In 1967 Bert Jansch was highly regarded in folk circles but still some months away from forming breakthrough folk-rock-jazz five-piece band Pentangle with his six-string mate John Renbourn.
He had, however, released three guitar+voice albums plus another with Renbourn. Bert had also been hanging out with Donovan where he had been enough impressed with the trappings of pop success that he was convinced to try his hand at a similar kind of gently psychedelic chamber pop.
Jansch had a new girlfriend (Judy Nicola Cross), the services of a bright young arranger (David Palmer), and considerable cache on the folk circuit.
The result was the album Nicola, recorded in April 1967 and released in July.
“Go your way my love” is a mossy green wonder of an opener. Bert’s delicate guitar picking accompanies his oh-so-human voice in a brooding minor key song he co-wrote with folk legend Anne Briggs. It is a wonderful beginning. (Listen here)
There was a single from Nicola and it’s up next. If you think “Woe is love, my dear” is a downbeat title for a sunny pop single in the summer of ’67, you’re not alone. The single stiffed, despite having a full-on orchestral arrangement including piccolo trumpet just like “Penny Lane” (released a month earlier). It’s sweet and nicely done, but rather derivative.
The master-folky is on much safer ground with the instrumental “Nicola”, where the guitar is accompanied by a sparse baroque string arrangement that owes a whole heap to the work of John Renbourn (with whom Bert and Nicola were sharing a house at the time). When the tune goes jazzy, it works a treat and presages Pentangle deliciously.
“Come back baby” is a classic acoustic blues: voice, guitar and the loss of a woman. Basic and brilliant. (Or at least as basic as Jansch’s guitar work ever gets.)
As we saw in the previous post, Donovan was strongly influenced by Jansch. “A little sweet sunshine” suggest that the process was not entirely one-way. This song sounds just like a Donovan cut, substituting Bert’s casual, down-at-heel voice for Don’s mannered tenor. It’s a mid-60s pop-by-numbers number and not especially memorable.
Side two opens with a timeless piece of English whimsy. “Rabbit run” gathers images from The Wind in the Willows and pours them into a classic folk song with a double-tracked Bert vocal. Then we are back in chamber pop territory for “Life depends on love”, with another lavish Palmer arrangement. Again, it’s sweet and by the time its 1:45 has passed you’re happy enough for it to be over.
How refreshing then, to have this confection followed by another palate cleansing acoustic blues, “Weeping willow blues”. Another simple acoustic number is next, “Box made of love”. As you may have gathered I prefer these stripped back numbers, though that may be because I already knew the folk-blues albums of that came before and after Nicola.
Another pop song with backing follows before the album finishes in a low key way with the guitar blues “If the world wasn’t there”. It’s a Jansch original that sounds like it’s been around for decades.
Here’s the thing about Nicola. If you like a lush 60s pop sound, you’ll probably enjoy the Palmer-arranged set pieces and tolerate the acoustic stuff, while folk/blues fans may be put off by the fancy-schmancy orchestral foliage and prefer the ‘pure’ pruned material.
I’m generally in the latter category. If you are too, try an earlier or a later Bert Jansch album. I’d recommend 1966’s Jack Orion or, from 1969, Birthday Blues. Or Pentangle, of course. They’re marvellous.
Bert Jansch — Nicola Released: July 1967 Label: Transatlantic Duration: 31:38
THE 1967 SERIES (as of 1st May)
The Doors—The Doors
Jefferson Airplane—Surrealistic Pillow
The Byrds—Younger Than Yesterday
Aretha Franklin—I Never Loved A Man The Way That I Love You
Aretha Franklin—Aretha Arrives
Gary Burton—Lofty Fake Anagram
Booker T & The MGs—Hip Hug-Her
Leonard Cohen—Songs of Leonard Cohen