Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Full House - Fairport Convention
A&M SP 4265
I bought this in Berkeley around 1980. A&M had already deleted it from their catalogue but I was lucky enough to find a cut-out. This was the fifth album by Fairport Convention and the final studio album with original member Richard Thompson. His departure for a solo career effectively marked the end of the group as an artistically significant unit. They would keep plugging away to this very day (with various hiatuses) and release many more albums of course, some pretty good and one close to awful ("Gottle O'Geer".) However as much as I love the band, I wish they had quit after this one, not even the brief return of Sandy Denny in the mid 1970s could save them from irrelevance. Kudos to them though for hanging in there all these years despite all the adversity. It is rather amazing that this record is as good as it is. The band had to survive the departure of two critical members of the group following the release of "Liege & Lief." Founding member, bassist Ashley Hutchings, was replaced by Dave Pegg who was more than an adequate replacement musically but didn't replace the artistic direction and inspiration offered by Hutchings who had largely been responsible for the band's venture into playing English folk-rock in the first place. Still it was the departure of lead vocalist Sandy Denny that was the more serious problem. In the course of two albums the band went from having two first rate vocalists to having none. Denny was more than just a vocalist, she contributed many key songs and was both the face and arguably the heart of the band. She was irreplaceable although the band's decision not to bring in a new vocalist at all is questionable. Dave Swarbrick assumed most of the vocalist duties and as a vocalist, Swarbrick is an excellent fiddler. Personally I find his voice rather grating and I would have preferred to have Thompson and Simon Nicol do all the singing. Thompson was a little raw at the time, but would develop into a very fine, expressive singer in the coming years. Still the music on this record is so good that even Swarbrick's singing can't detract too much from it and besides a good portion of it consists of instrumentals. The jaunty opening song "Walk Awhile" features Swarbrick, Thompson, Pegg and Nicol all taking turns at the mike. Although composed by Swarbrick and Thompson the song does have a strong traditional feeling to it and it is a lively and humorous song that displays the band's instrumental strength to good effect. This is particularly evident on the next cut, "DIrty Linen." On "Liege & Lief" the band had inaugurated the practice of performing a medley of traditional instrumental dance tunes on their records and there are two such medleys on this album. "Dirty Linen" is my favorite of all the ones the band has ever done. The band's new rhythm section of Pegg and Dave Mattacks kicks ass, Thompson's fingers fly up and down the fretboard and Swarbrick saws away on top of it all like a maniac. It is an incredibly propulsive set of tunes guaranteed to turn the most stubborn wallflower into a lord of the dance. I get happy feet every time I listen to it. On a BBC recording of the song, Nicol says they chose the name for the medley because when they first started doing the song live they were bluffing their way through it, but I find that hard to believe considering how great the recording is. The side concludes with another Thompson/Swarbrick song, the epic "Sloth." Lyrically the song is a bit slight, a few verses decrying war and numerous repetitions of the simple chorus, for some reason the song makes me think of the American Civil War, but it is vague enough to apply to just about any war. This simple song is stretched out by lengthy instrumental passages including some of Thompson's best guitar work with Fairport. The interplay between Thompson and Swarbrick on the solos is mesmerizing and the robust rhythm section relentlessly drives the song to its climax. The song is an absolute classic and it remained in Fairport's repertoire even after Thompson left the band, although frankly none of the other instrumentalists in the band ever came close to matching Thompson's ability. The man is a true wizard of the guitar. "Sloth" joins "A Sailor's Life" as the best example of the band's instrumental brilliance, fully the rival of any jam band from that era. Side two opens with the traditional song "Sir Patrick Spens." The band members trade vocals although Swarbrick sings most of it. The band first attempted the song during the "Liege & Lief" sessions and there are at least two recordings of Sandy Denny singing the song with Fairport which give a tantalizing glimpse of how great this album could have been if she had stuck around. Even with the low-fi nature of the recordings I prefer those Denny versions. Still the official version is very impressive. It has a dynamic arrangement with lots of sterling instrumental work, a fine example of the potential of English folk-rock. On the BBC performance of "Sir Patrick Spens" Simon Nicol notes that the band was unhappy with the original tune ("a bit AC/DC" he says but I have no idea what he means by that) and substituted the tune of another Child ballad, "Hughie the Graeme." I had trouble understanding the song when I first heard it. I had to look it up in the Child ballads just to figure out all the words and realize it is about a conspiracy to kill a bunch of Scottish lords. Next up is "Flatback Caper" another dance tune melody. It is not as exciting as "Dirty Linen" but it is sure to get your toe tapping. I might question the wisdom of including a second instrumental on the album, but if it keeps Swarbrick from singing I'm fine with it. "The Doctor of Physick" is the final Thompson/Swarbrick song on the album and it is my favorite song on the album. It is a sinister song about Doctor Monk who preys upon girls who think "improper" thoughts and steals their maidenheads. It features a superb riff and the group shares the vocal. I've always wondered if this song is derived from Chaucer, but I've never seen anything to confirm this. In "The Canterbury Tales" one of the characters is a Doctor of Physick and his tale concerns a father who beheads his daughter rather than allowing a corrupt judge to rape her. Obviously she is losing a different sort of "maidenhead" but there is some similarity there. Regardless of the inspiration for it, it is a terrific song full of atmosphere and another example of the band's unparalleled skill at replicating traditional music styles. The album concludes in a gloomy manner with the mournful traditional song, "Flowers of the Forest" which laments the loss of life in an ancient English victory over Scotland. It might have been moving if Sandy Denny were singing it, but Swarbrick dominates the group vocal and to me having him sing a slow dirge is almost like fingernails scraping a chalkboard. It is easily my least favorite Fairport song on their first five albums. There was originally an eighth song intended for this album, Thompson/Swarbrick's "Poor Will and the Jolly Hangman" but Thompson had it withdrawn prior to pressing. That is unfortunate because it would have been the best song on this album and lifted it to a higher status in my opinion. Thompson would later add some overdubs with his then wife, Linda Thompson, and release it on "(guitar, vocal)" and the Fairport version would later surface on archival releases as well as the CD re-issue of this album. It is one of my favorite Fairport songs and another fine example of Thompson's skill at utilizing traditional elements in contemporary songwriting. Even without this song though, I still admire this album and I've played it a lot through the years without getting the least bit tired of it. As an added bonus this album has some of the most interesting liner notes I've ever seen. On the back of the cover Richard Thompson has written up the imaginary results of a bunch of games, most of them old and forgotten involving characters from folklore such as Allison Gross as well as characters from the album like the Doctor of Physick. I've never heard of most of the games and I spent a good deal of time back when I got the record looking up the games and characters, no easy task in those pre-internet days. Thompson's account is both amusing and sardonic with lots of violence. I have no desire to try my hand at Badger in the Bag or Sparrow-Mumbling that's for sure. Recommended for folklorists looking for proof that their work has relevance.