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READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1969
Overall rating = 11
Some clever and moving folk rock on here - all listenable, but not all that exciting.Best song: GENESIS HALL
Track listing: 1) Genesis Hall; 2) Si Tu Dois Partir; 3) Autopsy; 4) A Sailor's Life; 5) Cajun Woman; 6) Who Knows Where The Time Goes?; 7) Percy's Song; 8) Million Dollar Bash.
The most popular album ever by Britain's most artistically successful folk rock band ever (okay, so this title can also be coveted by Steeleye Span; I won't really bother with trying to select the best o' the bunch). Probably so, although I have mixed feelings towards it - frankly speaking, I expected more, considering that folk rock, especially British folk rock, had always attracted me. Unfortunately, Unhalfbricking is not the kind of album that's immediately likeable - you have to have some patience and grow yourself some appreciation for that jangly, moody, lazy, almost lethargic style that holds the record in its grip. In a certain way it might remind you of a cross between the Velvet Underground and the Jefferson Airplane - the instrumentation is sometimes very close to the Velvets' spaced out viola jams, and Sandy Denny's voice bears an awkward resemblance to the one of Grace Slick, being just a wee bit higher. In this way, let me make an assumption: while the best stuff by the Velvets and the Airplane was better than almost everything Convention ever tried to smear on record, the latter beat these two bands by simply being more consistent - despite their initially 'unwelcoming' style, there isn't a single major stinker on record, and even the 'jams' are vastly superior to the kind of pseudo-artistic garbage that the Airplane and the Velvets were pouring out in loads on songs like 'Hey Fredrick' or 'European Son'.Fairport Convention were at its emotional peak at the time, and the 1969 line-up was probably the most solid, including ace guitarists Richard Thompson and Simon Nicol and lead vocalist Sandy Denny (she's present on every track but Thompson's vocal spot 'Cajun Woman'). This also means that most of the songs are self-penned, two by Sandy, two by Thompson. Sandy's compositions are probably the weakest links in the chain (although it's debatable), particularly the dreary 'Who Knows Where The Time Goes?', a true ode to hypnosis. 'Autopsy', with its two different melodic parts, is better, particularly because of some untrivial vocal tricks that Sandy pulls off splendidly, but still not a masterpiece. Both, however, are embellished by her magnificent singing voice - she was unquestionably the best British female singer of the epoch, and, truly and verily, I rarely heard a voice so rich in emotions and undertones in rock music. (Well, Grace Slick really comes close, but she's more on the aggressive side of singing, and isn't really comparable to Sandy in many respects). Thompson's contributions are a little more 'generic' - he was always the standard folk-writer, but that's okay by me. In fact, 'Genesis Hall' is downright great, with the ominous refrain about being 'helpless and slow' and not having 'anywhere to go' really sending shivers down the spine (and spines up the butt, because the song has just more than a little irony and sarcasm). 'Cajun Woman' is a throwaway, though, just a generic little country send-up, but the fiddle (played by guest Dave Swarbrick) is enthralling, and it's interesting to hear the band dabble in a genre that they are certainly no true experts in. The rest of the record consists of one lengthy, eleven-minute jam based on a traditional folkie song and three (yeah, right) Dylan covers. Out of the covers, I count one splendid rendition of 'Million Dollar Bash' - along with the Byrds, FC had a talent to grab Bob's Basement Tapes material and transform it from raw, hardly accessible rehearsal material into minor masterpieces - the song, with its rollicking banjo, band members taking turns to sing the verses, and that mighty 'oo-wee baby, oo-wee' chorus, makes one terrific album closer. The two other covers are slight letdowns. 