As the owner of a record store I spend a lot of time thinking about genres of music. What is this? Where should we file it? Why? What style, country, audience, etc? On one level it is essential to being able to navigate the store and it can be an indispensable tool to help people discover music they enjoy. On another level, it seems like it is a distraction to an unfettered appreciation of music. Fairport Convention’s 1969 album certainly backs this last thought up. It is an album of unparalleled beauty and accomplishment, played by rock musicians in a British folk idiom, yet these different variables ultimately defy genre and leave Liege & Lief an unclassifiable masterpiece.
At the center of my appreciation of Fairport Convention are the twin charms of Sandy Denny’s powerful voice and Richard Thompson’s thoughtful guitar playing. While Richard Thompson has continued to grow in virtuosity and reputation for over four decades, Denny released only a few enticing solo albums before her untimely death in 1978, and her three original albums with Fairport Convention represent her greatest work, culminating in Liege & Lief when her voice soared with control, confidence and beauty. Dominated by traditional British folk tunes with a handful of their own compositions, this album occupies a magical territory where the traditional lyrical substance of songs like “Matty Groves” or “Tam Lin” merges with the rock sensibilities of the players to come unglued from the moorings of time and culture and drift freely in a sea of genre-free musical greatness. “Tam Lin” illustrates what is great about the entire album as the band take an ancient Scottish ballad and turns it into a 7-minute powerhouse of instrumental and vocal brilliance. Denny’s voice is perfectly suited to the lyrics of fairie queens and virgin princesses, soaring and dipping with complete grace and control. Thompson wrenches more and more intense lead lines out of his electric guitar, all the while driving duet counterpoint to Dave Swarbrick’s high-energy violin playing. It is a breathtaking recording that stands up with any version of a song that has been recorded literally hundreds of times over the years.
In its own way, each song on Liege & Lief is a perfect representation of what went right for this band on their fourth album. The material, whether traditional like the high energy medley of fiddle tunes that follows “Tam Lin” or Denny’s upbeat album opener “Come All Ye” which sets the stage for the multi-genre feast to come, flows with such natural grace and comfort that if you didn’t have the credits in your hands you wouldn’t be able to distinguish the traditional material from the contemporary: it all has the authority and natural grace of “standards.” Liege & Lief, because it succeeds so effortlessly on each level, is a classic album and takes its place in history because it so deftly and artistically avoids genre pitfalls. It is simply great music.
- Paul Epstein