Album Review

Strawbs – Settlement: Album Review

Dave Cousins and Co find a productive use for lockdown with a brand new Strawbs album.

Release Date:  26th February 2021

Label: Esoteric Antenna

Formats: CD, Vinyl, Stream

Strawbs have spent their time in lockdown productively.  Between May and November, the various members, along with their guests and a stellar producer, have beavered away in their respective home studios to come up with a rather special album, Strawbs’ first since their 2017 outing, The Ferryman’s Curse. 

Strawbs are going through something of a resurgence. Their present-day lineup of Dave Cousins (guitar, banjo, dulcimer and vocals), Dave Lambert (guitars and vocals), Chas Cronk (bass, acoustic guitar and vocals), Tony Fernandez (drums) and Dave Bainbridge (keyboards) bears a strong similarity to that of the band’s (relative) glory days back in the 70s and has been together in more or less its present form for quite a few years now.  On this, their 27th album of original material, Strawbs are augmented by former member John Ford, Irish vocalist Cathryn Craig and South African bassist Schalk Joubert and the production duties have been ably dispatched by ex-member and music industry mainstay, Blue Weaver.  And this massed assembly has certainly delivered the goods. This is Strawbs’ best album for quite some time!

Recording wasn’t straightforward; the band members and producer had to work remotely from each other, but the album came together remarkably smoothly and quickly during the period May-November 2020.  Indeed, the spectre of COVID permeates many of the songs of this album, either overtly or covertly, and, whilst Dave’s lyrics don’t refer specifically to COVID and the ineptitude and opportunism that populist leaders have exercised in their handling of the pandemic, it’s easy to read the inferences.

As is the usual case for a Strawbs album, Dave Cousins takes the lion’s share of the compositional credit, but this is not a one-man effort and the other members all chip in and take a welcome turn in the spotlight.  Settlement is a genuine team achievement.

The album’s title track gets the album off to a blistering start.  It’s a scathing commentary on the state of the populist western autocracies which, whilst not naming Trump, Johnson, Bolsorano et al by name, it leaves no doubt that they’re the ones pursuing policies of Crash And Burn and Sturm And Drang.  And the music, particularly in the swirling organ lines, takes us right back to the Strawbs of From The Witchwood.  Excellent!

In contrast, Strange Times is a soft, string-laden number.  As the song’s title suggests, the lyrics lament strange times, but they leave the listener to decide whether the reference is to the strange COVID days that we are all currently enduring, or whether the subject is something altogether more personal.  Either scenario works.  Judgement Day considers the dilemma faced by someone suffering a lack of direction and purpose and feeling excluded from society and takes another swipe at the self-centredness of those in command.  It’s an understated, thought-provoking song, brought to life by some divine synthesizer licks.

Each Manner of Man is a co-composition from Dave Cousins and John Ford.  John was, of course, a pivotal member of Strawbs during the band’s productive 1970-1973 period that encompassed not only their two most successful albums – From The Witchwood and Grave New World but also their hit singles Lay Down and Part Of The Union.  It’s great to see John back in the fold, and Each Manner Of Man is an enjoyable, tuneful, full-sounding slice of folk-rock with some great keyboard and guitar contributions.

Dave Lambert’s The Visit is a traditional-sounding folky piece with a catchy chorus.  The lyrics tell an interesting, enigmatic ghost story that leaves the listener wondering what happened next to the story’s main character.  Flying Free is another Dave Lambert contribution, it’s an instrumental interlude with jangly guitars and punchy bass that leave a strong South African taste and Quicksilver Days is another Dave Cousins song that could be interpreted as a reference to the pandemic, this time to the mental impact that the associated isolation can have upon the vulnerable.  It’s a wistful song, made all the more so by the soft, sympathetic instrumental arrangement of guitar, piano and flute.

Chas Cronk contributes his first co-composition of the album with We Are Everyone, a genuine album highlight that features some wonderful harmony vocals from Cathryn Craig.  The song simmers slowly as electric guitar and organ provide a slightly ominous edge.  The lyrics appear to deliver the optimistic message that by sticking together, we can get through the tribulations we currently face, but the vocal delivery seems to convey doubt and gives the impression that the words are being chanted by minds that are under the control of others.

Chorale is a Chas Cronk instrumental with electric guitar, organ and synth taking the lead as the soft introduction develops into a fully-fledged prog exploration, and Champion Jack is a slice of Dave Cousins at his storytelling best.  A co-write with Dave Bainbridge the song tells the life story of boxer-turned blues pianist Champion Jack Dupree in remarkable detail.  The song starts as a quasi-traditional folk song, with mandolin leading the instrumental charge, before reaching a rocky climax, dominated by soaring electric guitar.

Penultimate track, Better Days (Life Is Not A Game), is an enjoyable chunk of Bossa Nova, tastefully embellished by sprinklings of brass.  Four verses take us on a light, optimistic, journey through life before the inevitable sting in the tail reverses the optimism and puts the message into a typically gloomy perspective.  Chas Cronk’s pleasant Liberty rounds off an excellent and welcome album from a venerable British institution.  This was, indeed, lockdown time that was well-spent!

Settlement is dedicated to the memory of Tony Hooper, a founder member of Strawbs who was with the band from their earliest days in 1964 until August 1972, and again between 1984 and 1993.  Tony died in November 2020 at the age of 81.

Note that the tracks Champion Jack, Better Days (Life Is Not A Game) and Liberty are on the CD version of the album but are excluded from the vinyl version.

Although not a track from this latest album, we’ve included the video to A Glimpse of Heaven from From The Witchwood – in memory of Tony Hooper:

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