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Fairport Convention - Full House CD (album) cover


Fairport Convention


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3.61 | 63 ratings

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5 stars 14.5/15P.: This album doesn't leave any space to criticism, simply because the band knows exactly how to treat British folk music and how to compose original songs which fit perfectly well into the frame. Full House is haunting, rustic and dark, but it soothes you with wistful melodies and great arrangements.

First and foremost I'd like to praise Dave Mattacks. Between 1969 and 1972 he was, in my opinion, the best drummer in rock music. You can listen to every Fairport album, and to every session he played - it's always mesmerizing to hear these little fills, the breezy cymbals, the little counter-rhythms and the gentle punch of his drums. Sadly, his session playing became a lot more simple in the mid-1970s - this might be the reason why some people criticise his playing - but what you get on this album is rhythmic perfection. I never managed to listen to a whole album before while only concentrating on the drums - in this case it works!

So, which types of music do you find here?

*Eleven thrilling minutes of jigs & reels*

Many folk rock bands believe they have captured the real essence of folk music when they simply electrify some British traditional dance tunes which, in many cases, sound quite alike when you compare them. Fairport Convention do everything to actually insert the rock instruments in a way that they don't sound like simple sound effects, but rather like a careful reformation of the old style.

And I don't mean that Fairport Convention were always successful in doing that. Just listen to the Sir McKenzie's Daughter's Lament (...) tune with the horribly long title, which I also criticized in the review of the otherwise stunning 1970 live album of the band. It's got this boring 4/4 driving rhythm which ignores the natural rhythm of the dance tune. Of course, Dave Mattacks plays one of the better boring rhythms, at least many other drummers did a worse job, but this piece just isn't convincing. But it's been a b-side of a single, and as such it doesn't hurt anyone.

The dance stuff on the original album is in fact quite a lot better, and that's how it should be. Dirty Linen lacks a constant drum rhythm and hence allows Dave Pegg to play the melody of this rapid jig on the bass guitar along with the violin and the guitars. Everyone in the band actually plays the same thing simultaneously, but I've rarely heard such a tribal and 'Nordic' power to a jig. Dave Mattacks also appears in this track, but plays some bodhran in the beginning and the drum kit inbetween, but only for a few measures each. Every stroke he sets in this album has its purpose, no drum stroke is superfluous, and that's one of the reasons why this album is the band's ultimate masterpiece. Flatback Caper is really really long, longer than most of the dance medleys, but it's so damn entertaining thanks to the tricky rhythm changes and Dave Pegg's and Dave Swarbrick's duelling mandolins; it's real tight and it simply rolls on and on without even coming close to boredom or narcissistic noodling.

*Twenty-two minutes of Thompson/Swarbrick originals: sometimes lamenting, sometimes easy-going, but most of the time plainly shocking.*

The album opener Walk Awhile could be called country rock if it was played by any other band. But the whole attitude of the band, and attitude means lyrics, singing style and all those things which you instantly hear without knowing the band's history, is far away from all that US truck driving stuff. Firstly, there are Thompson's typically cryptic lyrics. They're no classic poems, they rather depict conversations or are narratives in metric form, and they are always shaped by the stream-of-consciousness-like invented surnames and places and the strange metaphors. They're rustic and dark, but hallucinating at the same time. Secondly Simon Nicol, Dave Swarbrick, Dave Pegg and Richard Thompson (listed up chronologically) may sing one stanza each and move into harmony vocals in the stanzas. And these harmony vocals are as mesmerizing as the legendary Watersons and Young Tradition material, but in a very unique way. And the muffly sound of Liege and Lief has disappeared, too. The violin finally sounds like a real violin, and the drums are crystal clear as well. I absolutely love these busy little drum fills before each stanza, as to be heard around 1:20. The piece is already a worthwhile listen because of this bonnie little part; in fact, the jolty little instrumental parts are derived from the British folk song King Henry, as performed by Martin Carthy on Sweet Wivelsfield.

