Review: John Mendelssohn, Rolling Stone Jun 1970

UNHALFBRICKING AND Liege and Lief are the two last albums by the Fairport Convention with Sandy Denny.

Leave us deal with Lief first. Granted that Sandy sings with expected beauty throughout, that the bass of Mr. Hutchings and the drums of Mr. Mattacks rescue it from dire Pentanglish sterile folksiness, that their fellows perform with the same taste and precision as always, and that a couple of its selections are genuinely enchanting by any criterion; but where is the group’s folk-flavored rock and roll, where are the exhilarating many-voiced harmonies, the sense of fun and feeling of harnessed electricity that made their first two albums together such treats? Where, essentially, is something to excite those of us who find artiness worthy enough of quiet admiration but a little boring?

The majority of the material on Lief was provided by the English Folk Dance & Song Society Library at Cecil Sharp House, which should make the album endlessly enticing to all you musicologists out there.

Included are such things as the seemingly endless ‘Matty Groves’, in which the tragic and boring story of a love-triangle involving Lord Donald, his old lady, and Mr. Groves himself is told in exhaustive (and exhausting) detail; ‘Tam Lin’, another dull folk narrative that is made interesting only by the little rhythm games the band plays behind Sandy’s singing; ‘Reynardine’, and an instrumental medley including such things as ‘Foxhunters’ Jig’. ‘Deserter’, with its contemporarily relevant theme and several rhythm switches, is the only really arresting one of the lot of traditionals. Not even the originals match up to the group-composed material on previous albums. Lief is a nice album to put on to accompany sitting by the fireplace or staring vacantly at a candle flame, but those who want to get moved are directed with infinitely more conviction to Unhalfbricking, which has Fairport Convention at its best.

Thompson’s two cuts on this one are excellent; ‘Genesis Hall’, which is reminiscent of his earlier ‘Book Song’, features one of those lovely vocal choruses that’ll have you moving your needle back a lot. ‘Cajun Woman’ is a rollicking electric rocker with a generous helping of Dave Swarbrick’s giddy fiddle.

Sandy herself has two, the first of which, ‘Autopsy’, is a hypnotic jazz-ish ballad in 3/4 that you’ll find lovely. And on her version of ‘Who knows Where The Time Goes’, which she wrote, the Fairports employ the same perfectly controlled attack that made ‘I’ll Keep It With Mine’ on their first album such an incredible musical experience: although they at no point rise above the musical equivalent of a whisper they somehow manage to just blow you over on the choruses, so perfectly do they apply their enviable and amazing control of dynamics. Listen with particular attention to Sandy’s voice: considering how she does on the chorus it’ll take you more than a few listenings to realize that she never uses more than about half of her power.

The Fairports also continue their policy of familiarizing us with little-known Dylan material in the most pleasant imaginable way on Unhalfbricking. ‘Si Tu Dois Partir’, formerly ‘If You Gotta Go’, emerges a rousing Gallic rock and roll tavern song, the group having added funny percussion, fiddle, accordion and a great sense of fun. ‘Million Dollar Bash’, a great laugh to begin with, gets very much the same humorous treatment (note the group’s hilarious attempts at dustbowl accents). They go in the opposite direction with equal success on ‘Percy’s Song’, which is very possibly the album’s gem. That the Fairports can sustain the drama and barely-suppressed rage of this song for every second of its six-and-a-half minutes is vivid testimony to their understanding of Dylan’s material. A simple folk melody carrying a detailed narrative about the singer’s friend being given a ninety-nine-year sentence for a phony manslaughter rap, ‘Percy’s Song’, in the hands of the Fairports, is unforgettably moving.

Right, there’s an over-long traditional too on Unhalfbricking: ‘A Sailor’s Life’, which seems capable of being done without nicely, but buy the album immediately anyway. Buy Lief only if you’re devoted to quietly arty traditional folk. And keep your fingers crossed that Richard Thompson and friends can find themselves someone to replace Sandy Denny..we can hope that they’ve only just begun to make our musical world that much better.