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Being a music fan can be an expensive hobby. Even with cheap digital downloads and bargain CDs galore on Amazon, sating the appetite for new or undiscovered exciting artists and albums can make a noticeable hole in your pocket money. However, it's an even more slippery slope when you get bitten by 'the vinyl bug'. Sucked into a world of original pressings, gatefold sleeves, liner notes and the warm tones of analogue music, it's the musical equivalent of taking smack. And sitting on my bookshelf, spurring my addiction on, was the Rare Record Price Guide.
Flicking through this massive 1000+ page tome is mind-boggling. The sheer number of artists is immense, and every now and again, one will notice an entry that stands out. A solitary album entry for an artist, with a ludicrous price tag in the hundreds, sometimes thousands of pounds, and a note that says 'only 300 pressed'. It can set the mind reeling, wondering what on earth such a rarity would sound like. Even CD reissues of these can be hard to find, and truth be told, a lot of them are disappointing. Many of these rarities come from the late 60s or early 70s, but for every 'Are You Experienced?', there are a dozen sub-par psychedelic, prog or folk-rock offerings from bands that spent too much time taking LSD than honing their music. However, 'Swaddling Songs' by Mellow Candle is that rarest of creatures, as it genuinely is an overlooked gem of an album and a bona fide classic of the then-burgeoning folk scene.
An Irish folk-rock outfit, Mellow Candle's sound is defined by its jazz-tinged leanings fronted by two female lead singers, Alison Williams and Clodagh Simonds, who also provides some wonderful piano work. All tracks here are penned by the band in a flash of creativity; there are no 'traditional arr.' credits here. What is striking about them is just how instantly they define their sound; opening track 'Heaven Heath' is an upbeat tone-setter, and it lets the listener instantly know just what they are all about. The two female voices duel and intertwine in a mesmerising fashion, delivered with clarity and power, and never losing their graceful tones no matter where they take their ranges.
'Sheep Season', while having a title that might have you reaching for the skip function, is a lovely offering as the girls bring the pace down and deliver haunting vocal lines to some bold piano work and jazz guitar that is utterly captivating. They continue their spell on 'Silversong', which has that exquisite spine-shivering quality; I'm beginning to wonder if these two girls are actually sirens. The quality of the production is also worth mentioning; it is the most crystal-clear, brazenly recorded album I've heard. These girls do not hold back, but every note is captured perfectly without distortion, hiss or any other problem. It's a total joy to hear, and modern producers who have been sucked into this horrid 'loudness war' that's currently raging should take note.
'Poet and the Witch' is a mini fairy-tale of a song that contains some wonderful word-play, as it recounts a witch enchanting a bard with 'moonfilled and thunderful star-staggered eyes/she broke away to be one with the skies/she feeds his love/to the nightmare she rides/suffers her hunger to inherit the prize - Queen of the Skies'. OK, so it doesn't contain the most profound of lyrics, but frankly these girls could sing the contents of the telephone directory and it would still sound magical. 'Messenger Birds' is another mellow piece, and 'Dan the Wing' rocks a bit more, but is a bit over-stretched in its ambitions of another religious story-telling. It's still not a bad song by any means though.
'Reverend Sisters' is another spellbinding, haunting piece, showcasing the two girls with just a piano accompaniment and hints at spiritual uncertainty as the time spent in a nunnery is called into question. There is a certain spirituality that pervades this record, without ever being heavy-handed or overt. I would hesitate to guess what it is, but the atmosphere is definitely there.
'Break Your Token' is a bit too similar to 'Dan the Wing', and is probably the weakest track here, with some slightly irritating jazz breaks thrown into the pot. It's still not terrible though, and at two minutes long may be the only filler.
'Buy or Beware' is a flirty piece, hinting at slightly drunken revelry and beyond, as 'reddened cheeks surrounding the fire and reflected smiles are cast in brightened eyes'. The wine flows with the melody lines, and guitarist David Williams adds some nice, fluid lines. 'Vile Excesses' sounds a bit like Jethro Tull, as rhythm section Frank Boylan and William Murray chop things up a bit with some interesting backing. 'Lonely Man' shows the girls harmonies off, and sounds a bit like later-era Beatles in places. It all ends with the jaunty Celtic wake 'Boulders on my Grave', which gallops along breathlessly to the end.
I think this is a wonderful record. The band are tight and keep things interesting with various breaks and jazz-fused timings. But the real stars here, as you may have picked up, are the two girls. Their voices are beautiful, and work together so well I am struggling to think of any female duo to match them.
It's a shame that this album is more noted for the insane price tag the original vinyl copy has, rather than for the music it contains. It shouldn't be a rarity at all, as it's every bit of a folk-rock classic as 'Liege and Lief'. I can't recommend this enough if you like folk music, or female vocalists, or just want to hear something a bit different. The only gripe I have is the CD package I have doesn't include the two non-LP singles they cut. There are also some other studio sessions kicking about, called 'The Virgin Prophet', which could easily be included as a bonus disk to represent the band's entire works in one complete package. There is however, a deluxe vinyl reissue version coming out a the end of the month, complete with the two 45s. No prizes for guessing what my next lot of dooyoo miles will be going towards.
P.S. In case you were wondering, the original turns up on ebay for between £600 - £1200, depending on the condition. Sheer madness I know, but if it were the only means of getting a copy, I'd gladly pay it. It's that good.
Tracklist: 1. HEAVEN HEATH 2. SHEEP SEASON 3. SILVERSONG 4. THE POET AND THE WITCH 5. MESSENGER BIRDS 6. DAN THE WING 7. REVEREND SISTERS 8. BREAK YOUR TOKEN 9. BUY OR BEWARE 10. VILE EXCESSES 11. LONELY MAN 12. BOULDERS ON MY GRAVE