Mick Softley

Sunrise/Street Singer

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The music of Mick Softley is very much of a specific time and place (Britain during the 1960s folk boom), and given that he apparently had little interest in commercial success, his recordings are a curious mixture of songs and styles that, at their best, are fascinatingly odd, and at their worse, seem derivative and frustratingly trite. He is also somewhat of a chimera, sounding at times like Donovan (in all of his 1960s phases -- Softley, like Donovan, seems to suffer from a watercolor Zen approach to the world), Bert Jansch, and even Tim Buckley or Harry Nilsson in spots, but he never seems to settle on one voice, which gives all of his albums (save his first, Songs for Swingin' Survivors, which was a straight acoustic folk release) a distinct up and down feel. This set from BGO Records combines Softley's second album, Sunrise, with his third, Street Singer, and since both LPs were produced by Tony Cox and featured the Fotheringay rhythm section, they fit together fairly well. Cox's arrangements, which make heavy use of sitars, saxophones and strings, are carefully appropriate and frequently fascinating, and when Softley is on, he is an extremely gifted and focused performer. Songs like the solo acoustic "Caravan" are wonderfully drawn poetic vignettes that would fit easily on any of Donovan's or Jansch's early albums, and Softley's versions of his own "The War Drags On" and "Gold Watch Blues" bring out the sarcastic humor that is muted or lacking in Donovan's renditions. Other highlights include a delightful piece of funky folk rock, "You Go Your Way, I'll Go Mine," the gentle and sincere "Hope," and "I Seen Good Times, I Seen Bad," which sounds like it could be a Tim Buckley song with its soaring, jazzy lead vocal. But all too often Softley seems needlessly affected as a writer, and while being childlike in wonder can certainly be a virtue, it can also lead to disastrous "poetry" if misapplied."Julie Argoyne" would be a brilliant Donovan parody if it were indeed a parody, but it probably isn't, and ultimately seems like a huge chunk of hippie dippy nonsense. "Water Sister, Water Brother" suffers from the same sort of 1960s flower power overload, and several songs are marred by pastel lyrics that could only have seemed relevant if your head was chemically in the clouds. On the other hand, songs like "Shucks Blues" have such a simple, unassuming and goofy glow, that it's impossible not to smile and groove with them. A single, carefully selected album of the best of Softley -- one that weeds out the shallow period pieces and obvious chunks of affectation -- would reveal a remarkably interesting singer and songwriter with a sharp sense of observation and an easy, natural sense of humor. This set, however, hides its gems, and while it may appeal to fans of Donovan, Jansch and the nascent '60s British folk scene, it is simply too stylistically dated and precious to be much more than a timepiece to most listeners.

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