Fifty Year Friday: Unhalfbricking, Five Leaves Free
Fairport Convention: Unhalfbricking
Released on July 3, 1969, Unhalfbricking is Fairport Convention’s third album, continuing their evolution towards a mostly English Folk music style despite inclusion of three unreleased Dylan songs. Elements of progressive rock abound, due to the acoustic guitar work of Richard Thompson and use of organ, harpsichord, electric dulcimers, violin and the eleven minute “A Sailor’s Life” with it’s instrumental second half. Sandy Denny’s expansively liberated vocals, her deft handling of the melodic line, and the subtleties in the arranging contribute to a finely finished aura that envelops the album.
The album includes two Sandy Denny compositions, including the deeply insightful “Autopsy”, and the widely praised “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?“, previously recorded two years earlier with the Strawbs, and performed with a more relaxed pace, greater freedom, and more maturity on Unhalfbricking,
Nick Drake: Five Leaves Free
Fifty years later, it seems natural to look back and feel some level of loss for the music that never was — the music that never was because of the tragic and premature loss of such resonant artists as Sandy Denny and Nick Drake. It’s doesn’t help to reflect that general lack of commercial attention probably contributed to the depression that brought about Denny’s and Drake’s deaths. However, such speculation is called into question upon consideration of artists whose stardom-level status similarly contributed to their shortened lives.
Whereas Sandy Denny at least got attention and opportunities from other, more prominent artists, Nick Drake was pretty much ignored not only up until 1974 when he died of an overdose of his anti-depressant medicine, possibly intentional, but also pretty much until the late 1980s.
Though barely twenty years old when he started to record Five Leaves Free in July of 1968, and though excited at the prospect of having an album, Drake’s life was already full of darkness and depression, as clear from the lyrics of the songs. His level of musicianship was impressive: he effortlessly sings and plays complex guitar passages artfully and effectively in real time with strings or other musicians as opposed to coming back later to dub the guitar work. Though the recording sessions were rushed (using downtime available courtesy of Fairport Convention) and the production and arrangements were not to Drake’s liking, by June of 1969, one of the finest singer-songwriter albums of the sixties was completed and released to the public on July 3, 1969. Unfortunately, the critics generally cared little for the album, and very few purchased it. People like myself would never hear of Nick Drake until many years later.
It seems unimaginable today that this album was ignored for so long. The quality of the music and the lyrics are undeniable, and the production is generally quite good. Joe Boyd, a George Martin fan and the producer of this album, had a vision of leveraging all studio resources to provide a integral sound, whereas Drake wanted a simpler, more organic approach. Boyd wanted an established arranger, Richard Anthony Hewson to provide the orchestration. However, upon hearing Hewson’s attempts with Drake’s music, neither Boyd or Drake felt that such arrangements were suitable. Drake suggested they go with one of his friends at Cambridge University, music student Robert Kirby, who had previously arranged some of Drake’s music. Though Boyd was initially reluctant to go with someone so unknown, lacking in credentials, and so inexperienced, after getting Kirby in the studio and hearing what he could do, Boyd settled upon Kirby for all the arrangements except one, “River Man” which, for whatever reason, was arranged by professional music director, arranger and composer, Harry Robertson. Oddly, though Robertson is a skilled arranger, this is the weakest arrangement on the album. Perhaps it was just that Robertson didn’t have the personal familiarity with either Drake or his music that Kirby did. Perhaps it was a matter of lack of attention to the depth of the lyrics and music. Perhaps even Kirby would not have done the song justice. It’s not that this is one of those rare songs that works best left in bleakest, most natural state of single guitar and voice, the inclusion of the strings is a workable idea, its just that the particularly arrangement deployed lacks a true connection to Drake’s message. Nonetheless the song still works well, even if not as well as if it had been recorded with just Drake’s guitar and voice. The composition is in 5/4 time — five beats to the measure, creating a slightly surreal effect. It’s not a jazzy 5/4 like Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” or Lalo Schifrin’s “Mission: Impossible” theme song, but a flowing, natural 5/4 composition further enhanced by the relationship between the minor and major chord choices.
It’s fair to say that as particularly special as “River Man” is as a song, all the songs on this album are finely crafted compositions. How this album was initially overlooked by critics but now fully embraced by them is just one of those recurring oddities in the music world — and often later attributed to the music being ahead of its time. Yet, this doesn’t seem to be the case here. Yes, the music is timeless and seemingly perfectly suited to the Shoegaze era of the late 1980s and 1990s, but it also fits in nicely with contemporary work of many of the other singer songwriters of 1969. And there is nothing difficult or elusive in either the relatively simple lyrics, or Drake’s personal and distinctive, yet easily accessible songs.
Accessible and personal does not exclude universal as in the case of “Day is Done” with its poetic representation of the inevitable finality of any given life. Here, as in all the Kirby arrangements, the strings appropriately support the essence and character of the song amplifying its impact and effect. “Fruit Tree” also addresses the nature of life but focuses on fame and the underappreciated artist, eerily predictive of Drake’s own life and legacy:
“Safe in your place deep in the earth, that’s when they’ll know what you were really worth.”