Sloth has often been described as a British response to the Allman Brothers and Grateful Dead, a jam tour de force around the weary lament of a soldier in the state of war. Usually I'm quite cautious about jam pieces because they frequently are a shell without content, but this one avails itself really much of the sophisticated dynamic mounting (and, of course, dismounting) of the solos. The two lead instruments are, needless to say, Swarbrick's violin and Thompson's electric guitar. And where A Sailor's Life was still quite formless in its lengthy instrumental part, the two soloists now know how to interact, throw short melodies at each other and braid the violin and guitar improvisations to a forceful unit. And the vocal part isn't only the vehicle for the jam, but a fully working song which appears in the beginning, in the middle and in the end of the whole track - augmented by beautiful harmony vocals around the alternating lead vocals of Thompson and Swarbrick. In concert, the dynamic contrast would become even greater because in the second third of the song the band would calm down from a blastbeat section in the vein of Led Zeppelin (yes, Dave Mattacks was able to play like a madman when he was jamming with the right people) to a silent pizzicato part in which the rhythm was barely recognizable. The studio version is comparatively tame, but has an uncongested and lively sound which is simply plain listening pleasure.

The big surprise is Poor Will & The Jolly Hangman. For some really inscrutable reason Thompson deleted this piece from the album at the very last possible moment in 1970. I don't know why he did that, perhaps because it was his first lead vocal ever, but thankfully it appears at its original place on this reissue. The intro and outro parts with the distant multi-tracked Stratocaster finger-picking are already most captivating, but the guitar solo from 3:30 to 4:30 is a masterpiece beyond comparison, and it assures me that the band never played finer than in 1970. Quite a lot of distortion for Thompson's means, given that he usually prefers just a wee bit of crunch on his guitar sound, and again he does his typically weird string bending stuff. Furthermore you'll find his strangely 'chordal' approach to soloing and the menacing drones which are hammered through on the lower strings, but the threatening thrash of Mattacks' drums and Swarbrick's fairly tender mandolin work even seem to inspire Thompson to unforeseen heights. His voice is a strangely fragile one, but at the same time with an authenticity which also shines without Swarbrick as the second lead vocalist - even though Swarbrick, a grandee and innovator of British folk in the early 1960s, has been an invaluable enrichment to the sound of the band, of course. I can still remember the astonishment when I first heard Swarbrick's croony voice in that Sailor's Alphabet part of the Babbacombe Lee album; and Full House is clearly the better album of the two.

And don't forget the lyrics which hold a mirror up to a perverted society, presenting the poor people as an audience which thinks a death by hanging to be just a good show ('here's a toast to the jolly hangman, he'll hang you the best that he can'). The employment of archaic symbols, symbols of a time in which the social and political system was more openly arbitrary than it is today, to show how close the modern society tends to re-approach the conditions of the 17th century, would always be important to Thompson; listen to his solo track The Great Valerio to hear another psychological analysis of social voyeurism, using the symbol of a tightrope dancer on his wire.

The next psychoanalytic - and even psychosexual - song is Doctor of Physick, the cruellest and most shockingly candid piece on this album which deals with a man who comes in the night to rape girls. Verses as explicit as 'And I fear I could not find my maidenhead' and the repeated chorus 'Doctor Monk unpacks his trunk tonight' are breathtakingly brutal, but in their overall impression not much more savage than many traditional folk songs. Just check the lyrics of the Scots song Twa Corbies, as recorded by Steeleye Span, which is about ravens discussing in which manner to lacerate a nobleman's corpse, and Hanged I Shall Be (played by the Albion Country Band in 1973) deals with a lover abusing and murdering his fiance a few days before the marriage. In all of the cases the lyrics aren't only provocatively shocking, but have both a literal level and an allegorical one: What do the religious connotations express in this song ('hold your relic near', 'Doctor Monk'), what's the girls' attitude to that doctor ('[daughter], don't dream of any gallant men tonight') and which role does the dream itself play ('I dreamed last night a man sat on me bed')? And who actually warns the girl that the doctor 'unpacks his trunk'? Regardless of these remarks you get, from the musical point of view, a pristine acoustic guitar by Simon Nicol and some biting power chords played by Thompson on his Stratocaster, while Dave Mattacks - a trained piano tuner - adds a sombre harmonium layer in the background. The real star in this song, however, is Dave Swarbrick, delivering an unbelievably melodic viola work and awesome lead vocals; Thompson, however, sings lead in the part in which the girl speaks.