'Percy's Song' (I really don't know where they took that one from - maybe it was Bob's donation to the band?) is annoying in its repetitiveness, being saddled with a sticky 'turn, turn again' chorus, and the fact that it runs for almost six minutes is no consolation. And their cover of 'If You Gotta Go, Go Now' could be a real treat, if not for the stupid decision to have it translated and sung... in French! Which means that those who don't know French won't be able to sing along (wouldn't you look stupid if you sang along in English to a song in French?), and those who know French (like your humble servant) will be angered at the bad pronunciation - if you don't know how to spell French 'r', don't sing it. Not to mention the horrible quality of the translation that in most cases takes the original and just renders it literally, not bothering about preserving French grammar norms. Oh, and there are no rhymes, either. Why they didn't just stop their ballsiness and let Sandy sing this in English is beyond me. Maybe they were trying to mask the lyrical content, misogynic as it is?.. Oh well... That leaves us with the already mentioned eleven-minute jam. 'A Sailor's Life' is one song that you'll either get wild about or just not get into at all. At first, it sounds just like one slow, monotonous musical phrase repeated over and over for thousands of times; but sooner or later, a great melody will pop out of it for you, and anyway, you just have to take it because it perfectly captures the essence of a traditional Celtic ballad. Not to mention Sandy who could ruin the song if she wanted to, but instead turns it into another showcase of the almost unlimited possibilities of her voice. Later on, however, the leading roles are assumed by Thompson and Nicol whose dual guitar battle is intoxicating: listen to their magical convoluted soloing and witness the greatness! Ah, I feel that I seriously underrate the album by giving it a 'just very good' rating, but what can I do, after all? Let me take some time for it to grow on me, because right now I feel that the band still didn't have the real rockin' chops, nor enough imagination and fantasy to make something truly groundbreaking. But this is indeed as far out as professional folk rock ever gets. Beats Jethro Tull's Songs From The Wood all to Hell, if you ask me.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1969
Overall rating = 12
...in which ages-old folk music and modernistic rock technologies finally go hand in hand.Best song: MATTY GROVES
Track listing: 1) Come All Ye; 2) Reynardine; 3) Matty Groves; 4) Farewell Farewell; 5) The Deserter; 6) Medley: The Lark In The Morning/Rakish Paddy/Fox Hunter's Jig/Toss The Feathers; 7) Tam Lin; 8) Crazy Man Michael.
This is not necessarily a huge improvement on the previous album, but certainly a huge breakthrough. See, in our expansive, all-encompassing times it's hardly possible to be surprised by anything, but I daresay that Liege And Lief was really an eye-opener for people back in the late Sixties. Some actually complain that with the release of the record, the band drove itself into a corner, restricting themselves to one patented style - and that might be so, but others would successfully counteract this accusation by saying that Liege And Lief is, in fact, the first Fairport Convention record where they finally found their unmistakable and unique identity. Who can tell?Yeah, Liege And Lief did not invent folk-rock or "Anglo-Saxon folk-rock" or "Celtic rock" or anything like that, but it was the first record almost entirely dedicated to discovering old folk songs and epics and dressing them up in rock instrumentation. Countless folk-rock bands like Steeleye Span and their numerous lesser brethren took their cue from this revolutionary record and ran with it further, but arguably, no-one could do this stuff better than Fairport Convention in their absolute prime, with Richard Thompson on guitars, Dave Swarbrick on violin and Sandy Denny on fair vocals. Only two originals here, two slow, meditative ballads by Thompson, but frankly speaking, you could hardly tell them apart from the covers. Now the problem is: does this actually sound all that great? Well, yes, it mostly does. I never usually condemn albums like these for monotonousness if the songs are done well, because, after all, it's a band's schtick and that's it, you gotta take it or leave it at that. But frankly speaking, I don't even have a 'monotonousness problem' with Liege And Lief because everything sounds