March 21, 2005

Swarb walks!

Following up on my post on Swarbrick Plays Swarbrick, I just found out that Swarb has finally had his lung transplant and has appeared on stage with Fairport Convention on March 12. He was able to walk and even sing along on the choruses of one song!
I couldn't look at those pictures with dry eyes. He may not look too great to people who don't know about him, but for a man who was bedridden before the transplant, it's a huge difference. Long may he continue, and may he return to active performance soon!

Posted by rocr at 08:43 PM

October 06, 2004

Bones of All Men

Last one in the big catchup that began last week:

Combining renaissance music and rock has been tried by quite a few artists over the years, from Gentle Giant and Renaissance in the 1970s to Blackmore's Night and In Extremo in the nineties and aughties. It's... hard work. Underuse the rock instruments and you end up with kitchy renaissance-muzak-with-a-drumbeat, over-use them and you get bombast tarted up with crumhorns. The Bones Of All Men (and of several remarkable curiosities therein occurring being a compendium of Davnces, Pavannes, Steps and such, played this time), by Mr. Phillip Pickett with Mr. Richard Thompson & the Fairport Rhythm Section, gets it right nearly all of the time. I suppose it helps that Mr. Pickett is one of the leading early music woodwind players, Mr. Thompson is a genius on the guitar, and Messrs. Nicol, Pegg and Mattacks form one of the most seasoned rhythm sections in the Western world. Together, aided by keyboardist Sharona Joshua and medieval violinist Pavlo Beznosiuk (on one track only), they create stomping, dynamic versions of mostly 16th century keyboard compositions.

Nearly all tracks are in medley form, which means that little time gets wasted on unnecessary repetitions and middle eights. The simple structure of early dance music allows for endless stringing together of tunes - Track 7 includes five of them. My favorites are the second track, "Chi Pasa Per Sa Strada" and the eighth, a nine-minute medley of four tunes building up to a rousing climax in which the rock band (essentially the Full House line-up of Fairport Convention, minus Dave Swarbrick) finally gets to let loose. It's hard to tell what exactly they do to create the buildup; the band just pounds on in the same mid-tempo and at the same volume, but the tension rises with each measure. The third part of the medley is a Swedish-sounding composition for medieval fiddle and symphony (meaning, I think, an early form of the hurdy-gurdy), and leads to the second climax in the fourth part.
Special praise for musicianship should go to bassist Dave Pegg, whose understated, contrapunctal contributions are his best work in many years.
The album is impeccably produced by Joe Boyd who also produced the early Fairport records. He may not be trustworthy with people's wallets but he is very good at realising his musicians' artistic visions. The sound is lovely.
This record takes some getting used to. The first track, featuring the recorder as a solo instrument, is a bit off-putting to listeners attuned to more vigorous-sounding instruments, but once you get over that it's a fine record that grows with each listening. Highly recommended for fans of instrumental music.

Posted by rocr at 01:25 PM | TrackBack

October 02, 2004

Fotheringay

I'll bet you thought I was done reviewing CDs after Thursday's barrage? Think again. This one has been in the queue since August, even before my review of Henry the Human Fly. In the comments, I mentioned another important reissue by Fledgling records.

Fotheringay is the band Sandy Denny formed after she left Fairport Convention for the first time. Within months, they had this self-titled debut album out. It sounds remarkably like Fairport Convention, except it is more singer-songwriter oriented (while still being a true band record) and has no fiddle on it. What it does have is mostly great songs sung by Denny and Australian-born singer-songwriter Trevor Lucas who would soon marry Denny. Only one of the songs, "Banks of the Nile", is traditional.

Denny contributes a handful of meditative, piano-driven songs, sung as always with her cool, velvety voice. I don't actually find her a great interpretor of the songs; I'd rate Linda Thompson much higher as far as that's concerned. But there's no denying that her voice sounded damned good and communicated her own melancholy well.
Lucas's specialty is midtempo story-songs with strong choruses. It works really well on "The Ballad of Ned Kelly", but rather less well on "Peace in the End", co-written with Denny. The hippy sentiments in that song haven't aged well, to say the least. Lucas's powerful baritone voice is a pleasure to listen to though, especially on another slightly hippy-ish (though much less so) piece, Gordon Lightfoot's "The Way I Feel".
The band, overall, sounds a lot like Fairport Convention, and all but one of them would end up in that group a few years later (though in drummer Gerry Conway's case, he would initially only play on Rosie by default, because unused Fotheringay tapes were reworked into tracks on that album. However, he would become Fairport's drummer in the late 1990s). They're very solid, especially considering that they'd only been together for a short time. The pace at which bands worked in the early 1970s was amazingly fast. The standout performer in the group was American-born guitarist Jerry Donahue, whose fast, clear playing would make him a much-in-demand session musician later.

