Saturday, December 08, 2007

Sally Oldfield

"Water Bearer" 1978

Alongside of Renaissance vocalist Annie Haslam, Sally Oldfield is the other major British female vocalist to arise out of the 70s prog rock scene, albeit towards the later part of the decade. This solo debut was the one that most contributed to her recognition as quite a talented young woman, all the more admirable in a genre dominated by male acts.
Sally is similar to her younger brother Mike in a number of respects. First of all, she proves herself a Jill-of-all-trades, playing a good 95% of what you hear on this release. Additionally, her writing style also displays the angular riffing, intricate time signatures, and subtle thematic transformations for which Mike is well known. But ultimately, it's the material itself on Water Bearer that makes it an outstanding effort. The entire first side is a classic slice of folk-prog at its best. With Sally's sweet harmonies, all of the songs here contain their share of moments that embody what I love about this genre at its most open and ultra-romantic. One of my happiest recent memories is listening to "Night Song" alone one clear night at a beach in Cape Cod, and it was just one of those moments you never forget, where music and environment coalesce perfectly. The second side, while not as consistent, still features some strong material such as "Weaver" and "Child of Allah."

There are only two shortcomings on Water Bearer. One is the Tolkien references, saved somewhat by Sally's sincere delivery, the fact that this was still the 70s, and the novelty that for once it's a lady singing it rather than a Ronnie James Dio figure. The other is the wholly unnecessary but luckily brief vocal contributions of tenor Brian Burrows. But these are trifling complaints. This is considered by most everyone to be Sally's best work, and really it's a touchstone recording — the veritable blueprint of folk/pop/new age styling from which many female artists have borrowed from extensively since, if not outright stolen. Sally's influence should receive greater acknowledgement.

"Easy" 1979

Sally Oldfield's second solo album, and the style generally doesn't mess with the formula of her excellent debut, Water Bearer. Those already familiar with the debut know very well what this means: folky tunes and Sally's skyrocket vocals. Also preserved for the listener's pleasure are the distinctive combination of acoustic instruments: guitar, piano, mandolin, the occasional sleigh bells, and riding above all of it, the multilayered, Eastern-flavored melody patterns played by an army of tuned percussion. Also present are Sally's Hawaiian vocal lilts on "Sun in My Eyes" and "Answering You" that previously showed up on "Mirrors and "Water Bearer"; the use of a folky 3/4 beat on "You Set My Gypsy Blood Free" and "First Born of the Earth," recalling that of "Land of the Sun"; and "Hide and Seek" is virtually the bastard child of "Weaver."
As previously demonstrated on Water Bearer's beautiful "Wampum Song," Sally's voice is definitely at home in the brightly lit world of D major, and this album accordingly contains no less than three excellent pop songs set in that key, for the listener to bask in her golden harmonies: the audaciously titled "You Set My Gypsy Blood Free," Boulevard Song," and "Sons of the Free." It is "The Boulevard Song" that is the album's highlight for me, a pretty flawless pop gem that radiates sunlight on every note. I love the way she sings "Babe/You're warm as the sun, yeah..." and also the brief one-line harmony she sneaks in on "And every lady loves you..." While we're at it, I also love the excision of two beats in the chorus, similar to the idiosyncratic but perfectly flowing time shifts that crop up on Water Bearer.

However, with the expansion of session musicians involved, Easy also tugs in the direction of a more contemporary pop (for the late 70s) edge. It is comprised of discrete songs with more down-to-earth subject matter, putting aside the fantasy imagery, track segues, and sense of concept album-cohesion that characterized the preceding work. Our first big reminder of this is three tracks in with "Answering You," marked by its loungy combo of Fender Rhodes and distortion-less electric guitar. That being said, probably the only two things I don't care for on this album are the title track and the disco beat shift in "Hide and Seek," another element that obviously hasn't sounds of its time and hasn't dated very well.

Not for the warm 'n' fuzzy-averse, of course, and although one might fairly say Easy is not as consistently strong as its blueprint, its best tracks more than salvage it. The trademark style of acoustic folk instruments, tuned percussion, and Sally's vocals make this overall a needed procurement for fans.

