While the story of Vashti Bunyan, the great lost child of the late 1960s folk boom, has been well rehearsed in the press in the run-up to the release of Lookaftering, the bare bones of it surely bears repeating here. Discovered by enigmatic Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham, her 1970 debut Just Another Diamond Day is widely upheld to be one of British folk’s great unheralded works. At the time however, commercial success proved elusive and both it and Bunyan were unceremoniously shelved by record company, Decca. Disillusioned by the experience, she forsook further dalliances with the industry and has spent much of the last three decades enjoying the seclusion of a simple family life in Ireland. However, a CD reissue of that album in 2000 sparked renewed interest in her work and, by way of recordings with Animal Collective, Devendra Banhart and Piano Magic, among others, has inexorably led to this highly anachronistic follow-up.
Certainly, Lookaftering is an interesting prospect. Very much a period piece dislocated in time, it retains much of the feel of …Diamond Day and boasts the same hallmarks of early 1970s production values. Comparisons with Sandy Denny and other folkies of the era are easily justified both stylistically and sonically. The seemingly minimal production by Max Richter allows plenty of room for the broadly acoustic, almost orchestral instrumentation to breathe, all the while keeping Bunyan’s exposed and fragile vocals floating in the foreground. The arrangements themselves are mostly sparse and hauntingly beautiful; bucolic countermelodies abound, with oboe, recorder and Joanna Newsom’s harp all making an impression on various tracks. And Newsom isn’t the only member of the neo/psych-folk glitterati to make an appearance, Devendra Banhart, Adem and Kevin Barker of Espers also lend a hand, in some cases further reinforcing the early ‘70s heritage of the influences at work. In particular, Banhart’s slide guitar on ‘Wayward’ is strikingly reminiscent of Jerry Donahue’s playing on Sandy Denny’s Fotheringay.
When searching for adequate descriptors of Bunyan’s performance, adjectives like intimate, tender, delicate and fragile spring readily to mind. However, it is these very facets that are the greatest flaw of the album. Too often it seems her fragility tips over into hesitancy and weakness, in some cases lacking self-confidence and commitment to the notes. This is most apparent on ‘Wayward’ where the vocal seems particularly weak and somewhat at odds with the tenor of the words. Whilst some may see such a criticism as churlish or missing the point of the album, it raises valid questions; one wonders whether some of the effusively glowing reports of Lookaftering have been too heavily viewed through the filters of an evocative back story, rather than appraising the album on its musical merits alone. I was left with the nagging curiosity as to how these songs would have fared if sung by the likes of Mary Black, Christine Collister, June Tabor or the late, great Sandy Denny – the likely response being five star performances no less full of tenderness or vulnerability.
That said, Lookaftering remains an amazing feat and a truly beautiful album. It’s a throwback to an age of greater innocence, evoking visions of Julie Christie as Far From The Madding Crowd‘s Bathsheba Everdene, softly focused and shining amid some golden pastoral idyll as it wends its way through a rural dreamscape. For all its failings, the songs remain entirely beguiling and Lookaftering is sure to remain one of the most haunting and affecting discs of the year. The closer, ‘Wayward Hum’, brings the disc to a fitting close. Part meandering lullaby, part quintessentially English whimsy, it somehow summarises all that comes before in a wordless, absent-minded way. Gorgeous.
[FatCat; October 17, 2005]