ROY HARPER Counter Culture (Science Friction)
Presenting, according to the cover sticker, 25 Classic Roy Harper songs (Cherry picked according to his mood in April 2005), this double CD anthology is an exquisite key into the British folk-rock iconoclasts recorded output.
The opener, the title track of his 1966 debut album, Sophisticated Beggar, recorded with John Renbourne (sic) already in tow, never loses contact with structure for all its shades of raga and acid-folk. You Dont Need Money is a quirkily camp Kinksian observation of bohemian youth slumming it around Europe kind of Sunny Afternoon meets Withnail & I and one of very few tracks here to employ percussive embellishment; its testament to the rhythmic certainty of Harpers writing and playing that its absence is scarcely noted. It hardly registers that the bitterly corrosive, possibly self-directed I Hate The White Man is a live recording until the shell-shocked applause at its close. Arguably Harper at his most Dylanesque, he summons so much hoarse, hollering rage from just strings and wood.
One of few familiar moments here on account of This Mortal Coils ethereal cover, Another Day begins in a parochial Hovis ad vision of England (The kettles on, the sun has gone, another day/She offers me Tibetan tea on a flower tray) before heading for more mysterious territory, illuminated by the half-light of David Bedfords string orchestrations. Distant turbulence and turmoil hum through Harpers strumming during the acoustic prog of The Same Old Rock, which degenerates into a John Martyn-esque tapestry of reverb.
I was slightly taken aback by the mans cheek when he opted to perform his own composition, When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease, at last years Talking Bob Dylan Blues tribute concert, but heard again its the highlight of this collection. It speaks volumes about a passing, perhaps passed, even then, England even before The Grimethorpe Colliery Band strike up.
The sardonic One Of Those Days In England (Pts 2-10) chimes with Pink Floyds contemporaneous work Harper appeared on their Wish You Were Here album featuring some very Animals-esque slashing vitriol. Its about as punk as Harper gets, if you can class a 20-minute suite as being close to punk in any regard. The plastic synth brass imitation at the close initially seems to be a jarring misstep, but perhaps its entirely appropriate in a song that seemingly hankers after a long-vanished impersonation of reality.
Kate Bush brings a dark lustre to You that outpaces even her own burgeoning art of the time. Miles Remains is a long, luxuriant tribute to the late trumpeter that floats Harpers acoustic guitar in a halo of echoes. I Wanna Be In Love finds him at his most tender and transparent, Ric Sanders violin providing a pungent counterpoint, until the whole is subsumed by what sounds like tribal chanting and drumming.
The composite cover photograph features two reflected halves of the artist, pictured 35 years apart. The headphones may have changed, but the shirt, the hair and the beard remain constant, if a little greyer where appropriate. Its a powerful image thats also an accurate summation of the albums contents. Impervious to fashion, Roy Harpers complex, literate and sincere songs have changed not a jot over the near-40 year period documented here, theyve just matured. I cant think of another artist who could select a similarly singular, consistent and coherent anthology from such a long career.