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Bert Jansch - L.A. Turnaround / Santa Barbara Honeymoon / A Rare Conundrum

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Artist: Bert Jansch

Album: L.A. Turnaround / Santa Barbara Honeymoon / A Rare Conundrum

Label: Drag City

Review date: Jan. 4, 2010

In 1974, English folk guitarist and songwriter Bert Jansch had reached an impasse in his career. His group Pentangle had split the previous year, and he had released a slightly diffident solo album, Moonshine, which while enjoyable didn’t exactly set the heart aflame. But he had also recently signed to Charisma (or The Famous Charisma Label, as their not-shy-of-humility LP labels put it), and label founder Tony Stratton Smith was committed to the Jansch cause – as Mick Houghton’s excellent liner notes for L.A. Turnaround quote from Stratton Smith, "if ever a man is due his place among the ‘superstars,’ it’s Bert Jansch."

In 1974, Jansch decamped to Stratton Smith’s country manor, accompanied by ex-Monkee Michael Nesmith and pedal steel guitar player Red Rhodes, to record half of L.A. Turnaround. Produced by Nesmith, and with the other half subsequently cut at Nesmith’s ranch studio in Sepulveda, it’s an album that’s languished unfairly amongst the Jansch canon for some time, I suspect due both to its relative unavailability, and to many fans’ over-valorization of his first batch of records. But L.A. Turnaround rivals Rosemary Lane as Jansch’s most gorgeous, fearless solo album, and by part-framing his songs with Nesmith’s and Rhodes’s Americana, Jansch opens up new terrain for his music – something sadly unexplored on future records.

L.A. Turnaround is an object lesson in how to quietly shake songwriters out of their complacency. If an occasional laziness had crept into Jansch’s writing by the end of Pentangle, here he sounds re-purposed and confident, and the result are some of his best songs. The opening “Fresh As A Sweet Sunday Morning” is weightless, effortless, pivoting on a beautifully flinty guitar figure; the following “Chambertin,” one of the few instrumentals, is a reminder of the fluidity and facility of Jansch’s playing, and its appearance early in the piece feels like a freeing gesture, as if to loosen Jansch from the maw of his musical history.

Nesmith brings a lovely buoyancy to songs like “Stone Monkey,” which conversely reminds that Jansch (and some of his peers, like Pentangle colleague John Renbourn) could get a little starchy and ‘worthy’ at times. I don’t think Jansch ever capitulates to some grand ideal of ‘American music’ here but the playing’s loose without being slack, something many great American albums of the time carried off – see the first few records by The Band, John Stewart’s California Bloodlines, Guy Clark’s Old No. 1. If there’s one mis-step, it’s revisiting “Needle Of Death,” Jansch’s bleak, chilling threnody for a friend who died of a heroin overdose – there’s nothing wrong with the performance, but it’s the one song on L.A. Turnaround that’s better served by the starkness of Jansch’s early, truly solo performances.

1975’s Santa Barbara Honeymoon was produced by the drummer on some of the L.A. Turnaround sessions, Danny R. Lane, and is an object lesson in squandering forward momentum. That may sound harsh, but I still find it a paradoxically impenetrable record – paradoxical, because it’s probably the closest Jansch has come to ‘pop’ production. But the arrangements get in the way of Jansch’s songs, with the dixie band, the steel drums, farting analogue synths, and cornball backing vocals all conspiring to obscure some thoroughly decent writing. A cover of “You Are My Sunshine” is pretty hard to take, and the overarching feel is of Jansch lost inside his producer’s rococo fantasies. A few gorgeous songs survive, particularly the beautifully pensive “Lost and Gone” – at least until the chorus vocals and the overly ripe flute and sax solos come in. But the album is completely trounced by its bonus tracks, a selection of solo live recordings from Montreaux, where Jansch proves that in his case, less is most definitely more.

Santa Barbara Honeymoon was recorded in California, and after that failed experiment, Jansch returned to Putney, England, pulled together a touring group that never really toured, and set about recording A Rare Conundrum. Released in 1977, it’s one of Jansch’s lesser-known works, unfairly so. If it’s not quite bound by the conceptual consistency of something like Rosemary Lane, it suffers not a bit for being a grab bag of songs and curiosities. Indeed, it’s one of Jansch’s most unassuming records. His playing is exemplary, whether taking on the banjo on “Doctor, Doctor,” or following it with an earthy blues on “3 A.M.” But the heart of A Rare Conundrum is the full-band tracks, like the misty-eyed “Daybreak,” or the sweetly nostalgic take on traditional Irish ballad “The Curragh of Kildare.” Unlike its predecessor’s arrangements, which completely swamped Jansch, A Rare Conundrum understands understatement, and the musicians Jansch fetches up with here are eloquent without being flashy. Mike Piggott’s violin deserves particular attention, his accompaniment and short solo on “The Curragh of Kildare” pinning down the song’s emotional tang.

A Rare Conundrum reminds that even when Jansch comes close to autopilot, as he does on one or two songs, it still makes for good listening. And while this run of reissues highlights one of his rare failures, it also brings one classic and one overlooked gem back to light. These three albums make up one of the most idiosyncratic phases in an already fairly idiosyncratic anti-career.

By Jon Dale

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