Starry Eyed & Laughing – Bells of Lightning: Album Review

70s janglemasters, Starry Eyed & Laughing, take flight a full forty six years, and counting, since their last Byrds infused outing. Has the wait been worth it?

Release Date: 30th September 2021

Label: Aurora

Format: CD / Digital / Vinyl (TBC)

Well this was somewhat unexpected! Those of us with a collapsible memory may well recall the name of this fondly remembered act, their title lifted from Dylan’s Chimes Of Freedom, their modus operandi from the Byrds version of the same: exquisite vocal harmonies and chiming electric 12-string to swoon for. Around during the first half of the 1970s, and, I guess, lumped most closely to the pub-rock movement, they were perennials on the support group circuit. Like G.T. Moore and the Reggae Guitars, they seemed perpetually there, second on the bill to whomsoever you had gone to see, often as not the more memorable set of the night. The critics loved them, sadly that never that much of a guarantee in the cut and thrust of increasingly fragile record company finances. And they had their fair share of bad luck, with difficulties maintaining a regular line-up.

Whilst CBS records did sign them up, it was on an album by album basis, the money running out after the second, and their management going bust. That seemed to be that, with the core of the band, founders and main songwriters, Ian Poole and Ross McGeeney, along with bassist Iain Whitmore, going their separate ways. Of the three, Poole had the biggest subsequent footprint, as a producer for Steeleye Span, The Men They Couldn’t Hang and Danny & the Champions of the World, amongst many others. Plus, he then popped up as one third, alongside Danny Wilson of his aforesaid Champions and Robin Bennett from the Dreaming Spires, also his previous clients, as Bennett Wilson Poole in 2018. Their eponymous record was a righteous flashback to SE&L, tempered with the scattered wider influences the other proponents. Mainly it reminded what a consummate Rickenbacker wrangler was Poole, it clanging joyfully across the grooves.

This album has been, it seems, a fair few years in the making; at the time of BWP, Poole had admitted he had been back in the studio as far ago as 2013, joining up again with Iain Whitmore. A bout of polymyalgia put the brakes on that, with the BWP project then taking precedence. Since then, well, let’s say Covid can have hardly helped. But these are no rehashed old tapes here, as, although the songs may stem, some of them, all the way back to the first life of the band, these are all, bar one survivor from those 2013 sessions, spanking new studio versions. And, however much this sounds like a four, or even five piece band, all the parts are played by the pair of them, with Poole on all manner of guitars, drums and vocals, Whitmore on acoustic guitars, bass and vocals. Which makes it all the more astonishing.

As the bass rumbles into opening track, Set Me Free From This Lost Highway, you know exactly where you are, the Rickenbacker instantly confirming that point. Musically, it is a companion to So You Want To Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star, lyrically an attack on Trump and all he stood for. It’s a terrific salvo to set the deck. So, without losing that moment, they fire straight in with I See My Rider and it isn’t about the requisite pre-show drinks’n’eats in the dressing room. How can the peals of 12-string not make you smile?

A change, if straying not far from the tree, is the more country tang of that 2013 survivor, You Feel Like Home, with some “is it steel or is it stringbender” guitar. I’m guessing the latter for the full Burrito, a touch of phasing towards the end giving a frisson of the 1970s. Some beautiful bass underpins the now very Croz of All Things Lost. Actually the bass is fine throughout, as and when you can take your ears of Poole’s guitars. Come Home starts off a slighter song, a pensive song about keeping an empty nest available, but the richness of the multi-tracked harmonies then lifts it several notches up.

Just in case you haven’t yet caught on, the title, The Girl In The Gene Clark Song should rid any misapprehensions. Which does raise the question as to how many listeners won’t be automatically familiar with who Gene Clark was. Is there an audience of other than ageing hipsters to delight in all this? I’d love to hope so, with the sound of the recent Ian M. Bailey record (reviewed here) not so very far removed. If the song lifts the bass and very nearly the opening structure of a certain very well known song, there is no sense of foul, the appropriation being so applicable. The similarly styled Dreamyard Angels is not only a road song, it is a historical road song that references the dying embers of their 1975 US tour. That started momentously with Poole being electrocuted on stage, and ended, supporting Flo and Eddie, being joined on stage by various Flying Burrito Brothers. (Flo and Eddie, aka Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, were essentially the Turtles, should the idea of the Zappa frontline and SE&L sound an ungainly mix, and the duo went on to produce a couple of later singles by the band, albeit when reduced to a duo, Poole and McGeeney, the name similarly reduced to Starry Eyed.)

Two further songs hark back to that time, Three Days Later’ which carries a further flavour of the Burritos, and Faith, Hope And Charity, a rousing number the eagle eared/eyed may recognise from a Rockpalast TV show of 1976. The upbeat jangle, again concealing the more wistful mood of the lyric, extends into Stranger In My Time, the brief guitar solos maintaining attention. The drumming of Tony Poole is certainly competent, arguably crisper than Michael Clark the Byrd/Burrito ever managed.

The briefest of acoustic guitar interlude, America, acts as an interlude ahead of perhaps the most remarkable song on the record. Setting aside their prime influence for a moment, this is a wondrous piece of SanFran psychedelia, evoking shades of the early Grateful Dead, especially in the bubbling and sometime phased guitars. Love Will Speak Your Name, the only song with both members sharing authorship, is a game changer and augurs well for the future. Which is no bad way for a band with a 50 year history to leave you.

This late return has to be one of the more unexpected of the year, and certainly amongst the more welcome. A tour is being talked of for the new year, with enticing hints as to who might flesh out the duo to recreate the panoramic sound of the studio. This is no mere nostalgic wallow, this is a timely and valid revival, with songs, actually, even stronger than all those years ago. More, please. If Bells Of Lightning is another Dylan phrase from Chimes Of Freedom, there are a whole lot more lines still available!

Opening track, Set Me Free From This Lost Highway:

Starry Eyed and Laughing: Website / Facebook / Bandcamp

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