Fairport Convention - "A Sailor's Life" (Unhalfbricking)
Fairport Convention may have been around for four decades, but their reputation rests on what they did during just two or three years near the beginning of their career. The creative tumult of their work in the late 60s corresponds to an episode of revolving door instability that contrasts strongly with the steady lineup and unambitious music they’ve made since the mid-80s. On these two records they tore from one idea to the next like a solitary fox in a henhouse, ditching some great ones along their hungry way; Ashley Hutchings, Iain Matthews, Richard Thompson, and Sandy Denny would all pursue rich and drastically different careers picking the discards back up and seeing how far they could take them.
The blackboard drawing and back-to-school essay title of What We Did On Our Holidays betrays the youth of the people who made it; rhythm guitarist Simon Nicol was just 18 years old and bassist Hutchings, the old man of the group, was 23. The record’s dalliances with the blues, teen pop, and American singer-songwriters––not to mention the way the way their male and female singers traded songs and leads––reflect both the times and Fairport’s then-cherished status as the best faux-Californian band in London. And yet, they transcend every contemporary cliché with great writing, creative playing, and the brilliant notion to transfer the Byrds’ affirmation of American folk roots to their own English heritage. With its delicate latticework of guitar figures, castles-long-ago lyric, and Matthews’ gorgeous backing vocals weaving in and out like golden thread in a tapestry, Sandy Denny’s opening track “Fotheringay” is a magnificent mood-setter. In short order they break the spell with “Mr. Lacey,” a goofy electric blues festooned with robot noises. A lesser band would have run on the rocks right there, but Fairport played both hands so well that it feels natural. Either singer could have been the star. Matthews dreams of breaking young girls’ hearts on the shyly self-regarding “Book Song” and delivers Thompson’s bitter sentiments (“Take the sun from my heart, let me learn to despise”) with honeyed innocence on “Tale In Hard Time,” while Denny makes Dylan’s creepy yet moving ballad “I’ll Keep It With Mine” her own, and turns the old plague song “Nottamun Town” into a pinnacle of raga-folk-rock. Still a teenager, Thompson’s playing is succinct and colorful and perfect for the songs; his lead on a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Eastern Rain” brilliantly bursts out of a wreath of Les Paul-style sped-up guitars and dispels the mist, then ducks back as quickly as the bright sun disappears from the sky in London in January. “She Moves Through The Fair” is the record’s masterpiece, with Thompson and Denny trading lyrical picking and exquisite vocalizing on a traditional, love and death-themed folk tune. At least for a season, Fairport found its future in the past.
Unhalfbricking’s ungainly title came from a word game that the band played in the van whilst touring around England. This record is a monument to a band cut down by cruelest fate; after it was recorded but before it was released, drummer Martin Lamble and Thompson’s girlfriend Jeannie Franklin died when the van rolled coming back from a gig. They shelved the record’s material and plunged deep into the folk archives, making two more great albums but ultimately losing Denny, Hutchings, and Thompson along the way. The exodus had already started during the Unhalfbricking sessions when Matthews realized that the band was booking sessions without telling him and quit. In turn, the band ditched the pop angle that had made Holidays so sweet, and put the focus on the group’s three main writers: Thompson, Denny, and Dylan. The trove of unissued Dylan tunes that floated around on bootlegs and acetates back in those days yielded a French-language joke (“Si Tu Dois Partir") that landed Fairport on Top Of The Pops, a moonshine-soused party tune (“Million Dollar Bash”), and Matthews’ last hurrah with Fairport. “Percy’s Song” gets a grand performance, full of The Times They Are a-Changin’ era outrage, with Denny and Matthews’ harmonies ascending a swelling organ chord like angels leading the righteous to heaven.
Denny contributed two tunes: “Who Knows Where The Time Goes” had already been a hit for Judy Collins; this version established Sandy as a balladeer without peer. “Autopsy,” with its acid sentiments and tricky time changes, showed that she was much more than that. Even better is Thompson’s “Genesis Hall.” In an era when lines were being drawn and slogans substituted for thought, he had the guts to tell both sides of a quarrel and impale them both with a jagged hook. His other original, “Cajun Woman,” spurned bleakness for jollity like a Shakespearean scene-changing aside. But the album’s centerpiece was its sole traditional tune, “A Sailor’s Life.” Denny’s delivery of an abandoned maiden’s lament is magnificent, anguished yet totally under control. Then future Fairporter Dave Swarbrick’s fiddle and Thompson’s guitar tangle and joust for five more minutes, opening a time portal that lets the ancient in whilst predicting the future; their chemistry burns like Verlaine and Lloyd’s would eight years hence on “Marquee Moon.” What a band. What an album. What a shame.