Settlement is Strawbs’ umpteenth album and the follow up to The Ferryman’s Curse which was a superb prog record released in November 2017, but unfortunately associated with the untimely demise of producer Chris Tsangarides a month later. This record too is similarly tinged with sadness as it is dedicated to founding member Tony Hooper who left us towards the end of 2020. He would have been proud of his legacy though, as this is another fine continuation of the brand name. Credit should also be given to Cherry Red Records whose dedication to music has yet again come up trumps and brought ostensibly non-commercial music to the more discerning purchaser and listener.
This latest is to be released in 2021, a year that five decades earlier could have been the title of a sci-fi novel, but no one could have predicted that the premise would be the battle against the Covid Nineteenoids that had attacked the human race in its microscopic form. Defence tactics have included social isolation and this encompassed bands of musicians as well. However, technology has meant that many recordings could be made across the world without ever meeting up, and this Settlement is no exception.
This time, former Strawbs’ keyboard player and now Germany based Blue Weaver (Grave New World, Bursting at the Seams) has coordinated these twelve tracks into a cohesive oeuvre which features the same line-up as Ferryman. Long-service medal winner Dave Lambert still adds the volts to the unplugged, Lifesigns’ guitarist Dave Bainbridge supplies the classic stringy keys, Rick Wakeman’s chum Tony Fernandez on drums, and Chas Cronk plucking (and pedalling) the lower notes. Contributing their parts in the comfort of their own homes and pants, this is (as confirmed by the press release) a “remarkable achievement”, plus we get a couple of other remote guests too, notably former member John Ford who co-wrote Each Manner of Man with his distinctive Part of the Union singing.
Of course, it’s Dave Cousin’s voice that sums up this band, and the opening title track begins this real ale pub gig as folkies with keyboards as jugs of Hoppy Ending Pale Ale are downed with smiling recognition on the crimson faces in the virtually packed wood panelled snug. Strange Times is similarly engaging as a fireside accompaniment where times of danger and grief reflect this new normal. The piano is as plaintive as a plaintive thing with laughter lines, with the orchestrally swelling keyboards slowing up the drinking as the chords and autumnal arrangement warm the space twixt vest and woolly jumper…
Judgement Day is a jolly tale played with beer table percussion and that organ sound from “way back when”, but with a rock backing distinctively Strawby and a particular Ebow type electric motif throughout, rolling along with the message of lossnessness but ultimately hope?
The Visit is a chronicle of a lost love (sung by Dave Lambert) with its sea shanty type chorus but set in the leafy greens of the countryside, this is followed by Morris dancing to Flying Free, being one of two instrumentals which must have come out of a joyful folk jam. The second one is Cronk’s Choral, is a beautiful slice of strummy widescreen high definition prog which codas into an optimistic and grin-inducing organ motif. That would actually finish the vinyl version, but with the CD you get three ‘off the beaten tracks’ which are worth hanging on for.
Cathryn Craig’s Irish lilt duets with Cousins on We are Everyone, along with huge orchestral keys and subtle electric guitar which leaves the listener in no doubt at all that this punnet of Strawbs is as fresh as ever, and this track is near on an out take from the last fifty years as you can get. The fact that it segues into the aforementioned Chorale means the albums has already won its stars even though there are three tracks yet to come.
The story book is yet again opened for Champion Jack, a heart-string tugging tale of one man’s ultimate survival and re-birth after being interned into a Japanese prisoner of war camp. This is a poem that still resonates with many families today, but as a presentation made remotely, the production is plain beautiful, complete with a return to the Mellotron (or whatever is used nowadays), rubber stamping the good Captain’s discharge papers in its era…
Before the closing track of philosophical pondering, Better Days is a song for today and lockdown. It’s also in the genre of folk/mariachi with trumpets and burritos in equal measure. “Surely better days will come again?” it questions, and nothing sums up that sentiment like chicken, rice, and tomato salsa-ing in a floury wrap.
So, into the library it goes, sitting comfortably next to the others, but not for a while as we wait for the vaccine to take full effect and we all need a soundtrack for the waiting until the dust settles for good.
This album needs to be kept out and played for sheer comfort in what the world has currently become, and if anything, one of the album’s functions is for all fans of this band to re-visit last year’s album which feels very much like a companion. Appealing to the already fan rather than the Little Mix generation, sit back and acquire the taste because “There comes a time when every Settlement is due”. And that time is now.
01. Settlement (4:59)
02. Strange Times (4:29)
03. Judgement Day (7:16)
04. Each Manner of Man (4:26)
05. The Visit (4:42)
06. Flying Free (2:13)
07. Quicksilver Days (2:26)
08. We are Everyone (4:57)
09. Chorale (3:12)
10. Champion Jack (7:19)
11. Better Days (Life is Not a Game) (3:53)
12. Liberty (5:44)
Total Time – 55:36
Dave Cousins – Vocals, Acoustic & Electric Guitars, Electric Dulcimer
Dave Lambert – Vocals, Lead & Acoustic Guitars
Dave Bainbridge – Keyboards, Electric & Acoustic Guitars, Hammond Organ
Chas Cronk – Vocals, Bass, 12-string Guitars
Tony Fernandez – Drums, Percussion
John Ford – Bass
Cathryn Craig – Vocals
Schalk Joubert – Bass