"Revisitng the Affectionate Scrapbook" - Anthony Phillips' Private Parts & Pieces I - IV re-issues reviewed by Alan Hewitt.
Aaah the memories! To say that the albums in this box set formed part of the soundtrack to my life would be an understatement and that said, I was thoroughly expecting no surprises this time round. After all, when you are as familiar with this music as I am, what is there left to surprise you? Well, we shall see…
It is incredible to believe that some of this music is over forty (and in some cases closer to fifty years) old and yet it still manages to retain a freshness and vibrancy which so much “modern” music lacks to my ears at least. This is in part due to the fact that Ant is lucky in having had the original master tapes of all of these albums in his possession something which no doubt made the process of re-evaluating the music just that much more easy from the point of view of not having to trawl through record company archives to find it although, as the interview with Ant elsewhere in this edition shows, the process of bringing this music to life for the 21st century was no easy process!
Private Parts & Pieces, the first album and the progenitor of what has to be one of the longest running series of albums in history will always retain a special place in my affections and this newly mastered version simply consolidates that place. Here we have Ant at his best, with the glories of Field of Eternity and Tregenna Afternoons displaying his astonishing command of the twelve string acoustic guitar, a notoriously difficult instrument to tame and one which in the hands of a lesser musician would sound empty and hollow.
Of course, even on this first album in the series we have several examples of Ant’s left-field experiments: Harmonium in the Dust being the prime example here and although it can jar the senses somewhat positioned as it is between the elegiac beauty of Lullaby - Old Father Time and the aforementioned Tregenna Afternoons, the contrast merely highlights the breadth of Ant’s music.
Credit from the outset must be given to Ant’s partner in crime, Jonathan Dann as one thing that is evident throughout these albums is the depth and warmth which he has managed to bring to the mixes. Something which is usually lacking from digital transfers of analogue music. It is this depth and warmth which is so luxuriant that the entire listening experience throughout was akin to listening to the albums for the very first time, and frissons of delight were rekindled aplenty throughout - something I was NOT expecting I can tell you.
I had always maintained, and to a certain extent Ant agrees with me, that the second album in the series, 1980’s Back to the Pavilion was something of a disjointed effort. Amazing how the passage of time can make you rethink your opinions but here, once again thanks to the judicious and impeccably tasteful job that has been done on the mixing, this album throws up surprises at every turn. The Scottish Suite replete with various sound effects and much suitably atmospheric and ethereal playing works better now than ever before while the acoustic gems such as Postlude: End Of The Season, Spring Meeting and the truly magnificent Nocturne shine with renewed vigour here. The mix of acoustic and electric tracks, which was such a surprise back in 1980 works surprisingly well to my ears nowadays and once again ably demonstrates the skill that Ant has in many different areas of music.
1982 saw the release of the deceptively titled Antiques album. Deceptive because all of the music on it was of a recent vintage but don’t let the “newness” of that vintage deceive you, the end result is as heady a brew of acoustic wonder as you could possibly wish for. Here Ant is joined by Quique Berro Garcia, his Argentinean guitarist friend for the first time on record and the results of their collaborations are a true delight and make this one of the most consistent of all the albums in the series. Camp fire music to some perhaps, but this album is so much more than that, it is a tour de force demonstration of the sheer breadth of the instrument that Ant’s successor in Genesis; Mr Stephen Hackett, refers to as “the small orchestra”. Seldom have I heard the acoustic six string and twelve string guitar meld into such a unified whole as they do on this album and once again, the new mix here makes the music glow like the embers of a fire radiating both cosy light and warmth - wonderful stuff!
1984’s A Catch At The Tables is next. Another favourite of mine and the first where the mix between the electronic and acoustic sides of Ant’s guitar and keyboard work managed to sit comfortably at the same table (pun intended). As someone who has partaken of the various nefarious activities mentioned in the sleeve note for Arboretum Suite, I can’t help but smile whenever I hear it but here once again, it is the mix which has brought out nuances previously unsuspected making this a delight once again. Ant’s sense of humour is to the fore in the jaunty Flapjack while Lights On The Hill is a heady mix of wry nostalgia as only Mr Phillips can write.
The one thing that rather dates this album is the use of drum box on several of the tracks but somehow it adds to rather than detracts from the overall atmosphere of them and the tracks which feature keyboards such as Lights On The Hill, Earth Man also manages to avoid the pitfalls which might date them somewhat. We are also treated to something (at the time at least) of a rarity in the shape of a song by Ant: Sistine, which despite its title is really an elegy for the fallen in the Great War lent an even greater poignancy at the moment by the centenary of the events in that dreadful conflict.
Each album also features the extra tracks which were added when the albums were first transferred to CD and these extras contain some of the finest jewels from Ant’s catalogue such as the wonderful Silver Song (although not the Phil Collins sung version which appeared on Esoteric’s magisterial re-issue of the classic The Geese & The Ghost album earlier this year) and Stranger and Lucy: An Illusion both from the heady days of 1969. Others of more recent vintage such as El Cid and Erotic Strings also bring much to the palette of musical colours from Ant’s nimble fingers and deftly creative mind.
However, rather than just leave things at that, Esoteric have once again expanded the envelope by giving us, the listeners an entire disc of previously unheard music to serve as a final amuse bouche to send us on our merry way. As someone who has spent a fair amount of time perusing Ant’s archive (although in fairness only a fraction of the time spent there by Mr Dann!) it is here that this set takes on truly exciting proportions for me as I had heard NONE of this music before.
Sea Piece gives us another example of an altogether longer piece sadly truncated but giving us a tantalising example of what might have been. Prelude 3 is an austere and classically orientated guitar piece and one which would not be out of place on the concert stage as it is a delight. The Princess Waltz is another track from the abortive Masquerade project and here we get to hear Ant not only on guitar but BASS and glockenspiel no less - is there no end to the man’s talents? Evidently intended to have had lyrics at some point, the end result is nonetheless satisfying.
Library music has been a mainstay of much of Ant’s career and in Marionette Vignette we get to hear one of his first forays into that field. A brittle keyboard piece, which as is the case with so much library music, ends all too soon! Duchess of Kew however, is a much more expansive effort - another track omitted from the evidently fruitful collaboration between Ant and Richard Scott for the Invisible Men album. I can understand why this one was left off however, as there are perhaps one too many echoes of other tracks from that album to be heard in it (Traces being the obvious one to my ears at least).
The inclusion here of several more alternative versions of well known tracks such as Birdsong Link, Moonshooter Piano and Sistine - Alternative Piano Version give the listener a chance to hear how these tracks were put together and how the various elements from them sound in isolation which in turn gives a better appreciation of the finished result I think - works for me anyway, folks.
With over an hours’ worth of extra music on this disc, no one can accuse Ant or Esoteric of stinting or not giving the listener value for money and indeed, as either a longstanding fan of Ant’s music such as myself, or a fan coming to the music for the first time, there is much to revel in and enjoy in this superbly well put together set. I never thought I would ever get quite the same excitement listening to this music again as I did first time round but thanks to the dedication and care with which this edition has been put together I can say that I came VERY close to doing so and that is a testament to all concerned and thanks for making a happy fan VERY old!
Now hie thee to a record store and get this set for yourselves - you will NOT regret it I promise you!
Anthony Phillips: Private Parts & Pieces I -IV. Esoteric Records ECLEC 52510.