Among the major bands at the fore of the UK’s 1960s folk revival and the birth of folk rock, Pentangle is arguably the most underappreciated. Where Fairport Convention has become a revered institution, and Steeleye Span continues to win over rock audiences, and where the Incredible String Band is credited with breaking open the psychedelic barriers of folk music and the Waterson’s genetic line remains the first family of traditional British folk, Pentangle are often, in popular and critical esteem, treated as outsiders amidst the scene they helped to found. The Rolling Stone Album Guide, for instance, absolutely damns the band with faint praise, calling them “academic” and “more impressive than fun”.
While it’s true that the band strove for the kind of instrumental precision found in progressive rock (which they in no small way influenced) and that a Pentangle show was a performance as opposed to a concert, the band’s radical and surprising contributions to the foundations of folk rock cannot be understated. It was Pentangle who first brought jazz improvisation into the UK folk scene, it was Pentangle that re-established the connection between contemporary English folk and its medieval origins, and it was Pentangle who first added a rock and roll drum kit to traditional British folk songs.
The Pentangle’s sound was singular among their contemporaries and stands out even today. The primal element of jazz that Bert Jansch and John Renbourn brought to their playing was not simply improvisation but also an innate appreciation of space. Neither was afraid to allow the intervals between sounds to add meaning or emotion, and none of the band’s players ever seemed in a hurry to fill a gap, their comfort in playing as a unit amplified by their collective relaxation within the moment. It is significant that Rob Young, author of the definitive chronicle of Britain’s folk revival Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music titles the chapter dedicated to Pentangle “Air” (Fairport Convention gets “Earth, The Incredible String Band, “Fire”).
With Cherry Red’s release of the comprehensive anthology The Albums: 1968-1972 listeners have an opportunity to revisit the first and defining iteration of the band’s complete studio history. All six albums — The Pentangle, the double-LP Sweet Child, Light Flight, Cruel Sister, Reflection, and Solomon’s Seal — are collected here with a generous (sometimes overly so) sampling of demo variants and live tracks.
Based on the reputation that each of the individual members had already achieved before banding together, Pentange was initially referred to as something of a “supergroup”. Bert Jansch and John Renbourn had already released their influential Bert and John album featuring their revolutionary take on Charles Mingus’s “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” in 1966. Jansch was a Scotsman and inexhaustible student of Davey Graham’s DADGAD guitar tuning, so much so that his version of “Anjie” superseded its creator as definitive. He’d released four albums before joining Pentangle and had, on his third, already adapted the Childe ballad “Glasgerion” into a ten-minute epic “Jack Orion”. That song would be reworked to nearly double length to cover the entirety of the second side of Pentangle’s Cruel Sister. Renbourn, too, had released several influential records before Pentangle took flight, including Sir John A lot of Merrie Englandes Musyk Thyng and ye Grene Knyghte, which Young declares established Renbourn as a “serious musician of the order of a Julian Bream or John Williams”.
Singer Jacqui McShee was a well-established figure in the English folk-clubs of the early 1960s and possessed possibly the strongest voice among the golden age vocalists. She served as a bridge between the mannered vocalists of the folk rebirth’s initial wave, like Shirley Collins and Ann Briggs, and the more rock and pop-influenced singers like Fairport’s Sandy Denny and Steeleye Span’s Maddy Prior. Meanwhile, any conversation about the best bass player of the British folk revival should begin and end with Danny Thompson, and the same can probably said in discussing rhythm sections, with Thompson and Terry Cox having no equals. It is their interplay that anchors the Pentangle sound. Thompson is a sensual and aggressive musician whose double-bass centered the rest of the group. Cox brought a unique finesse, a delicate counterpoint to Thompson’s full-bodied playing, offering delicate brush strokes or glistening vibes around Thompson’s foundational grooves and slashes. Ultimately, it was Cox’s sparseness that allowed for the airy, intricate interplay of the other performers. Where bands like Fairport and Steeleye Span filled space with sound, Pentangle occupied it.
The defining characteristic of this re-release and its remixing is the dramatic emphasis it places upon Pentangle’s rhythm section. Earlier mixes focused upon the dynamic interplay of Jansch and Renbourn’s guitars as they wove around McShee’s glistening voice, which was sensible enough, but doing so often buried the equally arresting interplay of Thompson and Cox. In some earlier mixes, Thompson’s intricate bass strumming and bowing is all but turned to mud. Here, his contributions hold the equal weight they should, even rising to the fore at key moments. So, too, Cox is revealed as a master percussionist; unjustly overlooked in previous assessments, no one listening to these re-mastered tracks could make that mistake now. Overall, each musician is well-represented in the mixing of this anthology, which emphasizes the collective nature of their playing.
The seven discs here collect each of the proper albums in sequence (Sweet Child covers two discs), appending assorted live and demo tracks relative to the times of the album’s releases. While it is probably true that fewer listeners nowadays simply pop in a disc and listen to it from beginning to end, attaching the extras to the end of each album’s disc can interfere with the listening experience. Completists will appreciate the two additional takes of “Bruton Town” on disc one, for instance, but others might wish that this material had been placed on a separate CD. There are other examples, such as “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”, where the alternate takes aren’t exceptionally different or interesting enough to merit intrusion upon the enjoyment of the material that the band chose as representative of the time. The quality of the re-mastering here is the star of the new packaging; the discs don’t need to be filled to bursting with alternate takes to be enjoyed.
Which is not to say that there are not gems among the additional tracks, particularly the live recordings from the Royal Hall Concert that didn’t make the original Sweet Child release and later live cuts from Aberdeen, including a nearly 20-minute “Pentangling” featuring a solo that solidifies Thompson as a master of the double-bass. The Albums: 1968-1972 should be considered the definitive Pentangle collection for anyone wanting to experience the whole of this group’s considerable contributions to the British folk canon.