The Strawbs are one of those bands where the term “rock royalty” might easily apply. They began in 1964 as The Strawberry Hill Boys, named for a region in their native England where they originated and frequently played. In 1969 they shortened their title to Strawbs and released a debut album that same year. The abbreviated moniker seemed to follow their musical shift from a strictly bluegrass and folk-oriented trio to a quintet that integrated more rock and progressive sounds. The current lineup of the band features founder David Cousins (guitars/vocals) and long-time members Dave Lambert (guitars/vocals), Dave Bainbridge (keyboards), Chas Cronk (bass/vocals), and Tony Fernandez (drums and percussion). Guests include former Strawbs regular Blue Weaver on keyboards, mastering and production, with another long-time associate John Ford on guitar and vocals, Irish singer Cathryn Craig and South African bassist Schalk Joubert.
Strawbs have traditionally blended many musical styles, with always provocative and socially relevant lyrics. Conceived during the early pandemic months of 2020, Settlement is a full-length collection of well-crafted songs that rank with some of their best. Cousins’ reedy tenor envelopes the very topical and driving sentiments of the kick-off title track “Settlement.” He sings like a man possessed, “There comes a time when every settlement is due. No compromise, no other point of view.” Cousins is letting you know from the get-go there is some urgency to his message and he means business. And then he expresses thoughts born out of quarantine and a sense of a bigger picture, “Strapped down in a cold town, dying to pay the rent, what the masterminds are selling you is Heaven sent, ring around the rules, we’re nobody’s fools.” The weight of robust acoustic guitars mixed with mellotron, slide guitar and organ bring things to a fever pitch.
“Strange Times” follows and is another Cousins track that shifts, in mood and style, to more poignant and reflective. Again, the songwriting is totally on point as Cousins makes observations on occurrences in the present day, “Times of glory, times of pride, times for conflict set aside, times of danger, times of grief, such are these strange times.”
“Judgment Day” has a percolating, funky underbelly to it. Again, it’s a blend of acoustic and ambient sounds where Cousins is able to sing with pause and purpose. The song is a commentary on what social distancing has done to humanity on an emotional level. “Walk down the street, people I meet, step away as I pass by, know how I feel, down at heel, been known to break down and cry.” But the tune is not without a bright side, “Try to forgive, learn how to live, know in my heart where I’m going, hope and pray, on judgment day, they reap all the seeds they are sowing.”
John Ford collaborates with Cousins on the track “Each Manner of Man.” It is spiritual and observational, with a classic sound and a haunting quality. It’s a song that seems to address the humanity that connects us all. Ford and Cousins sing, “If ever the doubt shall still remain, the days gather pace like a mighty express, reminding us all to reflect on our ways, nothing more, nothing more, nothing less.”
Lambert’s “The Visit” sounds like a traditional Celtic folk song. It’s a story tune featuring shimmering mandolin and acoustic guitar, with a catchy chorus. This leads into his brief instrumental “Flying Free” that expands on an indigenous U.K. vibe.
“Quicksilver Days” is a vivid and somewhat somber ballad. It has a Gothic quality that stands with classic highlights like their own “Hero and Heroine.” Its fluid and surreal imagery is made even more relevant by the timeless Beatle-esque/King Crimson-like flute mellotron passages throughout.
Cronk’s “We Are Everyone” features splendid harmonies by himself, Cousins and guest vocalist Craig. It’s got a slow burning build that addresses the universality of the human race. The lyrics are simple and undeniably direct as they sing, “All bear witness, we are not lost, come together, join together, we are everyone.” It’s a goose bump-inducing piece that’s followed by Cronk’s dramatic and austere instrumental “Chorale.” It’s got a rousing Bach/Mozart pomposity that really makes a statement and brings the vinyl portion of the album to a satisfying close.
The CD version of Settlement contains three bonus songs under the heading “Off the Beaten Tracks.” They are the mini-epic boxer scenario “Champion Jack,” the seemingly auto-biographical “Better Days (Life Is Not a Game)” and the hopeful “Liberty.”
With multiple songwriters and vocalists in the band this is surely a true collective effort. It’s an amazing achievement considering it was created, in large part, through virtual means. Bravo!