A warm, intimate collection of late-period recordings from one of the great unsung heroes of folk music is now available in a lush boxed set.
Count Bert Jansch among the scores of singer/songwriter/musicians who have failed to get their appropriate due, even posthumously. The Scottish musician, who gained considerable fame as a member of the folk/jazz band Pentangle in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, is one of those artists whose record and concert sales never quite matched his critical acclaim. He was also lauded by fellow musicians of all stripes: Jimmy Page, Johnny Marr, Neil Young and Paul Simon are just some of the artists who have loudly sung Jansch’s praises. Young even went so far as to say that Jansch -- who died of lung cancer in 2011 -- did for the acoustic guitar what Jimi Hendrix did for the electric.
Despite a brief Pentangle reunion in the ‘80s, Jansch concentrated on his solo work in later years, a unique brand of dark folk that incorporated gruff vocals and his typically thorny, intricate guitar playing. A trio of albums he released in the ‘90s -- along with an additional disc of outtakes and demos -- is lovingly compiled in a new boxed set, Living in the Shadows. While the three albums were all originally released within the span of a single decade, they often differ in style and execution and are a fitting reminder of Jansch’s welcome eclecticism.
The first album, The Ornament Tree (originally released in 1990), incorporates a healthy dose of Celtic tradition, with plenty of fiddles, flutes, and bodhrans fueling Jansch’s arrangements of traditional melodies. His bracing baritone soars over solo acoustic guitar figures in the opening title track, but is soon joined by a warm collection of traditional instrumentation on songs like “The Blackbirds of Mullamore” and “Tramps and Hawkers". It’s a lovely mix, expertly yet loosely performed, as if in a warm, drunken pub. Jansch occasionally steps away from the mic for instrumental performances of “The Rocky Road to Dublin” and “Lady Fair” which go a long way in making a case for Jansch the musician/arranger and not merely the singer/songwriter (as if there was previously any doubt).
The follow-up to The Ornament Tree, 1995’s When the Circus Comes to Town, largely bypasses the Celtic folk for a more unadorned, direct style more in line with contemporary folk. Acoustic guitar is front and center, but full band arrangements are also thrown in and provide a healthy mix of styles. “Back Home” incorporates a sparse, loose rhythm section and backing vocals that evoke Desire-era Bob Dylan. Like Dylan, Jansch’s roots are in folk, but he isn’t afraid to bow to more conventional pop/rock styles if they suit the tune. Occasionally the album takes an ill-advised turn; “Summer Heat” is a somewhat self-consciously jazzier number, with a dizzying soprano sax making an unwelcome, out-of-place appearance. It’s the kind of sonic anachronism that Van Morrison occasionally toyed with in the ‘80s, but it doesn’t suit Jansch’s folk aesthetic. Meanwhile, the straight-ahead 4/4 drumming in “Just a Dream” works well with the acoustic strumming and paints Jansch as a more obscure version of Richard Thompson.
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In 1998, Jansch released Toy Balloon, the third disc included here, and it’s somewhat of a step up from its predecessor -- more focused with more assured performances. It’s a bit all over the map but in a good way. Expertly executed covers, like a sparse, sublime acoustic version of the standard “She Moved Through the Fair” sit comfortably next to the bluesy, full-band shuffle of “All I Got” and the country-fried Southern soul of “Sweet Talking Lady” (complete with a chugging horn section and ballsy slide guitar). But Jansch never completely abandons his meat-and-potatoes folk style, with complex instrumental acoustic numbers like “Betts Dance” and gentle folk ballads like “Just a Simple Soul” and the heartfelt title track.
For music fans accustomed to the general structure of boxed sets, the fourth and final disc of Living in the Shadows (titled Picking Up the Leaves) should come as no surprise -- alternate takes, demos, mostly recorded in Jansch’s home -- but for Jansch fans and completists, it’s a small treasure. Hearing familiar songs in different, often rawer atmospheres brings many of the songs into a new light, with an unmatched warmth and intimacy. There are also a few songs never available elsewhere, in addition to random guitar noodlings with typically tossed-off titles such as “Untitled Instrumental.” In fact, two of the untitled instrumentals are guitar duets with former Jansch’s former Pentangle band member John Renbourn.
Living in the Shadows is vastly enjoyable peek at some wonderful late-period Bert Jansch albums. It’s by no means a definitive collection of his best work -- no serious Jansch collection should be without his 1965 debut solo album or 1974’s L.A. Turnaround, for instance -- but it’s more than enough proof that Jansch continued to make valuable, resonant music during his later years.