Many people have wondered why Ashley Hutchings left Fairport Convention when they were at the height of their creative powers with the Liege and Lief album. The first Steeleye Span (Mk I) album Hark the Village Wait certainly did not warrant his departure. His vision would only become clear on the first album of Steeleye Mk II, the brilliant Please to See the King. The follow-up 'Ten Men Mop, or Mr Reservoir Butler Rides Again', would only deepen the concept and stands as the overall best album Steeleye Span ever made - any 'Mk'. In many respects, this album feels more like the predecessor of 'Please to See the King' - it is more acoustic, particularly Peter Knight's violin playing (that's no fiddle you're hearing there ...) which is unmatched by anything he's done after this. The great Martin Carthy strung a Telecaster with acoustic gauge strings and created a sparse style of folk rock that will forever define how things should be done in this genre - Fiona Richey be damned. So what gives this album the nod over all others? Maddy Prior's singing is one big reason. Much like Mr Knight's violin, it would never be equalled after this recording. Tyger's bass playing, particularly during the instrumentals is yet another carreer high point. All this is enough to make it - their best.
But there is something much more important about this album. It has a unique spectral quality - an eerieness that sends shivers up and down the spine ... compare it to a collection of Robert Aickman stories. It's a good thing this album was originally released on vinyl, since two sides of it is way too much in one sitting. 'Gower Wassail' being the perfect opener with strong four part A Capella vocals and that Telecaster stating the album's intent' what follows is the best set of jigs ever to come out of the British Isles. They'll knock you out of your seat, onto the (dance-) floor, where you'll stand wondering how he did that... The closing lament, 'When I was on Horseback', is shattering with the purest of vocal soarings set against a minimalist background that allows for an exquisite violin solo, with beatific pizzicato. Stop. Right there. Nothing can follow that. Save side two for another occasion.
OK - side two then. Marrowbones: "the pact between the Doctor and the Butcher - Ole! (liner note quote) is just that - fun and needed. The spookiness returns with Captain Coulston - an unforgettable haunting borne by a splendid motif of Carthy's Tele and solemn fiddling that verges on the hurdy-gurdy. The reels that follow provide the timely relief only a perfectly planned album will offer. Then comes a Vraiment Tour de Force: Ms Prior's singing on The Wee Weaver is only equalled in the best of Trans Atlantic gospel - a very alienating experience that should have you check out this album all by itself. The closer Skewball should have been the Single in a better world. It wasnt and it isnt. So the album did not sell, and never will. That's OK - they knew this at the time of release .... No commercial concessions were made, and justly so. This album will stand for all time, 'Loved by a Tiny Handful of People all over the World'.
Jan Zijlstra, Murfreesboro, Tennessee