Some songs can pass through generations like cultural DNA, and it is possible that the conviction and simplicity of Vashti Bunyan’s will assure she is still adored in 400 years. Just don’t call her a folk-singer.
Vashti Bunyan never regarded herself as a folk singer, and the release of Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind provides clear evidence for her case. This remarkably consistent two-disc set collects her early singles and demos, rare home recordings, and her first-ever recording session, (the tapes of which were recently discovered after 40 years in her brother’s shed and attic). Several of the songs here should have been massive pop hits, and there’s even a duet that could be mistaken for that extremely rare beast: a half-decent winner of the Eurovision Song Contest.
The undeniable purity of Bunyan’s voice and her use of imagery hewn from nature have led to the folk tag, and also to some people overlooking the darkness in her material. Anyone concentrating on the prettiness in this collection will miss themes of regret, death, contradiction, desire, revenge, freedom, defiance, and emotional numbness though the record does include some of the most superb humming ever recorded, (“Train Song”, “Find My Heart Again”).
The shoulda-been pop hits start with the Jagger/Richards-penned title track. Bouncy, sad and socially conscious in equal measure, it has the feel of Lee Hazelwood at his most sprightly. “I Want to Be Alone” strikes a poptastic balance somewhere between a Leonard Cohen lament and The Seekers’ “Georgy Girl”. The marvelous “Love Song” is a clever ode to aspects of a lover’s attraction (eyes, hands, hair) with a twist in the tale. It is mystifying that such high-quality singles were either unreleased or that they just flopped.
The quasi-Eurovision duet with Twice As Much on “Coldest Night of the Year” is an ever-so-slightly-steamy dialogue piece. It’s hard not to smirk as the male voice runs through a litany of reasons why he should be allowed to spend the night: “But I haven’t been well/ I might catch the flu/ Or a cold in my nose.” It’s no “Summer Nights”, but given the stellar arc of Bunyan’s fortunes it’s not too late for this track to become a Christmas smash. Also included here is the fabulous “I’d Like to Walk Around in Your Mind”, a song which, had it been done by Velvet Underground and Nico, would be considered a classic dark counterweight to the Summer of Love.
The second disc features Bunyan’s first ever recording session from 1964. She paid for an hour in a studio to make a demo and ran through 11 songs. I’m guessing the microphone was close to her mouth, as her guitar is sometimes so quiet that she seems to be singing unaccompanied. The material was mostly written when she was just 18 years old, and it’s impossible to know whether the gentleness in her quiet delivery or the assurance and sophistication of her lyrics reflects the real teenager. “Girl’s Song In Winter” is especially intriguing, due in part to our not knowing for sure if she refers to a dead lover or to their child. The sound quality of both discs is fine and the occasional crackle heard when listening via headphones is as exotically attractive as listening to the country blues on vinyl.
Many people are now aware of the story of Vashti Bunyan’s remarkable journey by horse and cart from swinging 1960s London to the Outer Hebrides. Disillusioned with her lack of success, she and her companion Robert planned to join a commune with Donovan. By the time they arrived two years later, he had already returned to the capital. Still, the songs she wrote along the way became her stunning debut album Just Another Diamond Day. Initially a commercial failure, its reputation as a lost legend made possible her extraordinary returns to recording and performing. After 30 years during which she did not pick up a guitar, (or even sing around the house), her songs and her voice retain a bone-chilling and spirit-warming power. But don’t take my word for it, go and hear her sing in person. You will never forget it.
The monochrome photograph on the cover shows Bunyan leaning against a wall on Lot’s Road, London. Her light-colored short coat and tights contrast with the dark brick wall and make her look like the statue that, in terms of musical output, she remained for three decades. While we’ll never know what would have been different if her dream of making the 1960s charts had come true, the opportunity to look back at these magical early shots at pop-stardom is a risk-free treat. Some songs can pass through generations like cultural DNA, and it is possible that, (unlike many of her disciples in the so-called psych-folk movement), the conviction and simplicity of Vashti Bunyan’s will assure she is still adored in 400 years. Just don’t call her a folk-singer.