"Celebration" 1980

Lyrically and melodically, the music here is upbeat, with lots of major keys and (at the risk of sounding too 'touchy-feely') life-affirming lyrics-- as you might guess from song titles like "Love is Everywhere" and "Morning of my Life" (as well as from the album title itself). Even those songs which delve into what might normally be considered a darker, or more dangerous side of human sexuality like "Woman of the Night" (yes, it's about what you think) or "My Damsel Heart" (about a young gypsy seductress) are infused with a spirit that is warm, sensuous, romantic, and ultimately joyful and celebratory. There's nothing cynical, tawdry, embittered, or depressing about this album-- although, that said, I hasten to add that it's not saccharine-sweet bubble-gum either. It acknowledges pain and loss, and sorrow, and the troubles and complexity of life-- I think the lyrics from the danceable reggae-grooved title track perhaps sum it up best , reminding us, "Come on, come on, you're gonna die someday" but saying that the best attitude to adopt towards this is to "Wipe your tears away...... join in the celebration".

One of the neat things about this album are the lush arrangements and instrumentation. Tuned percussion (chimes, vibraphone, etc.), played by Pierre Moerlen (of Gong fame!) is used amply here, especially on Mandala and the title track, and there is a good deal of acoustic guitar (played very romantically on "My Damsel Heart") and gentle keyboards. There's also some other percussion used for rhythm, but there's no actual drum kit on most (any?) songs, which gives a laid-back feel that makes a lot of tunes sound like mellow prog rather than pop. And of course, there's Sally's beautiful voice on all tracks. Beautiful stuff, all around, although I suppose it's not for everyone. Folks looking for unhappy, angry, aggressive music would do better looking elsewhere.

Lyric seat: Side 1, Side 2

Artworks by J.S.
Thanks always!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for the amazing Sally shares.

10 December, 2007 08:54  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This post made me rediscovered Sally, this fantastic singer, arranger, composer. Thanks for this, great blog


11 December, 2007 13:50  
Blogger Scion said...

RE: Water Bearer

"There are only two shortcomings on Water Bearer. One is the Tolkien references..."

Um, and why is that?
If the reveiwer doesn't like Tolkien, he should state so, so that his personal likes and dislikes can be taken into consideration of what ostensibly is supposed to be an objective review.

Nice album, and another good one, o Lizard - may the Playmates visit your pagoda late tonite.

13 December, 2007 23:46  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Track 2 of Water Bearer cannot be extracted. I think the file is corrupted.

14 December, 2007 20:07  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Track 2 of Water Bearer seems to be corrupted - neither TUGZip nor ZipGenius can extract it. Possibly it's a server problem if others have managed to download a decent copy.

14 December, 2007 20:09  
Blogger Unknown said...

I can't unpack track 2 of Water Bearer, as the file seems to be corrupted. It may possibly be a server problem.

14 December, 2007 20:16  
Blogger Art Nouveau said...

"Alongside of Renaissance vocalist Annie Haslam, Sally Oldfield is the other major British female vocalist to arise out of the 70s prog rock scene..."

!!!Lest we forget: Sonja Christina, singer extraordinaire for Curved Air (who IMHO leave Renaissance in the dust)

Thank you Lizardson for the Sally Oldfield, and for such a fantastic music blog...

17 December, 2007 03:14  
Blogger Pat said...

Thank you.Brillant post of a great artist :-)

30 June, 2008 01:39  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

thank you
I loved 'Mirrors' in the late 70's, so will enjoy her voice on this, I'm sure

30 March, 2009 00:22  
Anonymous Marc said...

love 'water bearer', although I find side 2 more impressive than side 1 (my copy has 'mirrors' squeezed in at the end of this side...)

oddly, I've also got to the point of enjoying brian burrows contributions, although they are slightly odd inclusions.

look forward to finally hearing the other 2 albums noted here.

btw- don't you wish most albums were recorded as well as 'bearer'?
I have a very clean vinyl copy, and it's so well done...

05 March, 2012 03:22  

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