VASHTI BUNYAN Lookaftering (FatCat)

In the ‘difficult second album’ pantheon, “Lookaftering” just about takes the biscuit and the box, appearing a mere 35 years after Vashti Bunyan’s initially ignored, eventually revered debut, “Just Another Diamond Day”. An effort of adjustment and acclimatisation is required to get the most from these 36 slender minutes of predominately acoustic, very English folk music. Bunyan’s idiosyncratic vocals, in particular, take time to appreciate. Imagine a smoother, female version of Marc Bolan in his warbly Tyrannosaurus Rex days – well, she doesn’t sound much like that, but it’s approximately the same distance from mainstream acceptance as the space her voice occupies.

“Lookaftering” is utterly lovely, fragile and thoughtful, wispy and wise, draping Eno-esque calm over discernible song structures, Nick Drake in softer focus with lusher instrumentation, “Pink Moon”’s positive reflection, perhaps. (In fact, Drake’s arranger Robert Kirby appears here, as do young folkies Adem, Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom.) It’s at its most immediate on “Wayward”, in which the protagonist gently rejects the trappings of domestic contentment. “Against The Sky”, like many of these songs a frail non-tune on initial acquaintance, resolves itself with familiarity into a gently oscillating drama. “If I Were” conceals a devastating emotional punch within its gorgeous musical box melody, and “Same But Different” tips its nautical lyrics upon an unsettling swell of strings. Closer “Wayward Hum”, in which Bunyan, unaware that she’s being recorded, works wordlessly through a prototypical “Wayward”, is music making at its most utterly unselfconscious, neatly encapsulating the eloquence, elegance, modesty and magic of this album.

Quite unlike any other record you’ll hear in this or many a year, it feels like a privilege to be able to eavesdrop on these shy, private but pearlescent songs.

0° OF SEPARATION: ADEM/VASHTI BUNYAN/VETIVER/JUANA MOLINA The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester 19 January 2007

With the nation’s transport infrastructure still piecing itself together following the previous day’s storms, for what I think is the first time in a quarter century of gig-going I’m late for the headlining act, although I should qualify that by saying that, in this unusual evening, all four headliners were intermingling and collaborating from the first. When I arrive, around 45 minutes after the time on the ticket, it seems as though the whole gang’s on the stage, but a swift reorg leaves just balmy San Fran Americana types Vetiver, turned out in beards, long hair and hats, who perform their languid (but in a good way) “O, Papa”. They shuffle off, to be replaced by Argentinean singer/songwriter Juana Molina. As she sings in Spanish – a handicap she wryly acknowledges by saying “It’s a shame you can’t understand the lyrics, they are great!” it’s a bit difficult to detect when she morphs into scatted improvisation. She soon augments her acoustic guitar with freshly assembled synth, guitar, vocal and drum machine loops, mistress of her own magical musical box. She’s joined by Vetiver’s percussionist for a second song, but she manages so much so well on her own that his distant thunder is hardly necessary.

Following the interval the whole ensemble comes together for Adem’s consciousness-raising space-folk “Human Beings Gather ‘Round”, during which Juana plays a row of what look like tiny cymbals, gongs or bells, strung out like a washing line. After a couple of Vetiver tunes – in fact, if you were attending solely as a fan of that band you would hardly have felt short changed by the evening – follow, including “Maureen” and “Angels’ Share”, there’s a duet with Vashti on thrift store dollar bin salvage curio “Sleep A Million Years” by one Kathy Heideman, and then Adem returns to establish himself as the freak-folk Chris Martin. It’s those polite vocals and occasionally banal lyrics that clinch it (using the words ‘stuff’ and ‘things’ in such close proximity that it’s kinda hard to not mark him down for that one), but, by speckling his tunes with cosmic daffiness he gets away with it. “Spirals” is rather reminiscent of Coldplay at their “Parachutes” peak, and then he performs a lovely duet with Vashti Bunyan on “Pillow”. But it’s 9:45 before the evening wheels around to the reason I’m here: Vashti Bunyan sings a Vashti Bunyan song. Introduced as being written for her children, “Lately” is gently luminous and utterly spellbinding, Vashti singing like a warm-blooded earth mothering Nico. “Hidden” and “Wayward” follow, the latter wistfully described as being written from the point of view of a lady standing up to her elbows in soap suds at a sink in a house full of children, looking out of the window and wondering what happened to her dreams. Sometimes the tiniest tappings cause the most emotional devastation. Perhaps the evening’s only misstep was the ‘encore’, a ramble through a 1965 Jagger/Richards curiosity “Some Things Just Stick In Your Mind”, during which the assembled 11-strong ensemble sounded disturbingly like a school concert band, drums thudding reverberantly, recorders tooting, and anybody not involved with a guitar rattling some form of toy percussion.

Mostly, though, this was a lovely evening, radiating velveteen good vibes and contentment, full of gentle, fluid interlay between its constantly shifting configurations of musicians. Anybody expecting real live improvisation would have probably left disappointed as, inevitably with an event of such complexity, it gave the impression of being rehearsed and stage managed within an inch of its setlist. Even so, you gotcha little sumfin thatcha caint get at home, and any reasonably open-minded music lover would surely have found something to entertain them even if they had no prior knowledge of the artists’ work.

VASHTI BUNYAN Just Another Diamond Day (Dicristina)

Albums have been accompanied by seductive backstories since before Justin “Bon Iver” Vernon was born, and “Just Another Diamond Day” is one such. Not quite a concept album, somewhat less than an autobiography, its songs are tiny vignettes written during a journey made by horse-drawn wagon from London to the Outer Hebrides. The results might be sufficiently twee to make Nick Drake sound like Robert Johnson, but for all but the most hardened and cynical of heart they’re consistently wonderful. It makes the sensitively-attuned listener wonder how Bunyan could possibly have kept her astonishing melodic gifts hidden during her 35 year hiatus between albums.  These songs are so short – six of the album’s 14 tracks clock in at less than two minutes apiece – they seem initially to be barely there, but for all their nursery rhyme simplicity and Aquarian age idealism they soon reveal themselves to be fragrant miniatures built for the ages. This is utterly open, unselfconscious music-making, and the presence here of leading folk-rock lights of the time – including Robin Williamson, Dave Swarbrick, Simon Nicol, Robert Kirby and Joe Boyd – is the icing, rather than the cake.

Dicristina’s vinyl reissue is, well, alright. Apart from the erroneous inclusion of lyrics to the CD’s bonus tracks, which are absent from the disc, the packaging is lovely, right down to the recreation of era-appropriate label designs. The sonics are merely adequate and unspectacular, although to be fair the label make no wild claims of audiophile authenticity for this release.