Now Be Thankful, the a-side of the 1970 single which appears twice as a bonus track, is a less stressful Thompson composition sung by Swarbrick which rather sounds like a church ballad. I mean these songs in which one person's singing the more complex verses with the melismatic structures (q.v. 1:40) whilst the whole community sings along in the chorus. And this chorus is really uplifting with its rejoicing harmony vocals ('now be thankful to your maker'), the blurred symbolism ('crystal waters', 'the red rose', 'stones too cold to kneel' etc.) and the strange rhythmic offsets which occur when a song has been composed without a steady rhythm. A song like that could indeed sound soppy, but firstly you again don't know where Thompson is really at since the lyrics are too misty and sometimes too dark for a Christian gospel track, and secondly the far distant guitar notes are mesmerizing in a way akin to how Farewell Farewell on Liege and Lief was mesmerizing, too. And thirdly there are these little guitar interludes which always remind me of a Bach Menuett, and all that is condensed into hardly two-and-a-half minutes! After all it's simply a gorgeous song, but best listened to in the alternate remix. Yes, there's really a big difference between the two versions although they are both derived from the same recording. The second mix sounds unusually 'remixed', but by far breezier than the flatter mono recording which was used as the single.

*And finally ten short, but immaculate minutes of folk music*

Sir Patrick Spens was left over from the Liege and Lief sessions and has been performed with Sandy Denny for quite some time. It's impossible to say which version is better, but this version features some of the best chordal lead vocals ever. Many reviewers criticize that the vocals on Full House sound unconfident and weak, but I don't get that point at all. Swarbrick's lead vocals flourish on top of Pegg's and Nicol's steady fanfarish vocal drone, then Pegg and Nicol pause again for one verse to sing unisono with Swarbrick again - that's a footloosely composed vocal arrangement as it should be, nothing left to complain about.

And Flowers of the Forest was the best possible choice to end the album, a song which nowadays - albeit played by a group of pipers - serves as a lament for the soldiers killed in action during the 1513 Battle of Flodden in Northumberland, the northernmost county of England. Simon Nicol, at that time responsible for the whole acoustic guitar duties in the band, plays the electric dulcimer in this track and provides the gentle drone which this song deserves to have. The vocal arrangement lacks this afflicted mood of the ancient Scottish version with all the microtonality in the lead melody, as performed by Dick Gaughan amongst others, but gets a haunting four-part harmony arrangement in which all of the four characteristic voices can be differentiated clearly (Thompson's clearly in the foreground in the third verses each, by the way). In such a diminished arrangement every present instrument attracts attention. And this effect is used by Dave Mattacks to maximum effect: the verses per se could be stiffened to a plain 12/8 measure, which is that typical bluesy rhythm as in Pink Floyd's Shine On You Crazy Diamond. The last words of the verses, though, need some more space in the end to develop their full effect, and so the natural 15/8 measure of the song is accentuated by Mattacks by one short cymbal swirl on the 1st beat and one pedal hi-hat stroke each on the 4th, 10th and 14th beat of the measure - a really unusual accentuation, but in fact more usual in Military Tattoos. This information is, of course, totally useless for the listening experience, but it shows how a complex rhythm can be created with minimal means.

The bonus track Bonny Bunch of Roses is inferior to the album stuff, but it's worth a four star rating, too. It isn't really disappointing, but really long, it's monotonous and as challenging as any rendition of a folk song about historical occurances can be. Mattacks only plays the tom-toms here in a similar way to the studio version of Pink Floyd's Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun, Thompson and Nicol both play quite freely on their electric guitars and Pegg sets the rhythm with the bass guitar, and so it goes on and on while Swarbrick recites the vocals about Napoleon really carefully and slowly. You need to listen to it three times to get the melody! It's quite similar to A Sailor's Life, with even less groove though, but it would have interrupted the natural flow of the original album if it had replaced any of the other songs. I like it quite much as one of the most free-form tunes by Fairport Convention, and I even like it a bit more than A Sailor's Life, but I cannot listen to it every day.


To sum up, this album is a doubtless candidate for a strong 5-star rating. You can check my other reviews to assure yourself that the realms beyond the 14 points (out of 15) have only been reached by two Pink Floyd records until now. For sure, this recording doesn't meet the expectancies of a progressive rock listener. It's neither a concept album nor linked to classical music, jazz, avantgarde or comparable music in any way. But it's intricate and sophisticated in its arrangements, it has that totally British and cohesive mood all the way through, it's played by exceptional musicians and it's stuffed with excellent compositions which allow the listener to spot more and more finesses at every listen. To me it has been the key to explore the British folk music which I never really understood sufficiently before I finally this album for five euros (yes, it's really that cheap!). The reissue features high-quality bonus tracks, a decent booklet with the original weird liner notes by Richard Thompson and some new liner notes by Simon Nicol and an exemplarily great sound. Even if you're not too much in the folk stuff - give that album a try, it's a masterpiece of folk rock music.

Einsetumadur | 5/5 |


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