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The Sweet Pretty Things (are in bed now, of course…)
By Mike Stax
In the autumn months of 2014, the future of the Pretty Things hung in the balance. Phil May was in a London hospital having been diagnosed with COPD and emphysema. Doctors warned him that if he didn’t make drastic changes to his lifestyle he’d be dead within a few months.
That was then. This is now. One year later, in the autumn of 2015, Phil has turned his life around and is in fighting form again. Not only is he back onstage and on the road with the Pretty Things, this summer the band released one of the best albums of their more than half-century career. A huge part of this miraculous turnaround is down to the support of his band mates, friends, family, and you Pretty Things fans, many of whom wrote to Phil personally via UT with words of encouragement and support, and some tough love. When I saw Phil in London earlier this year, he told me how moved he was by all of your letters, how he read and re-read them and found sustenance in them. He appreciated how many of you didn’t pull any punches. He quoted one from memory: “Don’t you dare die on us, you fucker, we need you around.” Yes we do.
If you needed another reminder why, look no further than The Sweet Pretty Things (are in bed now, of course…), their new album on Repertoire Records. (The title quotes the opening line of Bob Dylan’s “Tombstone Blues,” a song his Royal Bobness wrote and recorded shortly after the famous 1965 UK tour during which he hung out with members of the Pretty Things.)
The album was recorded quickly and simply, on analogue equipment, using vintage instruments and amps, and with only minimal overdubs. Even some of the lead vocals were cut live along with the basic tracks. The result is a collection of songs that sounds warm, organic, and at times almost effortless. It’s also very much a collaborative effort. All of the band members as well as manager/producer Mark St John contribute to the songwriting, including the two junior members, bass player George Woosey (who co-wrote three songs) and drummer Jack Greenwood, whose skills are showcased on the instrumental jam “Greenwood Tree.”
“The Same Sun,” written by Dick Taylor and Mark St John, opens the album, and in another, kinder era would’ve also been the hit single that preceded it. Taylor’s winding guitar melody, mirrored by the vocals, soon imprints itself into your cranial hard drive, along with a great chorus hook: “The sun / The sun is in the sky / The same sun / But seen through different eyes.” With its strong SF Sorrow vibe, this one has all the makings of a new Pretty Things classic, and has already become a favorite in their live shows.
“And I Do”—written by Woosey, May, and St John—is archetypal modern-day Pretties. Phil spits out the lyrics with a vinegary vehemence on the verses, propelled by a wiry blues guitar riff, giving way to a more resigned tone on the melodic, harmonized choruses. A pair of cover versions follows. First they revisit the Byrds’ “Renaissance Fair,” a staple of their live set in 1968-69, highlighted here by some chiming guitar work by Taylor and Frank Holland, then they ambush with a storming version of the late-period Seeds obscurity, “You Took Me By Surprise.” Phil’s lascivious howl elevates the song tremendously, and the band rocks out with a hard rock ferocity reminiscent of the Harvest-era favorite “Cold Stone.” This is followed by a spirited take on “Turn My Head,” a song first written and recorded in 1967, but passed over for release at the time.
“Dark Days”—written by Phil May and Frankie Holland—is one of the album’s highlights. A tense, foreboding monolith of a song, cloaked in all kinds of doomy atmospherics, it’s underpinned by a dense, menacing riff of the kind Led Zeppelin once specialized in. Phil digs deep, getting right inside the lyrics and conjuring an especially powerful and affecting vocal performance, supported by some strong harmonies, beautiful interweaving guitars and swirling Mellotron.
It’s followed by “Greenwood Tree,” which I mentioned earlier, a psychedelic instrumental jam that had originally segued out of “Renaissance Fair.” Dick and Frankie lay down some searing lead guitar work before it breaks off into an extended drum solo that manages not to overstay its welcome (the whole track clocks in at 4:16). This clears a path for the excellent “Hell, Here and Nowhere,” written by George Woosey, an acoustic-based piece with some wonderful three- and four-part harmonies, harking back to the some of the more mellow tracks on Parachute and Freeway Madness.
“In the Soukh” is also superb, an atmospheric, Eastern-flavored instrumental by Dick Taylor with a great, coiling guitar riff, reverberating Bo Diddley beat drums, and monastic chanting. The overall effect is not unlike the Yardbirds “Hot House of Omagarashid.”
The album closes out with another standout, “Dirty Song,” a dark, sensual, bluesy number with a terrific, insistent guitar riff, and another soulful, immaculately phrased vocal from Phil. Once again the group’s massed, wordless backups add greatly to the overall mood of the number.
Is there another band working today, more than fifty years into their story, still making music this powerful and relevant? No, there isn’t. Only the sweet Pretty Things. Long may they reign. (MS)