Unlike with their reissue of Henry the Human Fly, Fledgling have added 4 bonus tracks to the record, from a festival gig in Rotterdam in 1970. As usual with bonus tracks, they add little to the record and even give a less than favorable impression of Sandy Denny's vocal qualities. I'd have been much more interested in hearing the original versions of the tracks that ended up on Rosie with Pat Donaldson's bass parts restored, assuming of course that those parts haven't been wiped to make space for Dave Pegg's.

Posted by rocr at 01:16 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

September 30, 2004

Swarbrick roundup

Speaking of Dave Swarbrick, I have got meself some more of his solo records in the past few months! After writing about Swarbrick Plays Swarbrick, I realised that I didn't know nearly as much about his career as I did about other Fairporters like Sandy Denny or Richard Thompson, so I set out to remedy that. I'll keep it brief:

Rags, Reels and Airs from 1967 is still a very cautious record. Although Joe Boyd's sleeve notes make much of the influence of Stephane Grapelli on Swarb's playing, and Swarb's style clearly isn't purely traditional folk, it doesn't take experimentation nearly as far as Swarb's Fairport work or his later solo records. It's all acoustic, backed excellently by guitarist Martin Carthy on most of the tracks and by Diz Disley on the two rags. Very listenable, although the instrumental tunes start sounding a bit samey towards the end of the record.

Smiddyburn/Flittin' is a combination of two albums Swarb cut in the early 1980s. Both albums were recorded simultaneously and are very similar in style. Noticeably, half the tracks feature the classic "Full House" line-up of Fairport Convention. The other half feature pianist Beryl Marriot and are done in strict-tempo ceilidh style. At first listening, the ceilidh tracks are more appealing, because the folk-rock tracks seem to lack energy compared to how the same line-up sounded 12 years earlier. But upon repeated listening, the folk-rock tracks turn out to be real growers! Even if they played a bit slower than before, the magic and the power were still there, and the arrangements give Richard Thompson and Dave Mattacks a lot of space to build up the dynamics.

It Suits Me Well is a compilation of the folk-rock stuff from Smiddyburn/Flittin', plus some tracks from Swarb's earlier solo albums featuring Martin Carthy and Simon Nicol on guitar. Strangely, the compilation is more cohesive than Smiddyburn/Flittin' and is a good substitute if strict-tempo ceilidh isn't your thing. Also included is a bonus CD with live recordings from two folk festival gigs: 4 tracks from Dave Swarbrick and Friends and 4 from the band Whippersnapper which Swarb formed in the 1980s. Highly recommended!

Posted by rocr at 09:54 PM | TrackBack

Angel Delight/Babbacombe Lee/Rosie

The remastered versions of the first 5 Fairport Convention albums plus Heyday and the live record House Full appeared before I started blogging, and I'm not gonna try to catch up with them right now. I'll skip straight to the latest batch of Fairport records to be reissued, albums 6, 7 and 8, which I bought a few weeks ago. These records show Fairport in its slow but spirited decline.

Angel Delight is still a very strong album. Richard Thompson had just left the band, leaving Simon Nicol as lead guitarist and only remaining original member, but he had left behind two new songs written with Dave Swarbrick, and the rest of the material, partly original and partly traditional, is outstanding. Thompson's lead guitar playing is sorely missed on the album, though, and the album as a whole lacks the energy of the previous ones, each of which was groundbreaking. The new edition has a live recording of the song "The Journeyman's Grace" with Thompson still on guitar; unfortunately, it's very poorly recorded and lacks the middle verse.
What is noticeable on this remastered edition is the improved clarity on the vocals. For the first time, I can hear how often bassist Dave Pegg took the lead vocals.

Babbacombe Lee was a bold move for the band: a concept album about a man sentenced to death for murder but reprieved because the gallows refused to work three times in a row. Folk-rock concept albums were rare then, as now. They pulled it off too, except for one thing that spoils the record for me: the interminable and completely irrelevant traditional "The Sailor's Alphabet". If they'd come up with one more original song to describe the character's life at sea before coming back to the country and his doom, they'd have been able to drop that clunker and they'd have made a perfect rock opera. The remastered edition has two bonus tracks, one of which features Sandy Denny on vocals, but they came from very poor quality tape sources and are unlistenable. The rest of the record has great sound!


