In addition to his considerable contributions to music as a member of Saint Etienne, Bob Stanley is also a champion of obscure and overlooked pop records from the last 40 years. Lucky for us he likes to share the wealth (and knowledge). He’s become the go-to guy for compiling these little-known gems, or at least writing the liner notes for them. Some of the compilations he’s been involved with include the two Sound Gallery volumes from the mid-’90s (commercial and incidental music from the late ’60s and early ’70s); RPM’s Dream Babes series (obscure girl group singles); and 2003’s essential junkshop glam comp, Velvet Tinmine.
His latest is Tea & Symphony which collects English baroque pop from 1967 – 1974. The cover art kind of sums up what you’re going to hear, even if the word "baroque" conjures nothing in your mind. To me, it means harpsichords and strings. If you’re lucky, also French horn and oboe. We’re talking The Left Banke, Scott Walker, Love, The Zombies, Nick Drake (not so much harpsichord on the latter, but no doubt baroque). Basically anything Belle & Sebastian or The Divine Comedy would cite as influences.
Baroque pop was never exactly popular, apart from maybe "Walk Away Renee," so most, if not all, of the artists on Tea & Symphony you’ve probably never heard before. I hadn’t. But liking this genre in general, and trusting Stanley’s taste, I knew there was going to be some really great stuff here and I can say I wasn’t disappointed, though it’s not a home run the way Velvet Tinmine is.
But there’s some undeniably knockout stuff here John Kerruish‘s "Time to Wander" kicks it off, probably the best track here, and was the kind of thing I wished the whole thing would be like: melodrama, harpsichord, kick-ass drumming. Baroque, but nothing dainty about it. (I wonder if Neil Hannon heard this before making Liberation.) There’s also two tracks from a pre-10CC Graham Gouldman; and the groovy "Summer Love" by Almond Marzipan, easily the most baroque-sounding band name on the comp, almost to the point of sounding like something from Austin Powers. Plus about 20 more… some of which don’t quite fit the baroque bill as much as I’d hoped.
Good luck on finding Tea & Symphony in American record stores, though. I have yet to see it in New York, including multiple trips and inquiries at Other Music, a store that has a section devoted to "La Decadanse." But it’s easily available from places like Amazon.co.uk.