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Posts tagged ‘Fairport Convention’

Fifty Year Friday: Unhalfbricking, Five Leaves Free

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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,

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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.” 

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Fifty Year Friday: British Folk Rock

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Continuing the trend of merging rock and British folk music as exemplified by Donovan, The Incredible String Band, and the then relatively unknown Roy Harper, the spring and summer of 1968 warmly welcomed The Incredible String Band’s third studio album, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter and Pentangle’s and Fairport Conventions first studio albums, both self-titled.

Released in March of 1968, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter continues much along the lines of the Incredible String Band’s two earlier albums, with Robin Williamson continuing to extend his cache of musical weapons and share writing responsibilities with fellow band-member and multi-instrumentalist Mike Heron.  As on the previous album, Williamson and Heron supplement this recording with additional musicians.

The first time I heard this group was around 1972 from their inclusion in a Warner Brothers’ Loss Leader compilation. Starting around 1969, Warner Brothers released $1 compilation albums of their artists, and these albums were my first exposure to Van Dyke Parks, Pentangle, Steeleye Span, Family, Curved Air, and Martin Mull, and the Incredible String Band.  I remember anticipating what a band called “The Incredible String Band” would sound like and when I got to the track, the next to last track on side two of the two LP set, I was disappointed as I was expecting a large string ensemble or exotic bowed instruments as opposed to a small folk group.

So its only lately again that I have explored the music of Incredible String Band, and for the most part it still isn’t music that excites me. I have avoided including mention of them in “Fifty Year Friday” as I like to stay with albums I really like, but due to the historic importance of this band, its appropriate to acknowledge both them and their third album in this particular post.

The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter certainly includes a wonderful mix of instrumentation and it is peppered with many interesting moments.  The unconventional instrumentation and the use of 24 track technology enhances the underlying compositions and provides a level of sophistication to the music.  Unfortunately, the music is overly repetitive, and not particularly adventurous melodically or harmonically, often suffering from lack of originality (“The Minotaur’s Song” is clearly modeled after Gilbert and Sullivan.)   The highlight of the album is the thirteen-minute “A Very Cellular Song” which incorporates a diverse set of musical components and textures, but unfortunately none sound particularly original and the repetition of the melodies borders on annoying.    The following passage provides an example of this — each couplet is a repetition of the melodic “couplet” and so gets a bit tiring as there is no development or contrast throughout this section:

And I bid you goodnight, goodnight, goodnight,
Lord, I bid you goodnight, goodnight, goodnight,
 
One of these mornings bright and early and fine,
Goodnight, goodnight.
 
Not a cricket, not a spirit going to shout me on.
Goodnight, goodnight.
 
I go walking in the valley of the shadow of death.
Goodnight, goodnight.
 
And his rod and his staff shall comfort me
Goodnight, goodnight.
 
Oh John, the wine he saw the sign
Goodnight, goodnight.
 
Oh, John say, “I seen a number of signs”
Goodnight, goodnight.
 
Tell “A” for the ark that wonderful boat.
Goodnight, goodnight
 
You know they built it on the land, getting water to float.
Goodnight, goodnight
 
Oh, tell “B” for the beast at the ending of the wood.
Goodnight, goodnight.

You know it ate all the children when they wouldn’t be good.
Goodnight, goodnight.
 
I remember quite well, I remember quite well.
Goodnight, goodnight

And I was walking in Jerusalem just like John.
Goodnight, goodnight, goodnight.

The quality of lyrics is also a challenge for me.  In some cases the lyrics appear to be written first and the music added as an afterthought and in other cases the lyrics seemed to have been improvised over the music, as if by trial and error, until they sort of stuck.  Overall, I don’t hear an abundance of craftsmanship or refinement in the lyrics or the music.

And so, this is not an album that I find completely engaging.  Yes, there are some  good moments and good music, including the opening track if it was less repetitive, but there is too much content here that comes across as stream of consciousness or improvised inspiration that is then extended and over-repeated.  At a minimum, I expect an album to keep me entranced and ensnared — not covertly coaxing me to consider what else I could spend my time listening to.

That said, this is a critically acclaimed album, nominated for a Grammy and is rated five stars by both Rolling Stone Album Guide and by allmusic.com.  It was also influential for groups like Led Zeppelin and praised by Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan and John Peel.  Don’t let my opinion of this work keep you from checking this out yourself.  I encourage anyone that has not heard The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter to listen to it on their streaming music service or via youtube.com at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DgQuVeMOyAk .  Please let me know what you think in the comments.

Track listing [from Wikipedia]

All tracks written by Robin Williamson, except tracks 4, 5 and 9 by Mike Heron.