The poor response to Babbacombe Lee at the time, and friction over Simon Nicol's production work for the record, lead to a disastrous rift within the band. Nicol and drummer Dave Mattacks both left, leaving the band incomplete and with no original members. Swarbrick and Pegg soldiered on for a while, but eventually decided to pack it in and work on a duo album instead. That didn't work either: the sessions were scrapped and re-done with former Fotheringay singer/guitarist Trevor Lucas as producer. During these sessions, Lucas and another ex-Fotheringay player, guitarist Jerry Donahue became members of a new version of Fairport Convention, with Dave Mattacks who had decided to come back. To showcase Lucas, two leftover Fotheringay tracks were included with Dave Pegg re-recording the bass part over the original. With a history like that, the Rosie album was never going to be the most cohesive. The quality is very mixed, with the title track and the recycled Fotheringay tracks being the highlights and Pegg's "Hungarian Rhapsody" being an embarrassing low point. The obligatory instrumental medley, "The Hens March Through the Midden/The Four-Poster Bed" is just that: obligatory. Swarbrick had recorded much better versions of both tunes on his solo record Rags, Reels and Airs. Donahue is a great musician though. This time around, the bonus tracks are pretty good. All five of them are from a concert and have decent sound.

If Island records goes on re-releasing Fairport's albums in batches of three, then they have one more batch to go: Fairport Nine, Rising for the Moon and Fairport Live Convention. Or was the execrable Gottle O'Geer done for Island as well? I do hope the rest of Fairport's vast catalogue gets released when the Island years are all covered...

(Note: I have used Amazon UK links whenever I couldn't find the correct link on Amazon US. Amazon US lists the reissues as Imports anyway, but do pay attention if you click on one of the links with the intention of buying the record)

Posted by rocr at 09:16 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 30, 2004

Henry the Human Fly

Fledg'ling records have reissued Henry the Human Fly, which is great news. Richard Thompson's debut solo album from 1972 had been kinda-sorta available since 1991, but I for one had never seen it in the shops before. I had a copy burned for me from vinyl by an acquaintance, but it's just not the same. The remastered edition is a huge improvement on that copy, with Thompson's acoustic guitar and the other instruments coming through with great detail and presence.
It's one of the best Thompson has made in a long and illustrious career. In every decade since the 1960s, Thompson has come out with at least one album that ranks among the best made that decade, and occasionally with more. Henry the Human Fly is a bit difficult to get into but once you get past the sound of Thompson's voice on this first attempt, you will hear great songwriting with the deceptively simple tunes and gut-wrenching lyrics that have been his trademark ever since.
The guitar playing is also beautiful, effective and mature. Mojo listed the record as one of the 20 greatest guitar albums ever, but don't expect a record driven by guitar pyrotechnics. Thompson's guitar playing, even then, served the songs, and not the other way around.

The album opens with "Roll Over Vaughn Williams", which has a dense, dark guitar sound, Meg White-style tic-toc drumming and what sounds like a heavily processed accordion backing the vocal line. It's moody and eccentric. The drums, at first, sound like they were played by someone indifferent to the expressive possibilities of the instrument, but after a few playings, it becomes impossible to imagine them sounding any other way in the context of this song. The accordion (if that what it is) sounds more like a medieval crumhorn - it's not conventionally good accordion playing but, along with Thompson's heavy (if undistorted) rhythm guitar, it adds to the scary effect of the song.

"Nobody's Wedding" is more typical of Thompson's early output. It's a slow, tuneful piece interrupted by slow reels played (excellently) by John Kirkpatrick on the accordion. The lyrics tell of a party that went on for sixteen days and sixteen nights "and it weren't even nobody's wedding". With the protagonist oblivious to the goings-on, the party spins out of control. Thompson's singing is a bit hesitant on this one, with some of the notes cut off abruptly. With his limited range and speech impediment, Thompson was never a natural singer. Over time, he would become very good, but on this record, his voice is still a weak point. This doesn't stop "Nobody's Wedding" from etching its tune into the brain permanently though.

"The Poor Ditching Boy" is a classic Thompson rejection ballad and a much requested (but seldom played) song at concerts even now.

"Shaky Nancy", by contrast, is the one track on the album that has aged very poorly. "Here she comes, and there she goes, nothing on her fingers, nothing on her toes" comes across as pointless hippy-dippyness now, and the tune is a bit ponderous. Even Sandy Denny on backing vocals and piano can't rescue it.

