Esoteric Antenna 2023
The last hurrah of English institution whose intrepid spirit should live on.
It could be this ensemble’s last album anyway but, when the cancer-battling Dave Cousins called his colleagues to join him in Cape Town to work on a documentary project, the band who had created "Settlement" didn’t exist anymore – for various reasons – so the undertaking of their final effort seemed an unfeasible feat. Thankfully, the group’s extended family is rather large, and their leader effectively reformed the creative core of 1970’s “Grave New World” which left a mark on a fight against the Pretorian regime of apartheid back in the day. As a result, the presence of Blue Weaver and John Ford lent the record the air of a classic line-up authenticity and also facilitated the alluring amalgam of subequatorial motifs and folk-rock idiom, rendering “The Magic Of It All” a truly magical offering.
Of course, the platter’s songs reflect the forthcoming farewell – the veterans’ last performance took place at Cropredy Festival in August 2023 – but the balance of parts in its bittersweet mélange of variously styled melodies is imperfect enough to allow the tunes’ mellifluousness negate the acidity and nostalgia of Cousins’ lyrics. He may revisit old times and old haunts in the dimly lit title track and the accordion-caressed “Paris Nights” and restore the anthemic tones of yore in apocalyptical, riff-driven opener “Ready (Are We Ready)” whose lush splashes of ivories sound menacing, or the idyllic “Our World” whose enchanting choruses evoke renaissance hymns – only these pieces see their communal pathos tempered by the poignancy and sincerity of Dave’s delivery. Yet whereas the download and vinyl variants of the album boast a sorrowfully philosophical – stating “Friendships that I once held dear / Fade away and disappear” – “Wiser Now” as a finale, the CD listeners will find this piano-rippled ballad followed by “The Lady Of The Night” which, reeking of rum and rhumba, resurrects the band’s erstwhile adventurous spirit with a lot of finely detailed gusto.
The Brits haven’t lost their ability to surprise either, the sax-spiced bossa nova of “All Along The Bay” wrapping half-spoken lines of verses in nocturnal elegance, before refrains resolve in mesmeric a cappella, but if “Everybody Means Something To Someone” marries intimate singing to solemn twang, the percussive, pulsing “The Time Has Come (For Giving Back)” swells and rages with vigorous vibrancy, and the humorously sympathetic “Slack Jaw Alice” struts to the groove of calypso. “Some folks say / I left it late”: these words show Cousins’ tentative uncertainty in his last step, “It’s hard to see a stop sign / When you’re walking ten feet tall” suggesting Dave’s pride in his enterprise, yet there could be no better way to say goodbye to the ensemble’s audience on the verge of STRAWBS’ sixtieth anniversary. A glorious denouement.