Michael "Mick" Softley is one of the lost figures of British folk, ever on the fringe of recognition but never attaining the status his work deserves. If nothing else, he can be classed a singer-songwriter, but the term "erratic free spirit" is infinitely more apposite. From an early age he lived the beatnik dream, and served his musical apprenticeship busking on the streets of Paris with Wizz Jones and Clive Palmer. He returned to England and became a key figure on the Hertfordshire folk club scene, teaching Donovan guitar technique (hence his covering of some of Mick's songs); he made a fine, largely troubadour-folk-inspired debut LP Songs For Swingin' Survivors and a couple of ill-fated singles, but only managed to procure a proper recording contract with a three-album CBS deal in 1970, for which he produced some of the most enterprisingly eclectic music of the era containing some fabulous songs and genuinely creative music, unashamedly mixing folk with mainstream, eastern with western, acid psych, jazz and rock influences. The first two of these albums, Sunrise and Street Singer, were released on BGO a few years back, but the third, Any Mother Doesn't Grumble, has - criminally - languished in vinyl oblivion until now. This first CD appearance boasts excellent remastered sound and a well-realised and perceptive biographical essay, and reproduces in high resolution the full lyrics on front and back of the booklet (in accordance with the original vinyl sleeve which gave deserved prominence to the texts).
The music on Any Mother Doesn't Grumble proves every bit as diverse as that on its predecessors: another stylistic roller-coaster ride for the listener, but sporting even more assured arrangements that, fully in keeping with the freewheeling creative spirit of the time, make great use of a select pool of excellent contemporary sessioners - three members of Fotheringay (Jerry Donahue, Pat Donaldson and Gerry Conway), plus sax/flute virtuoso Lyn Dobson (of Soft Machine and Manfred Mann Chapter Three) and keyboardist and producer Tony Cox (who'd already worked with Mick on his two previous albums); they really knew how to get on down and blow, with due abandon but always mindful of the direction and feel of the songs. Traveller's Song has something of an early-Mott-The-Hoople vibe, and From The Land Of The Crab feels like a rambling jam session from The Band, while The Song That I Sing builds to a delicious jazzy crescendo; then at the other end of the eccentricity spectrum we find the playfully cryptic Great Wall Of Cathay. Having said that, there are still some tracks on which Mick is more or less left alone with his guitar, a throwback to his folkier days but also enabling fullest concentration on his quite special, if at times idiosyncratic lyrics - the expansive eight-minute meditation Have You Really Seen The Stars? contrasting with the tender, distinctly Donovan-esque whimsy of Hello Little Flower and the metaphysical pastoral incantation Sing While You Can (which also features some gorgeous flute playing) and the lovingly decorated cadences of The Minstrel Song. The directly expressed social commentary of Magdalene's Song and the closing protest anthem I'm So Confused inhabit more orthodox s/s territory, but are none the less worthwhile for that.
It's one of music's mysteries that Any Mother Doesn't Grumble didn't get Mick any wide recognition, even in the receptive climate of the early 70s. Was its diversity by then becoming just a touch less fashionable, I wonder, in the polarisation of musical scenes into mainstream and underground? Whatever, after the LP's comparative commercial failure Mick drifted back into the travelling lifestyle, releasing a couple of albums on an obscure Swiss label and eventually moving to Northern Ireland, where by all accounts he still resides. His music richly deserves our re-evaluation - so, what better reason to purchase this splendid new CD edition?
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