The subject of a new collection from Ace Records isn't exactly a household name. But if you didn't know the name of Robert Kirby before, you certainly will after a listen to When the Day is Done: The Orchestrations of Robert Kirby. The titular orchestrator is best known for his lush adornment of Nick Drake's records, conjuring up a pastoral England that couldn't be more removed from the swingin' era that preceded it. A brief track from Drake opens this collection before it cedes to an exploration of Kirby's other work as an arranger, for artists including John Cale, Sandy Denny, Vashti Bunyan, Ian Matthews, and Richard and Linda Thompson. Inspired by the evocative chart for The Beatles' "She's Leaving Home," Kirby carved out a niche as an arranger of subtle strings, airy woodwinds, and gentle brass for primarily (but not exclusively) British folk-rock artists. These 20 tracks illustrate his autumnal, far from flashy art.
It's ironic that a Nick Drake track opens When the Day is Done, but the late artist's vocals are nowhere to be found. The track is "Introduction," a purely instrumental (read: purely Kirby) piece that opened 1970's Bryter Later. It sets the tone for the haunting meditations that follow, almost all culled from the period of the 1970s when the folk genre was expanding its vistas in Britain to include unexpected, even outré influences from jazz to progressive rock and, of course, classical.
Compiler-annotator Bob Stanley has designed the tracklisting to spotlight the diversity of Kirby's orchestrations, and indeed, there's variety in his work and in the many strains of folk music represented. Keith Christmas' folk-rock epic "Forest and the Shore" has Kirby arranging for strings, mellotron and choir. Even more rock-oriented is "Madonna Blue" from the group called Illusion; the group's folk roots are mainly evident in the closely intertwined male/female vocals between Jane Relf, younger sister of the Yardbirds' Keith, and Yardbirds drummer Jim McCarty.
Dramatic strings and majestic brass gild John Cale's darkly ruminative "I Keep a Close Watch," a kind of "alternative" pop song in the context of this set. Kirby conjured an exotic string sound on Richard and Linda Thompson's "First Light," while proving equally adept at the sound of Southern California pop-rock with former Fairport Convention member Ian (later Iain) Matthews' smooth cover of Robert Palmer's "Gimme an Inch, Girl." The arranger brought a flavor to Shelagh McDonald's "Ophelia's Song" and ethereal flutes to Spirogyra's "Love is a Funny Thing," but the prettiest and most wistful orchestration here might belong to "White Witch" from the band Spriguns.
Despite the austerity of many of these productions and arrangements, Kirby didn't lack a sense of humor; when Vashti Bunyan suggested he score for recorders, he obliged with what you'll hear on "Rainbow River," turning the recorder into as serious an instrument as any. Australian folkie Gary Shearston's "Friend to Me" is enhanced with a clanging variety of unusual instruments lending it a sound all its own.
Kirby's arrangements as heard here are often so integral to a song that it's hard to imagine the production without them, as with the soaring strings in sharp contrast to the harsh, plucked guitar on Steve Ashley's solemn "Follow On." Kirby reinvented The Springfields' folk-pop hit "Silver Threads and Golden Needles" in ballad form for another Fairport alumna, Sandy Denny, with an atypical brass-band chart. He likewise contributed mightily to the sprawling, shifting "Raviole" from prog/art-rock group Audience, and scored Ralph McTell's uptempo anti-war anthem "Pick Up a Gun" with requisite intensity. The latter two tracks were produced by Gus Dudgeon, with whom Kirby would work on Elton John's Madman Across the Water.
A Volume Two could easily be assembled from further songs bearing the late Kirby's imprimatur; among the gems mentioned in the liner notes are Lynsey de Paul's 1972 top five pop hit "Sugar Me" (for which he went uncredited) and The Magic Numbers' rendition of his early inspiration, "She's Leaving Home." Before his death in 2009, Kirby also brought his subtle touch to music by Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, and Paul Weller, among others.
Ace's top-notch tribute to this largely unsung talent has been remastered by Nick Robbins, and features Bob Stanley's track-by-track notes in its deluxe booklet. The cover artwork is, of course, designed to recall Nick Drake's debut album, Five Leaves Left. Lovely and stirring, The Orchestrations of Robert Kirby will linger in the memory long after day is done. It's available now at the links below.
- Introduction - Nick Drake (Island ILPS 9134, 1970)
- Forest and the Shore - Keith Christmas (B&C CAS 1041, 1971)
- Ophelia's Song - Shelagh McDonald (B&C CAS 1019, 1970)
- I Keep a Close Watch - John Cale (Island ILPS 9350, 1975)
- Dancing at Whitsun - Tim Hart & Maddy Pryor (B&C CAS 1035, 1971)
- Rainbow River - Vashti Bunyan (Philips 6308 019, 1970)
- I've Seen the Movie - Andy Roberts (Pegasus PEG 5, 1971)
- White Witch - Spriguns (Decca SKL 5286, 1977)
- It's My Own Way - Gillian McPherson (RCA Victor SF 8220, 1971)
- Follow On - Steve Ashley (Gull GULP 1003, 1974)
- Silver Threads and Golden Needles - Sandy Denny (Island ILPS 9433, 1977)
- Love is a Funny Thing - Spirogyra (B&C CAS 1042, 1971)
- Friend to Me - Gary Shearston (Charisma CAS 1106, 1975)
- Honour Bright - Shirley Collins (first issued on Fledg'ling CDNEST 5001, 2002)
- First Light - Richard & Linda Thompson (Chrysalis CHR 1177, 1978)
- Raviole - Audience (Charisma CAS 1032, 1971)
- Madonna Blue - Illusion (Island ILPS 9519, 1978)
- Gimme an Inch Girl - Ian Matthews (Rockburgh ROC 106, 1978)
- What Memories We Make - Dana Gillespie (RCA Victor APL1-0354, 1973)
- Pick Up a Gun - Willie McTell (Famous SFMA 5753, 1971)
All tracks stereo.