Sunday, June 17, 2012

Fables of the Reconstruction: Nick Drake and Fairport Convention

I was getting bogged down in psychedelic rock and punk, so I asked my record store friend to recommend some folky mellow stuff, and he suggested Nick Drake and Fairport Convention. All I knew about Drake was what I’d heard on a Volkswagen commercial, and Fairport Convention I’d heard just once on a bootleg cassette and I couldn’t remember much about it. The Drake was along the lines of what I was expecting, simple melodies sung and strummed gently on an acoustic guitar. I picked up Family Tree, a 2007 double-record release of his earliest recordings. His voice is so smooth and soothing, sad in the loveliest way. It’s got harmonies built into it, like he’s somehow singing bass and treble at the same time. And his guitar work leans to the fingerpicking end of the spectrum, so it’s busy and intricate, but like his voice, it’s velvety, simple, it never overpowers. I’m instantly calmed when I lower the needle onto any of the four sides. In addition to the solo numbers, they added a few piano tunes by Drake’s mother that were recorded on very lo-fi equipment. They feel like ghostly tunes from another time, like something you’d hear on a 78, without all the crackles and pops. I love listening to these in the late afternoon, when the sun’s angled off behind the trees. It’s music to deepen thoughts.
            Fairport Convention was full of surprises. I grabbed their second, third and fourth albums—What We Did On Our Holidays, Unhalfbricking and Liege & Lief, all from 1969. The first big surprise is that I like them as much as I do, because the vocals are of a style that I’ve never been crazy about. Sandy Denny’s singing fits in with the ilk of female folk singers who stay mostly in the higher octaves and whose voices have a lilting quality that calls to mind Medieval maidens and mead. I don’t hate it; it’s just a little too pretty for me. Music has to have at least some darkness to keep me coming back to it. Somehow Denny manages to fold a bit of evil into her pretty voice. Part of the secret, I think, lies in the harmony vocals, sung by Richard Thompson. He adds just the right low notes to give Denny’s voice fullness, and his voice tucks perfectly into hers, bolsters it, never overshadows. The other factor is the instrumentation; Fairport Convention’s arrangements are adventurous and eclectic, woven with strands of blues, rock, raga and folk melodies from all around the world, and electric guitars and full drums, and they stretch Denny’s voice in ways that I’ve never heard Judy Collins’s voice stretched. For instance, on the last song on side one of What We Did On Our Holidays, a cover of Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” begins with an electric guitar strummed low and quietly in a way that makes you know that the song is going to build up to triumphant heights, and it does: the drums kick in, and the guitar and bass play harder, and Denny belts it out: “Come on! Give it to me! I’ll keep it with mine!”
            My favorite number on that album is “Book Song.” Thompson sings lead, but not by much; Denny is right there with him through every note. The melody is a masterpiece, drawn out almost to the point of being epic, and their voices are bolstered by wide-ranging sounds: a bit of sitar here and there, some violin, a tape of an electric guitar solo played backward and forward, a gentle swell of organ at the end. Their music becomes more adventurous across the arc of the three albums. The second to the last song on Unhalfbricking is an eleven-and-a-half-minute adventure that begins sort of like a British or Celtic folk tune and builds into a fulsome jam with violin, thick bass and electric guitar with a raga flair. This roaming track seems a precursor to the third record, Liege & Lief, which, unlike the others, has no covers of songs by American folks artists such as Dylan. The roots here all dig deep into the British Isles, all punched up with modern amplification and attitude, all adorned with Denny’s beautiful voice, and the result is quite unlike any other I’ve ever heard. It’s got the mellow I was asking for, but it also has the complexity I need to keep me coming back to it. 

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