You Should Own Black Swan

“The Black Swan” (Bert Jansch)

Listened to this Bert Jansch album over the weekend1

Scottish guitar hero and songwriter Bert Jansch (Pentangle) recording for Drag City, with a host of admirers in tow — Beth Orton, Devendra Banhart, Noah Georgeson (who performed and co-produced with Jansch), Helena Espvall, son Adam Jansch, and more. Black Swan is a collection of original and traditional tunes. Jansch turns in a performance that shows his typical restraint, and within it his wonder as a guitarist. His use of the blues, American, Celtic, and British Isles folk forms is also informed by music from Eastern Europe, and he ties them all together seamlessly. “High Days,” a solo track, uses all three, as he winds out an elegy for a friend. “When the Sun Comes Up” begins with Orton’s vocal and David Roback’s slide guitar and Otto Hauser’s drums, shuffling underneath. Jansch spills it modal and bluesy, Orton grabs onto his changes and effortlessly lets her voice wrap around his lyric lines. Her signing on the traditional number “Katie Cruel” has been brilliantly rearranged by Jansch. Banhart sings in a muted duet with Orton, but his vocal was unnecessary. It’s a spooky track that’s been prepared for by the preceding cuts. The slippery Piedmont blues style Jansch tucks into his British folk on “My Pocket’s Empty” is evocative of an earlier, simpler time, though as revealed by the tune, times were hard then, too. Jansch’s singing is at its most expressive here; he’s moaning in his reedy baritone. Orton makes one more appearance here on the gorgeous and-all-too-brief arrangement of the blues tune “Watch the Stars.” Hers and Jansch’s vocals take the tine out of the song’s Southern American birthplace and brings it into the world, one grainy line at a time. It’s a singalong blues that reveals the sheer expanse of the universe in the grain of their voices.

Ultimately, this disc is not so different from Jansch’s others, but it is wonderfully spirited and loose. It feels live, and backroomish. It’s as informal a date as one can find among superstars — and make no mistake, you may or may not know his name, but his large catalog proves it — Jansch is one. As for the rest, the hardscrabble dirty, slide guitar-drenched English folk of “A Woman Like You” rings as true as a Texas blues love song by Lightnin’ Hopkins. Traditional public domain nuggets such as “The Old Triangle” are almost radically reworked and ring spookily true for the current era. The blues-rock of the humorously political “Texas Cowboy Blues,” complete with keyboards and popping acoustic 12-strings, shimmies and even shakes in places. The last few cuts, a gorgeous instrumental called “Magdalina’s Dance,” and “Hey Pretty Girl” (performed solo), are drenched in historical tropes, but are thoroughly modern and soulful.

[Click to continue reading allmusic (The Black Swan > Overview)]

Really good stuff, highly recommended if you like acoustic guitar playing, and music graceful enough to have space between the notes. This ain’t Wall of Sound crap, this is gorgeous winter music.

from Grayson Currin’s Pitchfork review

It almost seems as though Jansch spent most of his four-decade career preparing for The Black Swan and its cast: His early solo work for voice and guitar staked out a clean, inventive style, focused on high fretting action in the left hand, an integrated system of hammers and drags that gave his instrument a thorough voice. With Pentangle, and later with Loren Auerbach in the 80s, he put that style into collaborative focus. His guitar playing– somehow constantly understated and completely unorthodox– has been the generous, enchanting source of it all.

It’s the wellspring here, too: Helena Espvall’s cello lines on opener “The Black Swan” dress Jansch’s guitar and voice in winter gloves, warming the chill of his melody– “Every day is quiet and calm/ Like a lull before the storm”– with perfectly paired playing. Otto Hauser’s cymbal and hand-drum percussion and Paul Wassif’s slide guitar on “Woman Like You” are likewise just shapely beds for Jansch’s playing. Orton, who handles vocals on three tracks, is flawless and selfless, her austerity informed by each song’s direction. She sounds like a weary survivor on “When the Sun Comes Up” and like a dejected soul on “Katie Cruel”, a traditional folk song about withered glory.

On an album all about meeting maturity with vibrancy, Banhart alone mars the effect when he mismatches Orton’s straightforward nerviness with an ultra-affected, reverb-buried vocal track on the gorgeously unsettling “Katie”. Even though Banhart is attempting to recall the voice of his idol Karen Dalton, who brought this song to proper attention, he sounds like the dilettante, roving unnecessarily for the freak side, still in search of guidance. Perhaps the rest of this beautiful, elegant Swan will help him find his way.

[Click to continue reading Pitchfork: Album Reviews: Bert Jansch: The Black Swan]

  1. we wrote about it in 2006 prior to actually owning our own copy []

1 thought on “You Should Own Black Swan

  1. geoff says:

    I do own it, thanks to you!

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