accompanied with any hard feelings. Ironically, this is probably the same decision here that was made by contemporary British critics — some of whom felt themselves pressured by the so-called «Brinsley Schwarz Hype», instigated by their manager Dave Robinson, a good example of why it is fruitless to seek direct correlation between publicity and critical / public recognition, bypassing real musical merit. Fortunately for us, this was not the end for Brinsley Schwarz: in retrospect, their career, curve-wise, is somewhat similar to their contemporaries Mott The Hoople, who also began with a «promising failure» of a self-titled album around that same time, yet ultimately managed to find themselves at a later date.