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Thursday, September 30, 2004

Review - Just Another Diamond Day

Artist: Vashti Bunyan

Posted on Thu, Sep 30, 2004 at 4:00 AM

The story of Vashti Bunyan's accidental reputation is a telling one. Bunyan was a folk singer like many other folk singers in mid-'60s England: earnest, not too innovative and a bit naive. But unlike many of her contemporaries, Bunyan happened to be possessed of a voice and a vision that were unique. Andrew Loog Oldham tried to capture it with questionable pop-oriented material, she made an appearance in Tonite Let's All Make Love in London, cut a few more songs and then ended up deciding to follow Donovan to northern Scotland in preparation for the hippie revolution.

Meanwhile, she was still writing songs, feeling that she had something to say, and though she may not have been too insightful when she started playing out in 1965, by the time 1969 rolled around, the woman had lived in parking lots, backyards, public woods and a thatched shack in the Outer Hebrides, and her main mode of transportation was horse and buggy. Vashti Bunyan was not your run-of-the-mill suburban hippie. Rather, she was a retrogressive flower child, whose idealistic mind was filled with hearth-baked bread, talking trees and fairy dust.

Thus, the songs she was crafting in 1969 were of an altogether different nature than the derivative ones she was known to sing earlier. With the help of producer Joe Boyd and the tacit approval of the Witchseason collective (Incredible String Band, Nick Drake), she recorded Just Another Diamond Day, an album that was likely as out of place then as it is now. Bunyan was as close to a female Nick Drake as could be found, and both were inimitable and out-of-their-element musicians. But while Drake's music was sparse with sadness, Just Another Diamond Day is the delicate fragility of someone who's endlessly hopeful but thoroughly intimidated by the fast-moving world.

She sings about simple desires (a "dreamy-eyed cow to fill my milking pail") and simple pleasures ("I'm counting the gulls that sit on the waves"). Appropriately, the songs themselves are built simply: Many of the melodies are deliberately sing-songy and the album's basic instrumentation means any of its forcefulness comes purely from Bunyan's voice. That voice – a whisper that's as content as it is curious – is what makes Just Another Diamond Day such a special album. The pastoral vibe of the lyrics would be cloying and overwhelming with a more confident voice, but with Bunyan singing them, it's perfectly appropriate.

Just Another Diamond Day was released with little fanfare and even less response in 1969. Unfazed, Bunyan just went back to her simple life in the Outer Hebrides and it's there that she's spent most of the past 30-some years. Gradually, though, the album achieved a life of its own, thanks mainly to its sheer individuality, but no doubt encouraged by its hens'-teeth rarity. Bunyan's first experience with the Internet – sometime in the late '90s – found her punching her name into a search engine; she was apparently surprised to discover the renown her little album enjoyed. Wrangling of licenses and contracts ensued (at one point, she was going to bootleg the album herself, just to give it some sort of new life), and in 2000, JADD got a legitimate reissue via U.K. label Spinney. A 2002 guest spot on a Piano Magic album further increased interest, as did some collaborative work with Devendra Banhart; now there's finally a U.S. version of the album on the tiny DiCristina label (home to Carla Bozulich, Vetiver and not much else). It still sounds like an album out of time and place, and though more people will probably discover it now, that won't make it any less special. Unless, of course, Volkswagen ends up using it in a commercial.


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