It seems The Pretty Things weren’t quite done when they played their final show in December 2018. Despite announcing their retirement as a live unit with a sell-out bash at London’s O2, some 55 years after they first began, sessions for a new studio album were already afoot. The project only fell through when it became apparent that lead singer Phil May, his appetite for performance restored, wouldn’t be able to tour it due to ongoing problems with emphysema.
Keen to press on with recording, the band eventually decided to unplug the electrics and, for the first time in their career, go acoustic, a less strenuous form of activity that might be more conducive to their frontman’s health. Alas, May’s death earlier this year, at the age of 75, put the blocks on The Pretty Things’ tentative plans to get back out before an audience.
Thus, the very wonderful Bare As Bone, Bright As Blood now serves as a fitting, if unintentional, epitaph to their late singer. There is a touching symmetry here too. Just as the band started as a core duo of May and guitarist Dick Taylor back in the late summer of 1963, the album finds them going out much as they came in. There are others adding further nuance and expression to this set – among them veteran guitar player Henry Padovani and multi-instrumentalist Sam Brothers – but Bare As Bone… is primarily May and Taylor, reaching back into the Delta blues that first inspired them as art students in southeast London.
Nor is it a nostalgic genre exercise. These 11 covers (some well known, some obscure) hum with the kind of vitality that only age and experience can bestow. When May cries hurt on Robert Johnson’s lovesick “Come Into My Kitchen”, the anguish feels empirical rather than affected. As does the sentiment of Muddy Waters’ “Can’t Be Satisfied”, a worried-mind blues full of portent and trouble, elevated by sliding chords and intense guitar runs. May takes licence with lyrics, especially on the former, which discards most of Johnson’s tale for a simpler and more personal study in desolation, while acknowledging its source directly: “I feel the blues comin’ down on me/Like the terraplane man I used to be.” Seeing as both the above were setlist regulars in later years – including at the O2 – the arrival of their pared-down studio counterparts makes perfect sense.
Other songs, however, are less expected. The version of “Faultline”, originally by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, feels arcane in places, like some atavistic hymn from the Southern hills, given fresh life with spasms of electric distortion.
Gillian Welch’s “The Devil Had A Hold Of Me” is another welcome surprise. May stays mostly faithful to the original lyric, while Taylor and Brothers surround it with ringing chords and a queasy sense of claustrophobia. As with the addition of “Ain’t No Grave”, the gospel tune written by Claude Ely but latterly associated with Johnny Cash’s American series, Bare As Bone… doesn’t bother sweating the small stuff. The Pretty Things have bigger themes in mind – sorrow, deliverance, life, death, absolution. Days of reckoning.
The elemental lyrics of these songs find a reflection in the arrangements. The settings may be chiefly acoustic, but there’s nothing genteel about the execution. Taylor and guests play with a kind of muted savagery, schooled musicians gone feral, very much in keeping with the enduringly untamed spirit of The Pretty Things. Guitars spit, harmonicas howl. Spare percussion, handled with admirable restraint by manager and producer Mark St John, usually takes the form of an ominous stomp.
Band member George Woosey is the author of “Bright As Blood”, a tune he first cut in 2017 as one half of Brighton-based duo Dull Knife. Here the band accentuate its folk roots, airing it with Brothers’ banjo and a violin turn from Jon Wigg. With a refusal to compromise and its dogged self-will, the song’s core message seems a natural fit for The Pretty Things. Especially May, whose delivery of certain lines – “This is my journey and I’m getting close/I don’t think I’ll make it first and foremost” – takes on added poignancy given the posthumous nature of this release.
May and Taylor excel on Bare As Bone…, a couple of old stagers with nothing to prove, but proving it anyway. Never mind that The Pretty Things will always be remembered as a loud and fierce electric vision; this is as good a way as any to take a final bow.