Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Unhalfbricking - Fairport Convention

Fairport Convention
A&M  SP 4206

I bought this in Berkeley around 1980.  It was the third album by Fairport Convention.  I wish I had held out for an import copy of the Island Records version of this record with the charming cover image of Sandy Denny's parents in front of their home.  Presumably some genius at A&M decided that an image of old people on a record cover would discourage youthful record buyers and substituted a picture of circus elephants instead - brilliant!  By 1980 Fairport records were getting tough to find so I grabbed this when I had the chance.  This is one of my favorite records, I've played it a lot in the last 30 years.   I would have a tough time choosing between "Unhalfbricking" and the second Fairport album (entitled "Fairport Convention" in the American market) as to which one is better, I love them both and consider them both masterpieces.  This was the last Fairport album to feature original members Iain Matthews (only on "Percy's Song") who quit for a solo career, although not without some pushing from elements in the band, and Martin Lamble who was killed when the band's van crashed shortly after the album was recorded.  It also marks the debut of future member Dave Swarbrick as a guest performer on nearly half the album.  Swarbrick would go on to have a big influence on the future direction of the band, a direction I'm not a big fan of, but I appreciate his contributions to this record and at least he doesn't sing.  There are only eight songs and every one is a gem.  The record begins with Richard Thompson's "Genesis Hall" which I think is among the best of his early songs.  This is followed by one of three Dylan covers on the record, "Si Tu Dois Partir", a French language version of "If You Gotta Go, Go Now."  It is a rollicking, jug band styled interpretation that produced the group's only hit single in the U. K..  Sandy Denny's "Autopsy" comes next.  It is a rather cold song, particularly the first verse which is almost vicious.  I like the jazzy feel of the backing though.  Side one closes with "A Sailor's Life" which is the song that gets this album labeled a transitional album so often.  It is the only traditional song on the album, the rest of which adheres to the style of the second Fairport album (which actually had two traditional songs on it.)  It is an extraordinary performance, Sandy Denny sings with great passion and the guitar-fiddle interplay between Richard Thompson and Dave Swarbrick is as mesmerizing as anything you will ever hear on a rock album.  Thompson's soloing is just magnificent, he established himself as a front rank guitarist with this song.  As all folk-rock fans know, the contemporary treatment of traditional music was not new, but "A Sailor's Life" took it to a new level, the rock/folk synthesis is dazzling in its effectiveness.  In my opinion nothing on "Liege and Lief" surpasses this epic song, in fact I would venture to say that no song in the folk-rock canon surpasses this song.  When I first heard it, it floored me and to this day when I listen to it, I'm enthralled, by the time it is over I'm mentally spent.  Just a great, great song.  Side two kicks off with Thompson's "Cajun Woman" which is lots of fun, I love the slide guitar and the accordion, it demonstrates the eclecticism that made the early Fairport so awesome.  Sandy Denny's signature song "Who Knows Where the Time Goes" is next, if it is not the best song she ever wrote, it is certainly the most famous.  I sometimes find Denny's lyrics to be excessively remote or obscure, but that is not the case with this song, a genuine classic and truly beautiful.  Dylan covers close out the record.  "Percy's Song" boasts a tremendous heartfelt vocal from Denny that lifts what would otherwise be a rather mundane and tedious song.  I may be in the minority in that opinion, but it is easy for me to see why Dylan never released the song himself (until "Biograph" anyway.)  The gloom of that song is lifted by "Million Dollar Bash" which is another rollicking, humorous song.  It is the only song where Denny is not the lead singer, various band members take turns with the verses as well as guest singer Marc Ellington.  It is a great way to close the album.  Thus ends the happiest chapter in the Fairport saga, tragedy, break-up and mediocrity lay ahead.  This is a classic album, one that everyone should hear.  Recommended for people who think folk music is boring and old-fashioned, prepare to be blown away.

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