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Fairport Convention - Unhalfbricking CD (album) cover


Fairport Convention


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3.58 | 84 ratings

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3 stars 10/15P.: The ultimate Bob Dylan recycling album depicting Fairport Convention on an interim course of covering predominantly American music with a British kind of eccentricity. In spite of some inessential moments this album still keeps a sufficient level of meaning, but the folk rock longtrack surely can't hold a candle to the group's later efforts in that genre.

Unhalfbricking is sad, it's funny, it's colorful, it's British and American at the same time, it's partly innovative, it's authentic and it's a tough listen. It is, perhaps, anything you may associate with how a folk rock band might be, but what it doubtlessly isn't is a consistently satisfactory album. Actually, it was pretty obvious that - after the warmly glowing What We Did on Our Holidays - something was going to change. Lead singer Iain Matthews left the band, and this shifted the lead vocal duties to Sandy Denny who, in her prime, sang folk songs with The Strawbs in the minor venues of Great Britain.

Maybe it's partly because of a helplessness which course to take with the band, but maybe also because Bob Dylan had shocked the world of pop music with another, - actually the third - 'new sound' he had worked on (i.e., the Americana genre): this album is schizophrenic in the combination of its eight songs which are radically different from each other, but it makes the very best out of the fairly adverse conditions.

On the definite plus side there is the excellent track Genesis Hall and the good, but slightly inefficient version of Sandy Denny's stellar Who Knows Where The Time Goes. The latter is widely (and, in my opinion, also correctly) viewed as her signature song, but there's a demo version she recorded in 1967 in which she accompanied herself on the acoustic guitar, and I like that version better than the full band version which feels to quick and straight to let her voice really flourish. A timid guitar solo and Simon Nicol's soulful rhythm guitar, however, are really good, and these minor points of criticism cannot change the fact that it's the song of Unhalfbricking which I listen to most frequently.

There's really nothing you can criticise about Genesis Hall - the dulcimer scratches, Ashley Hutchings' bass guitar walks along in its own special way, Richard Thompson provides his first upfront backing vocals to accompany Sandy Denny's haunting singing and the whole band does every possible thing to convey the chilly and husky atmosphere which so many of Richard Thompson's later songs should offer. What a perfect way to begin an album! But then comes the pretty whimsical Si Tu Dois Partir, which is delightful as the song of the group which is most originally linked to Cajun music, but it does smell a lot of smoke-filled evenings and a certain musical aimlessness. The song itself is a French translation - aided by a French-speaking audience member - of Bob Dylan's early song If You Gotta Go, Go Now, filled with reedy accordions, loose backing vocals and the hectic rattling and scratching of some percussion instruments. However, the song is notable for being - going along the track listing order of the songs - the first song of the band in which Dave Swarbrick can be heard playing the fiddle.

Autopsy is a faintly jazz-influenced and relaxed pop song written by Sandy Denny, consisting of two parts, the first and more folk-inflected one being in 5/4 time and the second one going into a pretty sharp 4/4 measure with enough space for a lovely little guitar solo by Richard Thompson. Listenably, the two parts were composed at a different time and stuck together later, but this doesn't hurt at all - especially regarding the beautiful vocals and the quiet but effective dulcimer melody in the background.

Cajun Woman picks up Richard Thompson's cajun influences again, but implants them into a spicy rock'n'roll with an unleashed Thompson on electric slide guitar, duelling a wee bit with Dave Swarbrick on violin. Drummer Martin Lamble is in fine form in this track as well, propelling the song further on with some accurate kick drum eights.

