Various Artists – The Self Preservation Society
ECC Records – 16 February 2018
There are big projects, there are gargantuan labours of love, and then there is this. Mark Constantine, the founder of the cosmetics chain Lush and the ECC record label, has curated and compiled a colossal vinyl-only (with USB) triple album of songs with their roots in the late 1960s and early 1970s, covered by some of the finest contemporary folk musicians. If the idea seems like little more than an exercise in nostalgia, it pays to look a little closer at Constantine’s methods and motives. He is passionate about a time when an album was something you waited for with anticipation, something that you sat down with and got to know, something that became part of the backcloth of your life. And he clearly feels that music should still have this power, that it deserves to have this power, and that listeners deserve the moment of elation felt on the discovery of something as singular as Astral Weeks or Liege and Lief or Led Zeppelin III.
With this in mind, the vinyl-only format is important – Constantine wants us to engage with music in a way that is becoming alien to us in an industry dominated by downloads of individual songs, and where even the recent rise in vinyl sales is perhaps driven as much by the need to possess an item as the need to be captivated by an art form. So it is no surprise to learn that the majority of the songs on The Self Preservation Society come from what we might call the golden age of the album, the period straight after Sgt. Pepper and The Piper at the Gates of Dawn when the LP began to eclipse the single in terms of artistic importance. The period coincides with the rise of psychedelia, folk rock and the first pastoral flutterings of prog, but also with the hip moodiness of London and the darker side of the New York underground. In short, it was a time when a whole lot of musical strands could thrive simultaneously.
Accordingly, many of these strands are brought together in the very first few songs of The Self Preservation Society. It opens with Get A Bloomin’ Move On, the famous, Quincy Jones-composed ditty from The Italian Job which lends this album its name. Simon Emmerson (from Afro Celt Sound System) teams up with Simon Richmond for a suitably rambunctious run-through. Next is The Nice’s classic The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack by Beagle & Amalthea (a duo comprising Mira Manga and Rhodri Marsden). It is both faithful to the original and surprisingly modern, full of phasing effects and subtle percussive plinks, with Manga’s voice giving the whole thing and airy, chamber-pop feel. In a way, it is reminiscent of XTC’s loving psych-pop reconstructions as The Dukes Of Stratosphear – recordings that are able to belong to two eras simultaneously. The same artists pair up again for covers of Genesis’ I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe), a pretty, piano-driven version of The Doors’ Hello I Love You that bridges the gap between psych and dream-pop, and best of all Nantucket Sleighride, which fuzzes the edges of Mountain’s original into something more ethereal but no less mind-bending.
The group Man Diamond is another vehicle for Rhodri Marsden (a former Independent journalist who has recorded with Scritti Politti and Frank Sidebottom) and provides a blistering version of Hocus Pocus, the famous yodels of the Focus original recreated with studio wizardry, and the guitar part taken to another level by Adam Chetwood. Jackie Oates provides a sultry take on the Zombies’ psych-pop masterpiece Time of the Season, and returns with Rosie Doonan and Mira Manga for the unexpectedly haunting As You Said – one of Cream’s most underrated songs (Cream are also represented by Barney Morse-Brown’s cello-led Sunshine Of Your Love, which is not quite the drastic departure you might expect). Oates also teams up with Barney Morse-Brown for a wild and witchy Graveyard (originally by Forest), which ratchets up the supernatural with cello and singing saw. A similar eeriness is created by a strange, apocalyptic and lovely version of The Lovin’ Spoonful’s Lullaby by Matt Shaw and James Porter.
As becomes clear, the musicians on The Self Preservation Society function as a kind of loose collective, and this collaborative spirit is essential to the album’s coherence, its exuberance and its creative drive. On Paul Simon’s America, Oates and Manga team up again, joined by a host of other musicians, to create something wholly new out of a very familiar template – and that’s before the track morphs into a folk-rock version of America by the Nice. Doonan and Ben Murray duet beautifully on the Byrds’ Gunga Din, and Murray surfaces again singing Lindisfarne’s criminally overlooked Lady Eleanor.
Elsewhere, Iamesh and the Secret Collective nail a strong country groove to The United States of America’s I Wouldn’t Leave My Wooden Wife, get all swampy on Redbone’s Crazy Cajun Cakewalk Band, ham it up supremely for Zappa’s Montana and even manage to slip in some avant-jazz (Moondog’s Stamping Ground). Also high on the weird scale is James Porter’s Terrapin, almost a note-perfect reproduction of Syd Barrett’s original, which only goes to re-emphasise the strange beauty of that song.
Some of the real treats are concealed deep in the album, another reason (not that you need one) to give the whole thing a few proper deep listens. Julie Tippetts (better-known to some as Julie Driscoll) singing Spirit’s Fresh Garbage is one such moment, a timely reminder of one of the era’s great voices. Another is Honeyfeet’s delicate Reasons For Waiting, which distils the essence of Jethro Tull’s bluesy folk-rock into something supremely, almost uncannily evocative of another time and place (the same group prove equally adept at trippy transatlantic folk with White Rabbit and Don’t Bogart Me). Teddy Thompson plays it straight with She’s Not There, while the Dhol Foundation’s Indian instrumentation proves a perfect fit for Riders On The Storm and Kashmir, with Eliza Carthy’s searing vocals proving a suitable (and even at times similar) replacement for Robert Plant on the latter. Also given an Eastern makeover is Traffic’s Utterly Simple, with Sheema Mukherjee providing a beautiful sitar and vocal setting for the song.
Best of all, perhaps, is Marry Waterson’s wonderfully expressive, breathtakingly simple Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye, which matches Leonard Cohen’s masterful original for sheer emotional impact. But it is run close by The Naked King’s Moonchild, Mira Manga’s feather-light voice and a patterned lacework of electronics and flute relocating King Crimson’s original to a kind of future pagan dream world. Or perhaps by the closing track, Nick Drake’s Time Has Told Me, rendered as a stately piano ballad by the impressive Ben Murray.
But picking a favourite from a collection so immense and so replete with highlights is a fool’s errand. Part of the greatness of the whole undertaking is the way it reacquaints the listener with some of the best music of another era. But more importantly, and more ambitiously, Constantine, his label and its musicians are attempting no less than to change the way we listen to music by urging us to give ourselves more time to appreciate objects of discernible craft and irrevocable artistry. And if more music of this quality gets made, who knows? The project may yet succeed.
Order The Self Preservation Society via https://www.eccrecords.co.uk/