What perhaps shocked me most about 2019 was how many bands came right out of the woodwork with new material, often their first such in decades. 2020 has continued that trend and I see new albums in my queue from Jefferson Starship, Blue Öyster Cult and Robbie Krieger, to name but three. The most surprised I've been in a while, though, was to see a new one from the Pretty Things.
If you're not aware of them, the Pretty Things go way back, so far back that when they were Little Boy Blue & The Blue Boys, they didn't just feature Pretty Things perennial, Dick Taylor, but also a couple of his fellow students at the Sidcup Art College by the names of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. They left in 1962 to join Brian Jones's band, which became the Rolling Stones, while Taylor formed the Pretty Things. They were charting in the UK by 1964.
This is only their thirteenth studio album, but they've only ever split up once, I believe, for a couple of years in the late seventies (if we don't count a blip in 1971). Since then, Taylor, the band's lead guitarist, and singer Phil May have been the core to which a variety of of capable musicians have flocked. Their previous album, The Sweet Pretty Things (Are in Bed Now, of Course...) came only five years ago, but this is still only their fourth album since 1980, so they've been hardly prolific of late.
And this looks like being the end, because May died in May, appropriately enough, at the age of 75, making this perhaps his final recording. I wonder if he knew that when he sang Gillian Welch's The Devil Had a Hold on Me, with lines like "I dreamt last night that my time was done." A lot of this material plays in that vein, especially Ain't No Grave, a song Claude Ely wrote in 1934 at the age of twelve, while he was sick with tuberculosis. "There ain't no grave gonna keep my body down," sings May. It's not the overt acknowledgement of mortality that David Bowie's Lazarus was, but it's hard not to read a lot into the songs chosen. Maybe there are more and it's just the selection.
May is on top form here and the acoustic blues format gives him plenty of room to shine. There are decades apparent in his voice but it's still smooth and there are few singers out so comfortable in their abilities that they're able to truly apply the less is more concept. This is a laid back folk/blues album, but songs like Redemption Day, a Sheryl Crow cover, quickly remind of the late Johnny Cash's abiding habit of reinventing material in his own image. Cash recorded Ain't No Grave too.
As that comparison might suggest, this is an inherently emotional album, not only because this is a memorial as much as a new release but because nobody listening to this can fail to feel that there's a spiritual element, an inherent wisdom being imparted in these words. The delicate guitarwork under May's voice helps that too, not just from Taylor but others: George Woosey, Henry Padovani and Sam Brothers, who adds a a banjo on The Devil Had a Hold on Me and a harmonica on Ain't No Grave and I'm Ready. Jon Wigg contributes aviolin to Black Girl, which also features a simple but effectively ominous echoing drum beat.
Some of this material is from the time honoured blues songbook, including a pair of Robert Johnson numbers, a Willie Dixon and a Muddy Waters. Some of it is much more recent, often songs from late nineties singer/songwriters or alternative rock bands. In addition to the Crow and the Welch, there's also Faultline, originally by the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, though needing surprising little work to translate into this stripped down format. To Build a Wall is a timely and touching Will Varley song from 2016. Another World may be new.
The Pretty Things travelled through a lot of territory in their almost sixty years, from sixties rhythm and blues through psychedelic rock hard rock and even new wave, but this brings them full circle with a gem of an acoustic blues album. It feels laid back but it's always intense, spiritual and meaningful. It's also often heartbreaking and I think I'll be playing this one a lot.
Phil May, 1944-2020. RIP.