A Sailor's Life surely wasn't the first time that traditional folk and rock music were fused (according to my research this award goes to The Byrds' He Was A Friend of Mine and The Beach Boys' Sloop John B), but it was the first time that an extended jam of thorny and rootsy psychedelic rock was built around an old folk melody. At 12 minutes length with one mere chord stretching through the whole track, the whole effect it makes is rather 'static'. Violinist Dave Swarbrick and guitarist Richard Thompson throw tiny licks and scalic fragments at each other rather than working around melodies, which makes this track a nearly jazzy affair. A comparison of the rhythmically vague vocal melody and the (similarly vague) melody of Reynardine, a track on the band's next record, however, shows why the latter sounds better to my ears: in Reynardine the melody isn't cast into a steady rhythmic frame and it is gilded a lot more with atmospheric sounds. I marvel a lot at Thompson's and Swarbrick's eccentric interplay and also at the doubtless historical importance of this recording, but listening through the whole track is a pretty tiring thing.

Interestingly, there is even more Dylan material on this CD, apart from Si Tu Dois Partir. At first, there is a rendition of Dylan's lengthy 1963 outtake Percy's Song and the Basement Tapes relic Million Dollar Bash. Not used for the original album, but tried in the studio were the already widely known Dear Landlord from Dylan's 1967 album John Wesley Harding and, shortly after the album sessions, Ballad of Easy Rider, the collaboration of Dylan and Roger McGuinn (of The Byrds) for the film of the same title. But the question which puzzles me is why the band chose these particular Dylan tracks. The British Dylan management outpost allowed the band to listen through nearly the whole Basement Tapes which Dylan recorded with The Band in late 1967. But instead of covering Too Much Of Nothing or another one of the meatier Basement tracks they rather stuck to older Dylan songs - the only Basement choice being the pretty empty Million Dollar Bash, a country throwaway without a discernible melody, apart from the catchy chorus. Nonetheless, the other Dylan songs are good - if strange - choices. Percy's Song itself is a perfect song, perfectly arranged by the band and succeeding extremely well in wrapping the listener in the ever-returning 'turn, turn, turn again/turn, turn, to the rain and the wind' chorus. But, compared with the wonderful BBC version, the harmony vocals - especially of Iain Matthews who left the band during the sessions - get lost in the mix, just like the dulcimer which doesn't feel completely in line with the full-on rock band line-up. A very good song it is nevertheless.

The two bonus tracks are welcome additions to the original album. Dear Landlord, always reminding me of Dylan's earlier composition Ballad of a Thin Man, is an incredibly haunting and dark piece of country-inflicted American music, and this rendition showcases Sandy Denny's ability of augmenting songs with a low and brooding piano backing - she would later add to Richard Thompson's debut solo album in the same way. The sophisticated melody is completely in Denny's vocal range and bassist Ashley Hutchings, - as usual - never playing a note if it's not doubtlessly essential for the song, is actually more in the foreground than the two guitars.

Ballad of Easy Rider actually doesn't belong to this CD since it was one of the earliest recordings for the Liege and Lief sessions, already tracked with Dave Mattacks on the drums. I wholeheartedly agree that the song would be tout a fait deplaced in the context of Liege and Lief, so I am quite content with it being added to this release. Originally, it was written in a fast 2/4 country signature, but Fairport Convention transformed it into a weary and forworn 3/4 measure, stretching the whole running time to twice the length, including a really moody guitar solo by Richard Thompson. The summer of 1969 was the time when the whole band hit rock bottom after an accident in which Richard Thompson's girlfriend and drummer Martin Lamble were killed. I'm sure that the depressive state which the band was in is the reason why this song is possibly the saddest and most disheartened recording I know from this band. Dave Mattacks, later a most wanted studio drummer with an unbelievable punch and sense for spectacular fills, plays quite unobstrusively, too. The diffidence with which the band covers this pastoral anthem of freedom makes this song an essential listen for every friend of folk rock.

Taken together, Unhalfbricking is by no means an dissatisfying album, but it's also not among the best ones which this prolific band achieved to record. People who think they might enjoy a fairly eccentric and often whimsical take on folk rock with a fair amount of great and more reflective songs will surely like this album. In its totality it's not an essential listen, but there are enough numbers on this album which totally prove why this band is considered one of the greatest on the borderline between folk and rock music.

Einsetumadur | 3/5 |


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