(Ed Ward, Rolling Stone, 1970)
Fairport Convention’s early years can best be described as a sequence of transitional periods. The years 1968 to 1970 saw a dizzying amount of line-up changes, stylistic shifts, and personal tragedy (a deadly post-gig van crash after which they nearly called it quits). In that span of two years they also managed to record several classic albums, each with it’s own distinct vibe due to the revolving door of key band members. While their early sound was inspired by West Coast psychedelia and singer-songwriters like Dylan, Richard Farina and Joni Mitchell, they gradually abandoned those influences in favour of a repertoire of electrified British folk songs. This culminated in the 1969 recording of Liege & Lief, by far their most celebrated album. That record (which I’ll admit I find it a little bit underwhelming) was touted as the birth of British folk-rock, and was highlighted by the celestial tones of singer Sandy Denny, and by spirited arrangements of traditional songs like “Tam Lin” and “Matty Groves”, till then unknown in the rock world.
The general consensus seems to be that the three records they released in 1969 (What We Did On Our Holidays, Unhalfbricking and Liege & Lief) are the band’s best, and that what followed was a slow and steady decline. Certainly, the departure of Sandy Denny (their key attraction at that point) was a major blow, and the band’s infatuation with esoteric traditional material ensured that it wouldn’t have much more than a cult following. Still, they released plenty of solid albums in the 70s, most of which made little impact at the time, and are today only beginning to be rediscovered. Case in point: Pitchfork reviewed the reissues of What We Did On Our Holidays and Unhalfbricking, giving them high ratings of 8.8 and 9.3 respectively, without so much as mentioning the 10 or so other albums of theirs that had also been reissued.
One particularly overlooked period of their history (though cherished by diehard fans) is what is referred to as the “Full House era”. This alludes to both the album, Full House, which followed Liege & Lief; and to the line-up that recorded it, which was revered for its instrumental prowess and spectacular shows.
While this album lacks both the diversity of their earlier ones and Denny' breathtaking voice, I would argue that it’s probably their best. It is simply in a world of its own. It's timeless in the truest sense, sounding at once ancient and modern. A seemingly simple album that’s charming in its humility, but surprisingly powerful when it wants to be.
Compared to Liege & Lief it sounds less affected - earthier maybe. It might have to do with the singing, which, following Denny's departure, was taken up by the previously non-singing instrumentalists. The voices are rough and plain, but work well with this kind of material. The performances are jaunty and hard-edged, but you can tell that the band doesn’t take itself too seriously. While maybe not as important as its predecessor, the album is definitely a lot more fun. It’s also among the most hard rocking and viscerally satisfying records of the band’s career, in no small part due to the chemistry between demon-fiddler David Swarbrick and impossibly-talented-beyond-his-years guitarist Richard Thompson.
Their duets on the jigs and reels are always impressive, even when those tracks last a minute or two longer than they should. The album’s centerpiece is definitely “Sloth”, a cryptic little anti-war dirge punctuated by ferocious group improvisations. An epic slow-burning track, it combines power and finesse in a way that manages to keep you riveted throughout its nine-minute length.
House Full, a live album recorded in 1970 at the Troubadour in LA, captures the band in peak form. This 12 minute long take on “Sloth” is even more beastly than the album version, with plenty of tense build-ups, jagged, downright frightening guitar improvisations, and apocalyptic drum rolls. Good stuff. Other highlights include a spirited version of “Matty Groves” (to this day their most popular song), a poignant take on the stately pipe song “Battle of the Somme”, and a goofy little exotica track, “Yellow Bird”.
These records probably aren’t for everyone, but I recommend doing what the Rolling Stone guy said at the top of this post. Give a couple of listens and see if they grow on you. They're definitely worth it.
Full House (1970)
http://www.megaupload.com/?d=VLLJSHBM (9-12 are bonus tracks)
House Full (1976)