One of Britain's most successful independent record labels during the 1960s and '70s, Ember Records tended to focus on pop-oriented material and R&B sides licensed from American labels, but in an effort to keep up with the times, they dipped their toes ever so lightly into hipper stuff during the era of long hair and fashionable protest, and Looking Towards the Sky: Progressive, Psychedelic and Folk Rock from the Ember Vaults features 15 tracks in which the label stepped out of their comfort zone. Of course, the fact that Ember didn't have a strong background in any of the above-mentioned genres might have something to do with why this music generally sounds rather toothless; most of the material here sounds crisp and professional, but also suggests the work of session musicians trying to sound hip for the sake of a client, rather than the real thing, even when the acts are legitimate. The folkie cuts on this collection at least boast some impressive names; Paddy Maguire's "Doin' the Best I Can" includes accompaniment by Steve Winwood, Jerry Donahue of Fotheringay, and frequent Richard Thompson collaborator Phil Pickett, while Knocker Jungle, a hippie-folk duo, are backed here by the Fairport Convention rhythm section of Dave Pegg and Dave Mattacks. Elsewhere on this set, Blonde on Blonde do an entertainingly ham-handed imitation of Cream (complete with Jack Bruce vocal affectations) on "Circles," though their other two cuts here sound more like middling, early prog rock. The liner notes make it clear Davey Payne & the Medium Wave does not feature the future Ian Dury sax man, though one listen to "Looking Towards the Sky" would suggest this is a different (and less interesting) musician. 9.30 Fly were a short-lived progressive outfit whose two numbers here boast good songwriting but stiff performances. And Back Street Band's "This Ain't The Road" sounds as if these guys had spent some time listening to the Band, though they wouldn't make as much of their enthusiasm as did Brinsley Schwarz. For listeners who are obsessive completists of late-'60s/early-'70s U.K. sounds, Looking Towards the Sky offers up some mildly interesting rarities, but little here is ultimately interesting enough to be of interest anyone outside the target market.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming