Sunday, December 7, 2014
Just Another Diamond Day - Vashti Bunyan
This is the 2004 re-issue of Vashti Bunyan's debut album originally released as Philips 6308 019. When this album was originally issued, it hardly sold at all making it a pricey collectors item when people finally came to appreciate its excellence. I became interested in Bunyan via her connection to Joe Boyd who produced this record. Boyd was of course the manager/producer for the Incredible String Band, Nick Drake and Fairport Convention all of whom I loved. I was really into the British folk rock scene and was dying to hear this album but I never could find a copy I could afford. I was delighted when it was reissued and thrilled to hear that it was just as great as I had imagined. I think it was one of the best records Boyd was ever involved with although I guess he does not agree since he devoted only a single page of his autobiography to it. Rob Young in his marvelous survey of British folk music, "Electric Eden" focused almost his entire first chapter on Bunyan and the remarkable story behind this album. In the late 60s Bunyan and her boyfriend, Robert Lewis, set off from Kent in a horse and wagon they bought from a gypsy (depicted on the gatefold of the album.) They were heading north to Scotland to the Isle of Skye in the Hebrides where their friend Donovan had purchased some land to start a hippie commune. Their plan to join the commune did not pan out and they ended up living in a primitive cottage on the nearby island of Berneray. Bunyan composed the songs on this record during her arduous journey and while living on the island. She recorded it while pregnant in late 1969 and when the album flopped upon its release the following year, Bunyan abandoned the music industry. It would be 35 years before she would make another album. Even if this had been the only album she had ever made, it would still insure her an important place in the history of British folk music. It is an absolute masterpiece. The record opens with "Diamond Day" which celebrates agrarian life. The song features a lovely recorder and string arrangement from Robert Kirby who also did some of the string arrangements on Nick Drake's "Five Leaves Left" album. "Glow Worms" continues the celebration of a natural life as Bunyan delicately croons about the world she observes around her on her journey. The melody of "Lily Pond" sounds like it was derived from "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" which suits its fairy tale like lyrics nicely. Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band plays Irish harp on the song bolstering its string sound. "Timothy Grub" recounts the beginning of Bunyan's journey. In the song she and Lewis are forced to leave their encampment by a pair of policeman. They get picked up by a friend in his car but the car runs out of gas. Stranded, they encounter a gypsy with a horse and wagon that they buy to continue their trip. The song has a charming jazziness to the melody that reminds me of Nick Drake. "Where I Like to Stand" was co-written with John James who plays a dulcitone on the album and painted the animals on the album cover. He was also the friend with the car that ran out of gas mentioned in "Timothy Grub." The song celebrates life by the ocean as Bunyan sings about watching the waves and the fishermen and enjoying the natural world around her. A pair of Fairporters play with Bunyan on this song, namely Dave Swarbrick on fiddle and Simon Nicol on banjo and they enliven the simple child-like melody. "Swallow Song" describes the passing of summer into autumn with the usual emphasis on the natural world. The song features another evocative string arrangement from Robert Kirby. Side one concludes with "Window Over the Bay" co-written with Robert Lewis. The song is traditional sounding with only minimal accompaniment and the first verse sung acappella. The song is another paean to agrarian life that sounds like it was inspired by life on Berneray. This lovely song is one of my favorites on the album. Side two begins with "Rose Hip November" which is about the changing of the seasons, autumn giving way to winter. It also anticipates the birth of her son Leif. This haunting song is another one of my favorites. Williamson plays whistle and harp on this song which gives it a rich instrumental texture. "Come Wind Come Rain" returns to Bunyan and Lewis' trip across the U.K. and traveling in the wagon in the winter elements. The sprightly tune resembles "Lord of the Dance" by Sydney Carter which in itself was derived from the 19th Century dance tune "Simple Gifts" by Joseph Brackett. Carter's song was covered by Donovan (on "H.M.S. Donovan") so perhaps Bunyan heard him play it and the melody stuck with her. For what it is worth, I greatly prefer "Come Wind Come Rain" to "Lord of the Dance." Nicol on banjo and Swarbrick on mandolin accompany the song to great effect. Lewis co-wrote "Hebridean Sun" which looks forward to their arrival in the Hebrides and celebrates the first signs of spring. Bunyan's intimate vocal on this song really sends me. "Rainbow River" idealizes the life of a boy growing up on a farm enjoying home-baked bread and fresh fish from a river. Robert Kirby's recorder arrangement enhances the idyllic feeling of the song. "Trawlerman's Song" is another collaboration with Lewis. It recounts the joy of a fisherman returning home to his family after being out at sea. It has another wonderful intimate vocal from Bunyan. "Jog Along Bess" is about Lewis and Bunyan's wagon, their horse Bess who pulled their wagon, and their dogs Blue and May who came along on their journey. The jauntiness of the tune is bolstered by Williamson on fiddle. The album concludes with "Iris's Song For Us" which Bunyan got from a pair of her Berneray neighbors, Iris McFarlane and Wally Dix. It is a love song filled with images from nature. It is very traditional sounding particularly since one of the verses is sung in Gaelic. Swarbrick's fiddle adds to the traditional flavor of the song. It gives the album a lovely finish. I adore this record, but I imagine some people may find it excessively twee. It could have easily been self-indulgent hippie hogwash, but Bunyan's immense talent and sincerity insures that it always rings true. I'm drawn to Bunyan's sensitivity and the delicate expressiveness of her voice, it mesmerizes and relaxes me. I find that this album sounds particularly wonderful late in the evening by candlelight or on a wintery afternoon staring out the window sipping a cup of tea. Recommended to fans of the Incredible String Band who wish they weren't so noisy.