No. Title Length
1. “Koeeoaddi There” 4:49
2. “The Minotaur’s Song” 3:22
3. “Witches Hat” 2:33
4. A Very Cellular Song 13:09
5. “Mercy I Cry City” 2:46
6. “Waltz of the New Moon” 5:10
7. “The Water Song” 2:50
8. “Three Is a Green Crown” 7:46
9. “Swift As the Wind” 4:53
10. “Nightfall” 2:33

 

Incredible String Band

Additional Personnel

pentangle1l

Pentangle released the self-titled first album on May 17, 1968.  The recording’s production brings out the strengths of the acoustic instruments, emphasizing the instruments individually by closely miking them.  The musicians play crisply and with distinction and the vocals fit in very nicely  This album blends folk with jazz and blues techniques and elements,  intermingling traditional tunes with originals, like the excellent “Bells”, creating vital and refined music that is a joy to listen to.

Track listing [from Wikipedia]

Side one
No. Title Writer(s) Length
1. Let No Man Steal Your Thyme Traditional 2:37
2. “Bells” Pentangle 3:52
3. “Hear My Call” The Staple Singers 3:01
4. “Pentangling” Pentangle 7:02

 

Side two
No. Title Writer(s) Length
5. “Mirage” Bert Jansch 2:00
6. “Way Behind the Sun” Traditional 3:01
7. Bruton Town Traditional 5:05
8. “Waltz” Pentangle 4:54

 

Pentangle

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Released sometime in June 1968 in the UK, but sadly not available in the US until 1970 except as an import, Fairport Convention’s first album is as much of a rock album as a folk album, blending folk and rock elements convincingly and effectively with use of both electric and acoustic instruments. We have some fine tracks with electric guitars and electric bass, as with the case with the first two tracks, which are really unlike anything else at the time — sounding more like early 70’s rock — and we have some  excellent acoustic work, most notably the fourth track of the album, “Decameron.” Overall, this is a strong, impressive album with some weak spots, like the last three tracks at the end of side two.

My definition of progressive rock is a rather broad one. I will acknowledge any rock music as progressive rock if it pushes past the conventions or boundaries that were generally adhered to by other groups for that time period and makes a convincing music statement while doing that.  I also lean towards considering rock as progressive rock if it is exceptionally excellent and worthy of being mentioned with other great music of previous generations.   For me, “Yesterday”, “Here, There and Everywhere” and “Eleanor Rigby” are included with “Strawberry Fields”, and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” as progressive rock, even though one could argue “Yesterday” is no more a rock song than Cole Porter’s “Night and Day.”

Then there is the style of progressive rock considered as a genre and exemplified by groups like Yes, King Crimson, Van Der Graaf Generator, and Gentle Giant.  Decades later there have come about a number of groups that imitate these groups,  some of them creating high quality music, but without adding much new or stretching the boundaries of the original music that influenced them.  These groups are also categorized as progressive rock, or sometimes neo-progressive rock.  I would be hesitant to call such music progressive rock unless it really is saying something new or extending into previously unexplored or rarely explored territory.

The instrumental interlude in Fairport Convention’s “Sun Shade” and the instrument introduction to the next track, “Lobster” not only fit my personal definition of progressive rock, but, I think, would have to be classified as being music of the progressive rock genre. In fact, if one thinks strictly in terms of the music of progressive rock landmarks like King Crimson’s “In the Court of the Crimson King”,  one can listen to instances like Vanilla Fudge’s “That’s What Makes a Man” mentioned in last week’s Fifty Year Friday’s post , the Nice’s first album, and the instrumental introduction to “Lobster”, and hear not just the seeds of the progressive rock style, or music that some label as “proto-prog”, but clearly hear the “progressive rock” style of music, set in motion by the progressiveness of earlier efforts from the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, not to mention the earlier progressive contributions of jazz, big band music, be-bop, cool jazz, and hard bop.

Track listing [from Wikipedia]

Side one
No. Title Writer(s) Length
1. “Time Will Show the Wiser” Emitt Rhodes 3:05
2. “I Don’t Know Where I Stand” Joni Mitchell 3:45
3. “If (Stomp)” Ian McDonaldRichard Thompson 2:45
4. “Decameron” Paul Ghosh, Andrew Horvitch, Thompson 3:42
5. Jack O’Diamonds Bob DylanBen Carruthers 3:30
6. “Portfolio” Judy DybleTyger Hutchings 2:00

 

Side two
No. Title Writer(s) Length
7. Chelsea Morning Joni Mitchell 3:05
8. “Sun Shade” Ghosh, Horvitch, Thompson 3:50
9. “The Lobster” George Painter, Hutchings, Thompson 5:25
10. “It’s Alright Ma, It’s Only Witchcraft” Hutchings, Thompson 3:12
11. “One Sure Thing” Harvey BrooksJim Glover 2:50
12. “M.1 Breakdown” Hutchings, Simon Nicol 1:22

 

Fairport Convention

Additional Personnel

  • Claire Lowther – cello
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