The Album List: #90 Fairport Convention “Unhalfbricking”

How very British.

Fairport Convention is one of those bands you really have to be patient to get into. They’re Brit Folk with grand ideas, history buffs with melodic overtones, with a fondness for sea shanties. When one considers that Sandy Denny had that voice and that ability to write lovely songs, and that Richard Thompson came out of them to become a guitar God that wrote two fantastic albums with his wife, including one that documented their divorce, its easy to see why they get the literal shaft now. Fairport Convention are not an easy band, but they are well worth the effort. It’s not like they’re King Crimson.

I actually went back and forth between this album and their better know Liège and Lief. My eldest daughter prefers the latter because one of the songs is based on a traditional song about Tam-Lin, an old Scottish folk tale. She’s a big fan of the tale. But I went for the more transitional Unhalfbricking, if only because it has the impossibly lovely “Who Knows Where The Time Goes”, which is Denny’s masterpiece, and the brilliant version of the traditional folk song “A Sailor’s Life”. There are Dylan covers ( “Percy’s Song” is particularly wonderful), but mostly these eight songs move the band away from the American folk of their first two albums and immerses them in a more essential British sound.

Widely considered the greatest folk track in British history ( I’d argue one of the greatest folk song in history bar none), “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”  is merely Denny’s observations about time and timelessness. With a simple, gorgeous melody enveloping that singularly warm, magical voice of hers, Denny created a singular moment in music, the perfect folk song that is neither political nor mundane, while being completely metaphorical with little tangible in it. Her voice was so magnificent that warms every fibre of my being.

The band’s eclectic mix of modern and traditional comes to a head on the magnificent “A Sailor’s Life”, a traditional number arranged by the band, including subtle guitar work by Thompson and another wonderful vocal by Denny. The song is a sombre tale of love and desperation leading to rash mistakes. The music fits the lyrics as the song builds to a crashing, epic crescendo. There is no happy ending here,  just a sad end.

There are three Dylan covers on the album. The first is the delightful ” Si tu dois partir”, just a chipper little French version of his “If You Gotta Go, Go Now”.  The second, “Percy’s Song”, is a prison tale, an outtake from an early Dylan album that wasn’t released at the time. It opens with an a cappella verse before launching into a waltz.  The third, “Million Dollar Bash” is Guthrie finger picking and typical Dylan poetic nonsense.

The other three tracks are Thompson’s “Genesis Hall” and “Cajun Woman”, and Denny’s “Autopsy”. They are good songs, but in the realm of their reputation all three are secondary to the Dylan covers and the magnificent traditional song and Denny’s masterpiece. Only eight tracks populate this record. It’s a wonder of elegant folk precision, even with the eleven plus minute “A Sailor’s Life”.

The band would lose drummer Martin Lamble at the tender age of 19 in between albums, and released Liège and Lief next. Both Denny and bassist Ashley Hutchings would leave the band. Thompson would go solo, and record with his future wife, Linda. Sadly, the world lost one of the loveliest voices in music history when Sandy Denny died after a fall in her home at the age of 31 in 1978. Most of you have heard her voice on “The Battle of Evermore”. No other person has had the privilege of being a guest vocalist on a Zeppelin record.


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