The drugged-out hippie era that had spawned trippy folk-based albums such as A Gift from a Flower to a Garden was long past, and acoustic folk recordings were considered passe, yet here was Donovan setting words by Lewis Carroll, Thora Stowell, Ffrida Wolfe, Agnes Grozier Herbertson, Lucy Diamond, Edward Lear, Eugene Field, William Butler Yeats, Natalie Joan, and Thomas Hood, among others, to what were often hauntingly beautiful melodies, mostly strummed on a guitar. What's more, it just about all works perfectly, once one gets past the tape-effect tricks and other silliness of the opening track, "The Walrus and the Carpenter."
Spawned at a time when the singer/songwriter was about to become a father, the album has a decidedly playful tone, even more so than its obvious predecessor, For Little Ones. Lovely as that record was, there are also long stretches of HMS Donovan that have far prettier melodies, arrangements, and accompaniment, played at more attractive tempos. The playing here, which is mostly just Donovan's solo guitar with maybe a string bass and organ, and an unnamed female singer or two backing him on a few tracks, is crisper and more focused (along with the recording), and the tunes are seldom short of gorgeous, whether written by Donovan or simply his arrangements of traditional folk melodies.
HMS Donovan marked the singer's last venture of this kind, into his mid-/late-'60s folk style, or into folk-style children's songs, and it was the last of his albums to be characterized by whimsy. As a sign of some of the behind-the-scenes tensions that characterized its production, HMS Donovan contains one attempt at a rock track, in the form of "Homesickness" -- this attempt to emulate such late-'60s singles as "Hurdy Gurdy Man" is the only failed track on the album, and was also the only track here on which Donovan's longtime producer Mickie Most had any input.
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