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Various Artists Various Artists
Album: When The Day Is Done: The Orchestrations Of Robert Kirby
Label: Ace
Tracks: 20

This is the first-ever collection to turn a specific spotlight on Robert Kirby, whose name is for the most part only known to aficionados of early-70s folk-rock, and then almost en passant. In a nutshell, he was the guy responsible for the distinctive orchestral (string, brass and woodwind) arrangements that gave the first two Nick Drake albums (Five Leaves Left and Bryter Later) their special sonic signature. After an early love of rock’n’roll, hearing the Beatles’ She’s Leaving Home gave him a Damascene moment that convinced him he’d like to try his hand at arranging. At around the same time he met Nick Drake at Cambridge and fell in love with his lyrics; the two quickly built up a rapport, and Kirby was an easy first choice when Drake needed string arrangements, firstly for his live shows and then for his Island debut LP. The Kirby sound was defined by its laid-back, atmospheric autumnal ambience, and a certain misty and peculiarly English melancholy – a quality that was to become much in demand from folk and folk-rock singer-songwriters and bands throughout the 1970s.

Fittingly then, When The Day Is Done kicks off with the instrumental cut Introduction from Nick Drake’s Bryter Later album – although surprisingly this is the only appearance of Drake on this compilation (and then only his guitar, in relation to the track’s provenance). The signature Kirby autumnal string sound is represented by the Steve Ashley track Follow On, and the gorgeous silver-band glow of Sandy Denny’s country cover Silver Threads And Golden Needles will be familiar from Sandy’s final album Rendezvous. But there’s many less obvious delights in store as the tracks that follow constitute a veritable guide to Kirby’s skills as an orchestrator, and often take the palette way beyond a straightforward string-wash with the incorporation of other textures and timbres (such as mellotron choir on the 1971 Keith Christmas track Forest And The Shore).

There’s examples of the more customary Kirby sound with the folk-baroque-pastoral of Ophelia’s Song by the mysterious Shelagh McDonald, the recorder-rich delicacy Rainbow River by Vashti Bunyan, the delicate, sparingly scored Spirogyra track Love Is A Funny Thing, tricky string figures tripping through Audience’s instrumental adventure Raviolé, and White Witch by Cambridge band Spriguns. Set against these we find I Keep A Close Watch from John Cale’s inconsistent 1975 Island album Helen Of Troy; a florid, over-egged 1975 track by Gary Shearston; and an anodyne disco-fied Robert Palmer cover by Iain Matthews taken from one of his least distinguished hours Stealin’ Home. And I admit I never really rated Richard & Linda Thompson’s First Light, despite the virtues of Kirby’s restrained Celtic-soul-style arrangement. Welcome rarities brought to the surface here include Gillian McPherson’s It’s My Own Way and the 1978 Shirley Collins demo Honour Bright, while this compilation closes with a Ralph McTell track from his You, Well Meaning… album – not its epic highlight The Ferryman, unfortunately, but instead Pick Up A Gun, where to my mind an important lyric is submerged in an uncharacteristically blowsy arrangement.

As multi-artist themed compilations go, this is one of the best, not least for introducing us to some infrequently heard recordings by legendary figures and more obscure acts alike, but the majority of whose contributions have been tellingly enhanced by Kirby’s imaginative arrangements. This disc is also especially well served by Bob Stanley’s comprehensively informative booklet essay, from which I personally learned a great deal.

David Kidman