"The Angels Took My Race-Horse Away" is more up-tempo and rocky. Thompson's voice doesn't quite carry it, but the song itself works. It's one of a handful of horse-racing songs Thompson has written over the years ("Both Ends Burning" from 1983's Hands of Kindness is another great example) and a good early attempt at creating a uniquely English form of Rock & Roll.

"Wheely Down" and "The Old Changing Ways" on the other hand, could both pass for Irish traditionals - one a dirge, the other a ballad. "The Old Changing Ways" is the better of the two, with a slightly faster pace and lovely guitar/harp interplay. The lyrics, told through the persona of a wayward tinker driven from his brother by his unwillingness to share, get some explicit moralising in, which is rare for Thompson.

"The Old St. George" takes the form of a protest song, with its strident 3/4 tempo, snare-heavy drums and sneering vocals inciting the workers to "Leave the factory, leave the forge, and dance with the new st. George". It brings dire environmental warnings, set to yet another catchy tune.

"Painted Ladies" is Thompson's paean to prostitutes! Or at least, it features a protagonist who wants them but can't afford them. One of Thompson's strength as a lyricist is his ability to take on a persona, and give an inside view of what makes a certain kind of person tick. Like all such songs by him, this one comes out disturbing and funny at the same time. Thompson's voice is an asset in songs like this one.

"Cold Feet" combines slow verses with risky chord combinations with a more rocky choruses. It's one of the more complex songs on the album, and one of the least catchy ones. Not bad, just not up to the standards of the rest of the record.

"Mary and Joseph" is even weirder: a slow song with slightly off-pitch horns and rudimentary beats. It sounds like a Tom Waits song, including Thompson's vocal delivery, which sounds slightly drunk.

After all those songs about wild parties, drinking, whoring, greed and gambling, "Twisted" is a fitting album closer. "People are looking hazy and people are looking dim. I would go for help if I could find the way I came in.... sitting at the bar with my face in the jar, and something tells me I'm twisted." The music nails the tiredness and anger of the last person at the bar perfectly.

Buy this record if it's the only one you get this year.

(note: I usually link to Amazon.com when discussing records, but because this one is released by a small British record label, and is sold through Amazon.com as a rather pricy import, the link to Henry the Human Fly goes to Amazon.co.uk. This will make quite a difference to buyers in continental Europe who don't want to have to pay extra for a British record that makes a detour through the US. However, Americans can probably safely order it through Amazon.com: Henry the Human Fly)

Posted by rocr at 08:51 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

July 16, 2004

Swarbrick plays Swarbrick

I was surprised to find the other day that folk violinist Dave Swarbrick, who has been very ill with emphysema, had somehow managed to record a new album. The fact that despite being practically bedridden, he has been able to play at all is miraculous enough, but what makes it even better is that English Fiddler: Swarbrick Plays Swarbrick is such a strong album. Being a collection of classic tunes written throughout the man's long career, it's not groundbreaking by Swarb's standards, but it has fine playing from everyone involved and the arrangements are as daring as ever.
Musicians on the record include Swarb's old friend and partner Martin Carthy, old Fairport Convention stalwarts Simon Nicol and Dave Pegg, more recent Fairport Convention stalwarts Martin Alcock, Chris Leslie and Gerry Conway, Whippersnapper guitarist Kevin Dempsey and Swarb's old mentor Beryl Mariott. They revisit the tunes they were originally involved in, sounding occasionally under-rehearsed but performing with skill and feeling. Sadly, Swarb doesn't sing on the album because his illness has cost him his singing voice, but the violin work is still a joy to listen to. There's even a return to the electric violin sound from his Fairport days. The other musicians get plenty of space to make themselves heard as well. The best example of this is in the final tune, "Miss Stevenson/Turnabout", where they get to jam for almost 2 minutes in the middle of the song before Swarb cuts in with the electric violin.

English Fiddler is out on the Naxos label, so you may have difficulty finding a store that carries it. Naxos is mostly known for commissioning inexpensive recordings of classical music and reissuing jazz and pop from the period before World War II, but they also have a great selection of folk music from across the world (the bluegrass album Little Grasscals has become a favorite in the studio), and it's all red-book compliant and cheap!

(Note: Oddly, Amazon lists this item both under Popular Music and under Books. This may have something to do with Naxos' distribution arrangements. When listed under books, it's a special-order item, but the music listing says it should ship within 24 hours.)

Posted by rocr at 11:53 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack