Never Meanin' No Harm
For many budding musicians, the first crush on a muse is life-altering. One moment, music is something to be played, like a child in need of a toy. Then with that first emotional explosion comes an epiphany, an understanding that washes over and transforms music into a force to be embraced and created; a child is not restricted by the toy, but rather creates playtime. Life becomes a constant pursuit of melodies carved from memories, songs erupting from simple gestures. Each convert subsequently follows their own path, occasionally crossing with others, but remaining unique to their respective vision.
In this manner, Clive’s Original Band (COB) converged and dissipated for a brief moment in the late ‘60s to early ‘70s. Three musicians—Clive Palmer, Mick Bennett and John Bidwell—happened upon each other in the town of Cornwall, found themselves to be in sync and shared their talents with each other. Although named after the Incredible String Band co-founder Palmer, the trio did not center on one man’s talents alone. Instead, the group played loose, enjoying the simple pleasures of trading musical ideas. Fresh off a trip to India and Afghanistan, Palmer brought non-Western modes, in addition to a broad knowledge of Scottish music. Bennett contributed songs and a strong voice. Bidwell expanded the palette through instrumentation. Together they recorded two LPs that have become idolized amongst record collectors. The latter of the two, Moyshe McStiff and the Tartan Lancers of the Sacred Heart, has just been re-released.
The impetus for a small company to revisit this ramshackle effort can be summed up in two words: folk revival (sorry record nerds). Certainly, there are plenty of comparable “folk” elements in Moyshe, notably in how the trio draws from traditional Anglo forms. One could even argue psyche virtues, notably the surreal medieval cover, au courant (at the time) lengthy title, and “world music” instrumentation that adds an “exotic” flavor. But this superficial line of thought also leads some to characterize me as being “Japanese” because I eat sushi, “Asian” because I am so polite, and “foreign” because I talk-a rike zis-u. Needless to say, this isn’t the case. Moyshe is an entity unto itself, a light-hearted document of three musicians in love with making music. Certainly, record nuts and music fans win at the end of the day, because they are putting fewer ducats into Radioactive’s coffers than they would into some other record nut’s personal account. Plus, they get some new liner notes featuring interviews with the band members. However, all praises here go to these good ol’ boys and their old fun timey.
At barely over a half hour, Moyshe is surprisingly packed with texture. From the opening double bass runs of “Sheba’s Return” segueing into the droning “Lion of Judah”, stately phrasing draws out a patient pace. Appropriately, Bennett sings here with both a weighty tone and a quaint lilt. In this manner, he adds density to “Chain of Love” and “Martha and Mary”, songs that exhibit careful arrangement, instrumentation and drama. Conversely, Bidwell and Palmer’s relatively plain and introspective numbers bring necessary balance. The two craft a quiet, descending guitar and dulcitar (an instrument of Bidwell and Palmer’s creation, it is a dulcimer with a widened bridge so that it twangs like a sitar) line that forms the foundation of “Let It Be You”, a soundtrack to a pleasant Sunday morning tea break. However, attention is kept at every corner. Even when Richard Morton Jack’s liner notes characterize “Eleven Willows” as borderline “conventional pop”, it is in fact a subtly complex loop of 11 beats and 11 verses, wandering through a thick storyline path.
This level of care never becomes overwhelming because the three keep the playing loose. On the sole “dance” number, “I Told Her”, a jangling balalaika bustles to the hustle of rough Russian folk music, but the ritards are not in unison, rhythm is pounded out to crude quarter note taps and Bennett warbles away with little care. While the group deliberately arranges each song, they also maintain a degree of disorder that suggests a disinterest in adhering to strict form. Although group producer Ralph McTell notes that the first album’s recording sessions had been “loose and undisciplined”, a similar approach seems to be at play here. Moyshe has the musical cohesion of an album, but is informal in performance.
Quite frankly, this approach could easily be written off as shitty and/or lazy. However, there is a sincere joy that is heard—and even documented, via Bennett’s “yippee!” at the end of “I Told Her”—here. The record succeeds by trying hard when it needs to, but always keeping perspective of what not to trip about. Thus, when Palmer sings “I don’t know the future / I don’t know what it may bring / But I sit and watch the sun go down / And wish the birds will sing” on “Oh Bright Eyed One”, he does not wish for an optimistic Waterloo Sunset so much as an embrace of the simple in modern times. Ignoring the collectors’ inflation of the record’s value and tempering the hyperbole of fans, Moyshe is an indulgence in contentment. It is three artists who had the luxury to enjoy each other’s company before moving on.