Just a simple soul, perhaps, but what a guitarist.
Whilst there have been a number of Bert Jansch compilations over the years, Just A Simple Soul is significant for covering Jansch’s career over five decades. (It focuses on the solo years, rather than the Pentangle releases.) It has been assembled by Jansch’s estate and Bernard Butler, one-time Suede guitarist and David McAlmont collaborator. Butler knew Jansch well and he contributes the liner notes here.
There’s no doubt that the legendary Scot had a good voice – but it was his spectacular skill as a guitarist that he will be most remembered for. This compilation brings together 39 tracks, presented here in chronological order. His debut self-titled album (sometimes referred to as the Blue Album) has three tracks here, including the instrumental ‘Angie’ and the harrowing ‘Needle Of Death.’ No prizes for guessing that the latter is about heroin – it concerns a folk singer friend of his called Buck Polly who died of an overdose. It’s one of his best-known songs – the darkness within is echoed in tracks like Nick Drake (one of many who claimed Jansch as an influence) and his song ‘Black Eyed Dog.’
The 1960s were a prolific period for Jansch, producing six albums between his debut and 1969, by which time he had formed the legendary Pentangle. There’s a number of highlights from this period, but amongst them are the instrumentals ‘Angie’ and ‘The Waggoner’s Lad’ as well as the eco-warning ‘Poison.’
The seventies and eighties were a more difficult time for Jansch, but not without their musical highlights. The first part of this set finishes with a stunning duet with Mary Hopkin (one of the great, lost voices) on a cover of Ewan MacColl’s ‘The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face.’ Sure, it’s been covered by everyone from Roberta Flack to Johnny Cash to George Michael, but it’s a testament to Jansch and Hopkin’s skill that their version holds its own. 1974’s L.A. Turnaround was his first album after the Pentangle split, featuring another stunning instrumental ‘Chambertin’ and that album’s opener ‘Fresh As A Sweet Sunday Morning’ which truly earns (and owns) the title.
Towards the end of the decade, with punk having swept away much of what had been held sacred, a concept album about birds may have been the most out of time release possible for 1979, but Avocet is brilliant. It’s represented here by ‘Kittiwake.’ (I might personally have substituted it for the title track but a seventeen minute composition is something you should make the time to investigate.)
Jansch’s influence cannot be underestimated, even if it took until the 1990s for the respect he was so clearly due to truly arrive. He had a run of highly regarded albums in his last decade of making music, among them 2000’s Crimson Moon, 2002’s Edge Of A Dream and 2006’s The Black Swan, all represented here. His collaborators included – in addition to Butler – the likes of Hope Sandoval, Devendra Banhart and Beth Orton, and he even found time to play with Pete Doherty.
Given that licensing restrictions can often make albums such as these difficult (as many artists are signed to different labels over the course of their careers), it’s great that this exists, as a fantastic introduction to Jansch and also showing just how consistently brilliant he was. When he died in 2011 he had influenced a whole range of musicians, including the likes of Jimmy Page, Fleet Foxes and Roy Harper. Listening to this compilation reminds me just how brilliant many of those studio albums are. His work remains compelling and vital.