so dang memorable and, to a certain extent, diverse. There's a raising epic, a few ultra-slow moody pieces, a couple of grandiose epics, and even a dance instrumental - what else would you expect? What more could you expect? You could only expect less. Actually, I must make a correction: the ultra-slow pieces, to me at least, don't sound all that good. I'm particularly speaking of 'Reynardine', which is just too atmospheric and vague for me - no instrumental melody to speak of, just a bunch of unrelated guitar arpeggios and a bit of echoey violin scraping in the background. It sounds nice, but it's looooong and will only appeal to diehard folk junkies. This is, however, the only relative stinker on the entire record, and that says a lot. 'Matty Groves' alone is worth a fortune, of course. Admirers will gush all over Thompson's blissful guitar rhythms and solos and Swarbrick's ominous violin never stopping for a single second, but I would also like to point out that to a large extent, it's the drumming that makes the song - God bless ol' Dave Mattacks, whose steady, unnerving, hyper-rhytmic pulsating thump-thump totally draws you inside the experience. And once you're all inside the experience, Sandy will certainly thrill you with the tale of poor little Matty Groves and his unhappy adventure with Lord Darnell's wife. (By the way, I am in no way wishing to go into details over those old folk lyrics here, but I'd like to make a little exception by pointing out that one of the sources of the uniqueness of 'Matty Groves' is that essentially, the song doesn't have a negative character. I mean, Lord Darnell did kill his wife and her lover, but he certainly behaved in a noble way, didn't he? Just one of those wise old songs that states the facts and invites you to make your own conclusions. I love that style). Apart from that, highlights would certainly include 'Come All Ye', where Sandy's singing will certainly inspire you to rise to your feet and do a noble deed or two, and the already mentioned instrumental medley. Wow, the instrumental medley is cool as it drives you through all those crazy inflaming parts, each one faster than its predecessor. Finally, 'Tam Lin', the album's second epic, is certainly distinguished by Thompson actually playing some riffs on his electric and an amazing opposition between Sandy's complex vocal patterns and Richard's power chords in the background. It's rather hard for me to describe the rest of the songs without mostly concentrating on the lyrics, so I'll just stop here - I guess you got the idea already. See, a usual problem with folk-rock albums is that there's too much folk, not enough rock. This isn't a problem with this album - this is real folk-rock, far from the purism of 'revivalist' bands, and so certainly subject to a lot of badmouthing from said purists, but since purism is music's worst enemy, or, at least, the worst enemy of any development in music, who really cares about that? Saying that 'Anglo-Saxon folk and rock music are incompatible' is akin to all those useless complaints from haters of progressive rock who claim that it 'betrays the spirit of rock' and further nonsense like that. And speaking of betrayal, Liege And Lief certainly does not betray the folksy spirit one iota, as it certainly is able to carry your imagination into the deep past, but it also adds an energetic and rhythmic punch to a musical genre that needs it so much in order to become easily accessible to a wider range of audience. Yeah, kinda like Emerson, Lake & Palmer put their classical music heroes within a rock'n'roll framework to get their fans acquainted with their idols. Is this bad, 'cheap' or 'fake'? Wrong answer: yes. Wrong answer: no. Right answer: IT DEPENDS. On how far you go with this stuff, that is. And Liege And Lief never lets you down in this respect.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1971
Overall rating = 10
Heavily recommended only for diehard British folk lovers - but for diehard British folk lovers, recommended heavily.Best song: LORD MARLBOROUGH
Track listing: 1) Lord Marlborough; 2) Sir William Gower; 3) Bridge Over The River Ash; 4) Wizard Of The Worldly Game; 5) The Journeyman's Grace; 6) Angel Delight; 7) Banks Of The Sweet Primroses; 8) Instrumental Medley; 9) The Bonny Black Hare; 10) Sickness And Diseases.
