I took a lot of flak from certain friends and girlfriends of mine, for my suggestion yesterday that Winter Flowers’ “reach exceeds their grasp.”
I want to go on record and say that Winter Flowers is one of my favorite groups in Los Angeles. Their concept alone, of bringing back the elven folk of gentle people in the spirit of Pentangle, has always wowed me. I’ve seen them several times throughout the years, as they slowly evolved from a longhaired duo with mandolins to adding a glockenspiel, getting a girl singer, and plugging in some guitars and keys and things. Their songs are awesome, I’m glad they have a strong, clean male vocal in the lead, and when they mix up a little rock into their medieval pudding bree, it has a Dionysian boogie that sounds wonderfully reminiscent of the experiments going on with early Fairport Convention, the Byrds, Donovan, or Roy Harper, without ripping off any of these greats.
But here’s the caveat. While musically and conceptually they may be great, vocally they just do NOT have the chops to pull this thing off like it needs pulling off. I mean, listen to this vocal of them performing at Houdini’s castle:
The song starts off pretty damn good. But notice that when the group vocals come in, they warble in and out of pitch? There’s no way else to say it–these guys are not together at all, and this is fairly consistent with how they sound every time I see them.
Their vocal execution can only be compared to the musical execution of W.A.C.O. a couple years back–an orchestra just sounds like bad band class rehearsal when they squawk along with tinny brass and flat oboes. And a small folk choir sounds like amateur hipsters when they can’t get the harmony buzz going demanded by their medium.
Back in the real folk sixties, people were doing spot-on four and five part harmonies in their sleep. Listen to something like Soft Sounds for Gentle People, and you never ONCE hear a group of people committing things to record that they could not fully pull off. I know, from being in bands and trying to harmonize, that it’s very, very difficult to be good at singing with people you didn’t grow up singing with for years. But then again, I also would never get up with a horn and try to blow like Charlie Parker. By committing themselves to the folk ideal (and playing on bills with flawless singers such as the Chapin Sisters), Winter Flowers are stretching themselves past their talents and exposing their own shortcomings. They need to spend a little more time in a room together, singing and listening, until they get it right.