Saturday, February 10, 2007

Does my sweet William sail among your crew?

Fairport Convention - A Sailor's Life

I’m going to throw you all a bit of a curve ball today, by confessing myself to be a closet folkie, and extolling the virtues of the fantastic ‘Unhalfbricking’, the third album from Fairport Convention released on Island Records in 1969. Both my parents are huge folk fans, so I guess it’s inevitable that despite periods spent in denial during my teens and twenties, the music would seep into me and become something I am increasingly coming to realise is really rather special. I have the beard, I enjoy drinking the odd pint of bitter – it was only a matter of time…

‘Unhalfbricking’ was a milestone album in the British folk movement, as it was the moment where the group discovered the folk rock sound, for which they would become best known. It was the first album where the vocalist Sandy Denny took centre stage, after the group’s male vocalist Iain Matthews left the band. It also marked the first appearance of the supremely talented fiddler Dave Swarbrick, who would become a full-time member of the group soon after.

For ‘Unhalfbricking’, the band was given access to a load of unrecorded Bob Dylan songs by the producer Joe Boyd. Of those selected, it was their French translation of ‘If You Gotta Go, Go Now’ (‘Si Tu Dois Partir’), which gave them their only UK chart hit. The album also featured two Denny compositions, including the wonderful ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’, which has been covered by artists including Nina Simone, Lonny Donegan and Cat Power.

The standout track on the album is the band’s 11-minute take on the traditional song, ‘A Sailor’s Life’, which was suggested by Denny, and would become the template for British folk rock. The song is a tragic tale of love lost at sea, and the band’s epic arrangement puts me in mind of The Doors, or even the Velvet Underground in places, as Swarbrick’s superb fiddle scratches and drones against the music. The first half of the song belongs to Sandy Denny, and her hauntingly powerful vocal performance. It’s almost impossible to believe she was only 22 when she recorded this, and her ability to take her voice from 0-60 in an instant is truly something to behold. If the first half is Denny’s, the remaining five minutes belong to the band, as they hit their collective stride in a masterful demonstration of telepathic musicianship, recorded in one take. The duelling guitars of Richard Thompson’s beguiling solo and Simon Nicol’s sturdy back-up ebb and flow, and combine superbly with the verging on the funky drums and bass of Martin Lamble (who tragically died in a car accident shortly before the album’s release) and Ashley Hutchings.

The British Asian singer Sheila Chandra felt the song was a precursor of what would become World Music, fusing Indian structures within the framework of British folk. She reckoned, “(‘A Sailors Life’) …was a microcosm of 2,000 years of Indian music, going from Vedic chanting through to full improvisations on a fixed note scale.” Even if you think you don’t like folk music, give this song a try and you may find you surprise yourself.

Fairport Convention website
Buy the remastered edition of 'Unhalfbricking' from Amazon
'Unhalfbricking' at Fairport Convention fansite