Sunday, August 06, 2006

Magna Carta "Lord Of The Ages" & "Martin's Cafe"
(UK Folk-Rock 1973, 1977)

Lord of the Ages and Martin's Cafe are combined onto a single-CD disc on this 1999 reissue, with the addition of historical liner notes. Lord of the Ages, Magna Carta's fourth studio album (and fifth overall, as it had been preceded by a live LP), had them breaking in new guitarist Stan Gordon after the departure of Davey Johnstone, with ubiquitous session great Danny Thompson on string bass. Varied and ambitious in scope, it's nonetheless at its core somewhat milquetoast folk-rock, more pop-influenced and lyrically lightweight than most of their early-'70s British folk-rock peers. Although the strong Simon & Garfunkel influences present on earlier albums were fading, "Two Old Friends" couldn't help but sound a little like a featherweight Paul Simon derivative. The ten-minute title track has a self-consciously pompous epic quality, and while the setting is reasonably attractive and pleasing, the theatrical tale-telling spoken narration and Greek-chorus somber backing vocals make it easy to make fun of as well. Elsewhere, very light country touches are heard on a couple cuts; "Isn't It Funny (And Not a Little Bit Strange)," in which the singer reports a conversation with a glow worm, is (probably unintentional) too-cutesy folk-rock for the kiddies; "That Was Yesterday" gets close to prototypically sappy early-'70s singer/songwriterness, with saccharine orchestral parts; and "Falkland Greene" is almost jarringly trad British folk-generated, with its sad stark melody and recorder. Magna Carta's easygoing brand of British folk-rock showed no signs of getting any less bland with age on the subsequent Martin's Cafe, recorded in early 1974. This isn't quite Jonathan Edwards or John Denver, but on some of the lesser material, listeners will notice some general similarities in the overall mindset, if not the specific sound: a go-with-the-flow bonhomie, and a good-humorness so automatic it can make you downright edgy. On some tracks they try to rock out harder than they have in the past, making listeners as ill at ease as the musicians themselves seemed to feel on yawnsville upbeat numbers with standard rock & roll progressions like "Easy If You Try" and "Martin's Cafe." "Won't Set the World on Fire" carps about indifferent rock critics and deejays, and that's the kind of song that's never fun to listen to, this one being no exception. Elsewhere the ghost of Paul Simon, such a big influence on much earlier Magna Carta material, continues to hover, though in way that sounds something like Simon might have in an alternate universe where he determined that Art Garfunkel's solo arrangements were really where it was at. "I'm Gonna Take You Down" has a welcome edge, but it's not nearly enough saving grace for a mediocre record. ~ Richie Unterberger, All Music Guide


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