By 1971 both Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny, the stalwarts of creativity, had deserted the band, and since none of the remaining members (which by now were Simon Nicol on guitars, Dave Mattacks on drums, Dave Swarbrick on violin and the freshly-arrived Dave Pegg on bass) were terrific songwriters, most of the effort was put into the thing the band had already learned to do well - namely, bringing back to life old British folk classics by electrifying them and, well, trying to really put them into the rock pattern. The good news is they still do it well; the bad news is that the novelty factor had already worn off, and where earlier efforts like Liege And Lief were truly groundbreaking, Angel Delight limits itself to following the formula.Of course, this means that the album is, well, somewhat 'limited in resources', in other words, it will be fairly dull to anybody without any special interest in British folklore. Luckily, I happen to respect Anglo-Saxon folk music to a certain degree (for me, it works much better than any other folk music, Russian included), so even without the novelty factor I still have no problem assimilating most of the songs of the album and even liking quite a few of them. While this freshly-formed gang under the leadership of Nicol certainly had a lot of problems with finding creative ideas (read below and above), they definitely had loads of talent for reinterpreting and assimilating the ideas of others. In fact, the departure of Thompson and thus, the loss of that enthralling guitar interplay between him and Nicol is excellently compensated for by bringing Swarbrick's violin upfront and confronting it with Nicol's guitar instead - the guy's really good at his instrument, and he manages to breathe life even into such passable tunes as the short instrumental 'Bridge Over The River Ash'. Mattacks has always been a clever and agile drummer, and Dave Pegg's bass sound, while probably the least folksy-sounding instrument on the record (no wonder that Dave later left for the electronics-dominated later bastardized incarnation of Jethro Tull), is still incredibly strong, heavy and thick. Likewise, the absence of Sandy Denny, while it deprives the band of one of the best female singing voices in rock, is almost compensated by Swarbrick's vocals - besides being a master of the violin, he's also a master of his voice, and quite a suitable personage for a medieval minstrel impersonation, if you ask me. That said, there is still a fair shair of stinkers on the record, which explains the 'so-so' rating. Like I said, the guys can hardly write a note: the two numbers that are written by Swarbrick and Nicol are really boring, especially the lethargic, plodding 'Wizard Of The Worldly Game' where Swarbrick proceeds to annoy you with a four-minute personal revelations of a lonely tree. I hate slow pseudo-folk songs with no hooks and unexpressive vocals. They couldn't even make the best of that guitar solo over there - it's lost deep in the mix, and it's about the best thing about the whole number. However, the noodling, derivative title track with its unclear lyrical content and silly la-la-las comes close. It really takes guts to write an authentic folk-rock tune, it does. Salvation comes in the form of collaboration with Thompson, who is sometimes capable of making the band's self-penned folk stylizations catchy - the light-hearted, singalong 'Journeyman's Grace' is a good example, with its raising, almost 'authentic' chorus. Still, even Thompson can't salvage 'Sickness & Diseases', the presumably 'horrifying', pessimistic number that closes the album: this one totally lacks 'authenticity' and could never really hope to pass as a true folk number. So my advice is to concentrate on the traditional numbers and enjoy the beautiful rearrangements that the guys give 'em. My personal favourite is the opening 'Lord Marlborough', but practically all of them are good (except 'Banks Of The Sweet Primroses' that's damn slow, repetitive, lyrically unfascinating and just as charming as 'Wizard Of The Worldly Game'). Strange enough, at least two of them are devoted to, er, intimate problems: 'Sir William Gower' is about an incest, while the lyrical matter of 'The Bonny Black Hare', er, hmm, almost makes me blush, you know! Sure it's no Frank Zappa, but how on Earth did they unroot a song that goes 'I laid this girl down with her face to the sky/And I took out my ramrod and bullets likewise'? And why? Dirty little bastards! I wonder if they'd all been anxiously waiting for Sandy to leave the band to unleash this kind of material? Nevertheless, the melodies are just fine. I haven't yet mentioned the pretty 'Instrumental Medley', with three distinct parts that are each in turn dominated by lovely bouncy guitar, pretty screechy fiddle and tender subtle flute... well, that pretty much sums it up. And hey, when we're talking "authentic", it must be said that it's hard to find a British folk song that sucks, anyway - unless you're a hip-hop fan, of course, in which case they probably all suck with no exceptions. These melodies have been worn smooth and polished to perfection through centuries, and no arrangement is going to spoil them, much less the intelligent arrangements of Fairport Convention. And if, by any chance, you get to lay your hands on this album (which is a pretty feeble chance, considering that FC records aren't as readily available in the States as Puff Daddy), be sure not to sleep through the gorgeous instrumental medley of several folk tunes on the second side - it's so Robin Hood-ian that you almost see yourself strolling through Sherwood Forest at dawn. Have a nice life, all you folk lovers.
READER COMMENTS SECTION