Review: Strawbs Seeks Higher Ground

Strawbs/The Magic Of It All/Esoteric Antenna
Three Out of Five Stars

Strawbs have a vintage pedigree that goes back well over 50 years. Originally known for its daring and distinctive fusion of British folk and progressive rock, its branding has been singularly maintained by its chief architect Dave Cousins, the band’s principal singer, guitarist, and songwriter.

Nevertheless, Cousins takes a different tack with The Magic Of It All, dispensing with Strawbs’ most recent line-up and reuniting instead with seminal members John Ford—half of the breakaway band Hudson Ford—and Blue Weaver, the immediate successor to Rick Wakeman early on. However, the most dramatic departure comes with his recruitment of a group of South African musicians, a move that takes the band into entirely new realms, from the jocular tone of “Slack Jaw” to the romantic European allure of “Paris Nights” and the exotic sway that characterizes both “The Lady of the Lake” and “All Along the Bay.” It’s an interesting diversion, but a far cry from the anthemic echoes of early Strawbs classics such as Brave New World, Hero and Heroine, and Bursting at the Seams

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That’s not to say Cousins is in any way reticent to curb certain irrepressible instincts. “The Time Has Come” rails against the inhumanity and insensitivity that seems to have taken root in today’s society. The rule of laws broken down, Cousin declares. It’s not as I once knew, Kindness has been sacrificed, To please a chosen few.

So too, certain songs—“One World” and “Everybody Means Something To Someone” in particular —  soar on the strength of a massed choir and chorus, each a rallying cry to find a way forward through kindness and care. “Ready (Are We Ready)” and the title track offer additional affirmation, each an example of how unblemished optimism might unite humanity through one common bond. A bonus track, “Christmas Ghosts” adds more than a hint of holiday cheer that’s well in keeping with the hopeful feelings purveyed overall.

Of course, for all his beseeching, there’s no small amount of naiveté accompanying Cousins’ crusades. Longtime fans may find that they need time to adjust to his upturned attitude and the relative lack of theatrics that once distinguished those earlier albums. Nevertheless, given the uncertainty about Strawbs’ current status, it’s nice to know that its longevity persists. And that’s a magical concept in itself.

Photo by R Huggard / Glass Onyon PR

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