A Later Limelight

somethings_bunyanVashti Bunyan: Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind (Fat Cat)

The critical and commercial resurgence of Vashti Bunyan – from a sort of leftfield Marianne Faithfull (without the vulnerable success, or the tragedy) to bona-fide Sixties siren and revitalized recording artist – has been painstaking, unlikely, and snail-like. Never a star, though she knew plenty who were, she was cursed with a name that tripped off the tongue for all the wrong reasons, and possessed a wanderlust that wasn't the best approach for maintaining a career.

An Art School dropout and descendant of author John Bunyan (The Pilgrim’s Progress), this ornately named girl migrated to New York in 1964, where she discovered the burgeoning joy of a new talent, Bob Dylan. On returning to London, fired by Dylan's example, she longed to pursue a career in music, and to release an album. She hooked up with Andrew Loog Oldham, who brought her a Rolling Stones song for her debut single on Decca. It seemed, albeit briefly, that her dreams might be realized. As they instead floundered (only one other single released, plus an appearance on one song with Twice as Much, also in Oldham’s artist stable), she packed both her expectations and her disappointment, trading the jangling atmosphere of the swinging metropolis for the remote and barren climes of the Outer Hebrides. A year and a half long hermitic sojourn in a caravan lay ahead.

Bunyan arrived back in London with songs, and began picking up the scattered threads of her career. She made the album she'd long promised to record with folk stalwart Joe Boyd, Just Another Diamond Day. It sold poorly, and once again she took to drifting around distant and remote places, then raised a family in Ireland. As she did, her album slowly garnered a near-mythical reputation amongst devotees who saw her as some spiritual envoy from a more innocent time. It is a beautiful piece of work, if on occasion a tad twee, which largely deserves the cult following it has attained. Once it appeared on CD, her touchstone status was secured.

Bunyan was initially bemused by the fuss, but via her growing cachet with fans, she got to record a new album, Lookaftering, with the likes of such new talents and supporters as Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom. A less irksome and more earthed affair than her revered predecessor, it revealed that Bunyan had lost none of her song-craft, nor her voice any of its lilting innocence. This release brought her a wider audience than the one afforded by her curio credentials.

Bunyan never realized her ambition to create an album in the mid-sixties, but Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind is a second chance. Although the tracks span the period from 1964 through '67, this compilation has the feel of a completed album. The title track is the haunting song she was gifted from Jagger and Co., on which she sounds like an English Francoise Hardy. “Train Song,” its follow-up, still sounds as fresh as the day on which she first gave it breath, and possesses a subtle, sophisticated, and knowing innocence. “Love Song,” its flip side, hints strongly of the heights she would reach with Just Another Diamond Day.

That a song of the quality of “Winter Is Blue” never saw the luxury of a release date is indicative of the eclectic chaos at Immediate Records. A madrigal-like lament, its purity is hard to surpass. Emotive strings and soaring vocals haunt the song's setting. It rises and falls as effortlessly as a summer tide. “Coldest Night of the Year” (the Twice as Much recording) is a more grounded offering, a little Left Banke, a little like reined-in Lou Christie. It is of such a beautiful quality, it makes one wish that others had cared sufficiently not to crush her tender ambition.

That her brother managed to preserve her efforts is indicative that some did, and that in the end, it only takes one. The second disc of this release consists of an entire tape reel of demos of songs Bunyan had forgotten she had written. A girl with a guitar and nothing more, it is a true unadorned gem. Despite embarrassing its creator with its wistful honesty, it contains more that she can be justly proud of, than feel shamed by. The delightful “Leave Me” shows assured brilliance, and the entire session, fragile and refined, provides the missing pieces to the puzzle of Bunyan's sporadic career.

Recently “Just Another Diamond Day” was used in a mobile phone commercial on British television, in which a man falls to the ground from a tall building, but instead of hitting the concrete with deathly repercussions, the pavement holds all the flexibility of a trampoline. As well as swelling the coffers of Miss Bunyan's royalties account, it has once more extended her fan base. The song sounds effortlessly new, and the advert could be read as an allegory of her career.

The fact the bulk of this work has survived at all is remarkable. That she is being recognized through it is laudable, but in truth the largest reward awaits those who discover her hauntingly unique abilities. Maybe she surmised it all in the title of her first single, “Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind,” but for them to do so they have to be heard. Luck was on her side in the fact that these recordings remain, and is ours in their hearing. The gleanings of a past well worth remembering. - Robert Cochrane

Vashti Bunyan - Some Things Just Stick In Your Mind (Singles and Demos 1964 to 1967)

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Mr. Cochrane is a poet and writer living in Manchester, England. His work has appeared in Mojo, Attitude, and Dazed & Confused. He has published three collections of poems, and Gone Tomorrow, his biography of the rock singer Jobriath, will appear via SAF in 2008.

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