sat 13/04/2024

Reissue CDs Weekly: Pentangle | reviews, news & interviews

Reissue CDs Weekly: Pentangle

Reissue CDs Weekly: Pentangle

Bonus-stuffed complete-works box set dedicated to Britain’s important musical boundary pushers

Pentangle, live in 1969. Left to right: John Renbourne, Danny Thompson, Jacqui McShee, Bert Jansch and Terry Cox

A nineteen-minute adaptation of “Jack Orion” took up the whole of Side Two of Cruel Sister, Pentangle’s fourth album. It's the highlight of the smart but blandly titled 115-track box set The Albums 1968–1972. Up to this point in 1970, British folk rock had not spawned anything comparable to the epic “Jack Orion”.

Extending a traditional song to this length in such spellbinding fashion was ambitious and while some of John Renbourne’s electric guitar suggested the fluidity of Quicksilver Messenger Service’s John Cipollina, the overall effect was of a band magnificently pushing what they did to its limits.

Bert Jansch, Renbourne’s guitar playing foil in Pentangle, had in 1966 already issued a ten-minute “Jack Orion” on his solo album of the same name. Renbourne played on the track. That album was produced by Bill Leader. So was Cruel Sister, the first album Pentangle made without Shel Talmy as their producer.

Pentangle The Albums 1968– 1972 As the band’s first album to solely feature traditional material, all this posits Cruel Sister as concluding unfinished business for some of Pentangle’s members. Back in 1966 though, no one would have thought of stretching a song to 19 minutes – on record, anyway. And back then too, Renbourne was not playing the electric guitar he would contribute to the Cruel Sister “Jack Orion”. Elsewhere, on the album’s title track, Renbourne played sitar.

Pentangle were not alone in testing boundaries. At the end of the Sixties, British folk and folk rock had evolved, and sticking with stylistic templates was no longer obligatory. The Incredible String Band – who also featured the sitar – had shown this, as had Fairport Convention on Liege & Lief, released in December 1969 and often deemed as ground zero for British folk rock (their previous album, July 1969’s Unhalfbricking had set the template).

Liege & Lief's impact on Pentangle is moot but Pentangle's membership blurred boundaries from the off. Although Jansch and Renbourne were identified as folk musicians, as was Pentangle’s singer Jacqui McShee, their double bassist was the blues-influenced jazzer Danny Thompson and their drummer Terry Cox’s background was in rock.

This mix and match approach was in the music from the beginning. Pentangle’s May 1968 eponymous first album included traditional British material and a version of The Staple Singers’ “Hear my Call”. Its follow-up, November 1968’s Sweet Child set blues in the form of Furry Lewis’ “Turn Your Money Green” alongside jazz with a cover of Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”. November 1969’s Basket of Light, their third long player, opened with “Light Flight (Theme From ‘Take Three Girls’)” which, as a single, took them into the charts. Next came the all-traditional yet boundary pushing high-point Cruel Sister. After this, October 1971’s Reflection which included interpretations of traditional American material. Getting a handle on the ever-shapeshifting Pentangle is not easy.

PENTANGLE Cruel SisterThe Albums 1968–1972 does not make characterising Pentangle easier. Their six albums are collected and supplemented with the customary mass of bonus tracks, most of which are alternate versions. About half are previously unreleased. Each of the seven discs comes in a reproduction of the sleeve of the relevant album. They are collected in a tray which slots into an outer slipcase. Everything has been remastered anew. The story is told in a smart book including essays on each album, a diary style chronology, an introductory text and an oral-history style overview of the band’s history. The radio and television recordings issued on the 2007 four-disc set The Time Has Come 1967-1973 are not reprised.

Obviously, this puts previous Pentangle reissues in the shade. Equally obviously, The Albums 1968–1972 borders on the overwhelming. Consequently, here is a suggested strategy: head for Cruel Sister first and listen to “Jack Orion” to hear Pentangle at the peak of their powers. Then, listen to each of the albums in the order they were released but do not play any of the bonus tracks. Next, head for the final three tracks on Disc One, which represent the band’s August 1967 first and unissued-at-the-time recording session. After this, sample the bonuses on a bite-sized basis by sticking to what supplements each album. Last, take in the smattering of non-original-album live tracks.

Though not as hip as The Incredible String Band or quite as lauded as Fairport Convention, Pentangle need such consideration. As The Albums 1968–1972 proves, they were one of Britain’s most important bands.


The spelling of the surname is, and was always, RENBOURN. No final "E". Even the spelling as it appears in this release is "Renbourn"/ If the reviewer is unable to properly spell the name of a band member, why should we believe he has properly understood things much less black-and-white?

There is NO "E" in Renbourn, what gaff.

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