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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Dave Cousins

Secret Paths

Review by Julie Knispel

David Cousin’s expansive career has seen him shifting styles on a regular basis.  From the earliest days of the Strawberry Hill Boys (soon to be shortened to the Strawbs), Cousins has explored bluegrass, folk, rock, blues, and progressive rock styles...often shifting modes within a single album.  Adept on multiple instruments (banjo, guitar, dulcimer, et cetera), his unique and distinctive voice has carried some of the most memorable songs from the so-called golden era of progressive rock.

Secret Paths is Cousins’ most recent solo album.  Following on from 2007’s Boy in the Sailor Suit, Secret Paths sees Cousins working in a duo with steel guitarist Melvin Duffy.  I have to admit up front that I am not necessarily a fan of pedal steel guitar as I find it to be entirely too cliche a sound and overused in a lot of what was contemporary country music when I was growing up.  This album may make me reconsider that stand, as it is used incredibly tastefully on Secret Paths, adding colour and texture to the performances.  The combination of pedal steel and Cousins’ distinctive voice and songwriting creates a very sorrowful sound, even in the brightest of moments.  While it would be foolish to say this is a depressing album, there is an aura of sadness that is ever present.  Produced by Chris Tsangarides, Secret Paths is nearly crystalline in sound; crisp, well defined, and showcasing the dynamics and passion of Cousins’ delivery and playing.

I would like to have seen an album of entirely new material rather than reworkings of past songs, but Secret Paths shows Cousins is not necessarily sitting on his laurels.  Even on these older pieces, Cousins has rearranged and recast them to suit the instrumentation, breathing some fresh life into these chestnuts.  Secret Paths is a worthy addition to the Cousins/Strawbs catalogue, and well worth seeking out by the devoted fan.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2008  Volume 2 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Song Of A Sad Little Girl
Secret Paths opens with this piece originally released on the Strawbs’ 1970 album A Collection of Antiques and Curios.  Cousins and Duffy are heard right from the opening, with acoustic guitar and steel guitar ringing out like a fine bell.  Cousins sounds in fine voice, his guitar strumming behind him as his delivery is dripping with emotion.  The key shift as he moves into the bridge is handles with wonderful fluidity, while Duffy’s steel guitar lines weep further back in the mix.  This is a wonderful album opener, and sets the stage nicely for the ten tracks to follow.
Plainsong
This is the first (and only) completely new track on this album.  “Plainsong” has a bit more of a country feel to it, with more present steel guitar adding to that feel.  Cousins’ vocals are a touch deeper, his rough bari-tenor imparting a deeper sense of gravity to his lyrics.  If nothing else, this song shows that Cousins’ songwriting voice has not dulled one bit over the nearly 40 years he has been working in music.  Thankfully, the performance matches the power of the track.  While I have made clear my complaints over the number of reworkings on this album, I’ll admit I’d love to hear this piece played by the full electric Strawbs band.  How’s that for a bit of a conflict in opinion?
The Shepherd's Song
Dating back to 1971’s From the Witchwood, “The Shepherd’s Song” sees the mood lift slightly, with more sprightly playing and singling.  Duffy’s steel guitar takes the place of keyboards comfortably, while Cousins’ lyrics not only evoke this album’s title but bring to mind some of the material from the song “Blue Angel.”  His voice continues from strength to strength, distinctive in higher registers while easily dropping to his lower voice where necessary.  An extended instrumental outro gives both Cousins and Duffy ample opportunity to show off some nice guitar chops as well.
I Turned My Face Into The Wind
Another older composition, “I Turned my Face Into the Wind” has seen release twice before, on 1969’s Strawberry Sampler No. 1 and 1970’s Dragonfly.  Duffy’s steel guitar moans and weeps, while Cousins’ voice oozes sadness and loss.
Ringing Down The Years
Cousins originally wrote this piece upon hearing of the death of Sandy Denny, who formerly sang with the early Strawbs before moving on to Fairport Convention.  Despite the weighty subject matter, Cousins’ song is less elegy/requiem and more celebration.  Reminiscing about first meetings, long talks deep into the night, and that singular, undeniably impossible to recreate voice, this take brings a smile to my face despite the sadness in knowing that Denny’s voice is only with us on record today.
Josephine (For Better Or For Worse)
Much like “I Turned my Face Into the Wind,” this Cousins composition has been recorded and released two times before, on the same pair of albums as that earlier track.  Picked steel guitar adds an interesting voice to the piece without relying on long, weepy, sustained notes.  Written for Irish writer/activist Dominic Behan and his wife Josephine, this song is plain in structure yet nonetheless emotionally powerful and honest, and this rendition imparts all of that power with exceptional clarity.
Canada
Recently released on the career retrospective boxed set A Taste of Strawbs, this rendition is fully re-recorded to feature Cousins and Duffy.  Stripped down, Cousins’ guitar figures are more clearly heard, while Duffy’s steel guitar soars just above the guitar lines without taking away too much.  Something in the delivery and structure reminds me of another song, and I can’t quite place it.  However, this does mean the song sounds comfortable and familiar despite being new to me.  Cousins even gets to sing portions of this piece in Quebecois French, adding a nice bit of surprising change to the album.  At almost six and a half minutes, this is the most extended composition on this album, and practically screams for full band performance and orchestration.
How I Need You Now
This song was originally featured on the 1975 album Nomadness under the title “Absent Friend.”  I might prefer that older version, but only slightly.  This rendition feels a bit bluesier and grittier, with a bit of scrape heard on Duffy’s steel guitar.  There’s despair and desperation in both the lyrics and Cousins’ delivery.
I'll Show You Where To Sleep
This is a slightly reworked rendition of a piece from the Strawbs’ debut release from 1969.  It features some different tunings and especially percussive guitar picking.  At times I feel Cousins’ guitar picking bears some comparison to Jorma Kaukonen, and that might be chalked up as much to the particular bits he’s playing as anything else.  Duffy’s steel guitar again bears mention, as he subtly adds to the arrangement without overpowering the subtle simplicity that the song requires.
Beat The Retreat
The newest of the old songs on Secret Paths, “Beat the Retreat” was first aired on 1987’s Don’t Say Goodbye.  This rendition is particularly restrained and stripped back, with Cousins’ voice and strummed guitar the focal point of the mix.  There’s not much I can say here that I haven’t said before about songs on this album; it’s a great rendition of the song, and a wonderful showcase of Cousins’ distinctive voice.
Falling In Love Again
The only cover song on this release (unless you consider reworkings and re-recordings of older Strawbs songs as covers), this composition was originally made famous by Marlene Dietrich.  It’s odd hearing David Cousins singing a cabaret song, and one might forgive him had he played the piece for the sake of humour.  He does not, however, and imparts as much integrity and honesty into his playing and singing as he would one of his own songs.  Duffy’s steel guitar shines on a short solo section a verse or so into the track, and his playing adds a definite 1950’s feel to the song.  “Falling in Love Again” is perhaps an odd choice for album closer, yet it performs its task admirably.
 
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