The CD reissue spree of the early 1990s benefited those lonely, cobwebbed corner obsessives who thought the longhairs of 70s British Isles folk rock had something good going. Those of us who scuttled after the bones the sinister Shanachie label threw to the U.S. through the ’80s were conditioned to nonexistent liner notes and brainwashed into believing the trad arr groups of the previous decade could be described by creative English anachronism on the one hand and Irish rebel songs on the other. Also-rans, like Mr. Fox or Mellow Candle or Trees, who were allowed to make records in the wake of Fairport’s and Steeleye’s success, and were good for an album or two before promptly dropping off the map, were roundly ignored in the States, to the extent that first, and typically only, pressings of their albums fetched exorbitant sums. So when the CD stamping plants got their head of steam and allowed for an economical digital reissue of Mellow Candle’s lone album release, Swaddling Songs (1972), listeners rejoiced and collectors, who’d dropped multiple benjamins for dog-eared decades-old vinyl, grumbled a bit but bought their infinitely copy-able copy so they could listen to the damn thing.
The album was rare but it was also more than just okay, meriting the whispered celebrations of the pre-internet folky cognoscenti. Swaddling Songs is a folk-inspired progressive rock gem, the brainchild of Clodagh Simonds and Alison Williams, whose Irish roots inform the record but never sink it beneath the weight of Heritage. And in this sense the album has more in common with Aqualung or Tubular Bells (Simonds, appropriately enough, would go on to work with Mike Oldfield) than The Tain or Morris On, as original, mostly keyboard-led tunes organically hang together around Simonds’ and Williams’ winding, commanding vocals, seamless, with contemporary touchstones like Joni Mitchell making themselves felt but also casting into the future toward Sinead O’Connor, Cranberries, Heidi Berry, Helium, Florence + the Machine. Framed by solid songwriting, unfussy arrangements and production, and outstanding musicianship, there’s a comfortable cosmic warmth to the album’s entirety. Of many prescient moments on Swaddling Songs, a favorite is “The Poet and the Witch,” the album’s rave-up palate-cleansing show-stopper, adding fierceness to the beauty.
Pity the poet who suffers to give
Sailing his friendship on oceans of love
Strange harbour soundwaves break out of his reach
Love is a foreigner to the Queen of the Beach
Queen of the Beach
Moonfilled and thunderful star-staggered eyes
She broke away to be one with the skies
She feeds his love to the nightmare she rides
Suffers her hunger to inherit the prize
Queen of the Skies
Thunder-stricken tempest strikes fire in the sky
Beacons of flame for the Queen as she flies
Blind to his ocean and deaf to his cries
She’s blind and she’s deaf but she’s Queen of the Skies
Queen of the Skies
King of the Seabed he sleeps on his own
The fishes have found him, the seaweed has grown
He slipped through the waves and he sank like a stone
Queens who have nightmares must be Queens on their own
Queens on their own
I’d picked up my CD copy of Swaddling Songs sometime in the mid 90s, and it was on heavy rotation for a while, in and out and around Can and the Incredible String Band, Amon Duul and Lal Waterson. Even as these pieces fit together in their way, Swaddling Songs seemed miles distant from anything approaching musical with-it-ness at century’s eclectic end, and yet as I stood at the back of the crowd at the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro, North Carolina in 2001 and watched a muscular set by indie-rock cover boy Stephen Malkmus, late of Pavement, there was a deep, jaw-dropping sensibility to his cover of “The Poet and the Witch.” It was a surprise and a gift. Malkmus’s work is never less than genre-bending — he may be his own genre — and his sympathy for progressive rock is plain in both word (name-checking Geddy Lee in Pavement’s “Stereo”) and deed. He thought enough of his jaggedly jumbled, charming Mellow Candle cover to release it as a live bonus track on 2003’s Pig Lib. Leave it to Malkmus, and to a worldview acknowledging the fundamental interconnectedness of all things.
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