Album of the Week, April 19: Liege and Lief by Fairport Convention

FapCoL&LFairport Convention had a very busy 1969. They released their brilliant second album — the first to feature vocalist Sandy Denny — in January. Singer Ian Matthews left shortly after that, not interested in the band’s musical direction. In summer they released Unhalfbricking, which featured the traditional song A Sailor’s Life, folding Denny’s interest in folk music into the mix. A van crash traumatized the band, killing drummer Martin Lamble. They regrouped, bringing in powerhouse percussionist Dave Mattacks and adding veteran folk fiddler Dave Swarbrick who had guested on Unhalfbricking. Bassist Ashley Hutchings was fascinated by traditional folk and began digging for material that would suit the band. Lead guitarist Richard Thompson was writing more of his own songs and adapted his style to fit the traditional tone of the pieces Hutchings and Denny were providing. Rounding out the sextet, stalwart rhythm guitarist Simon Nicol — who would become the single constant in decades of changing lineups — shared his bandmates’ enthusiasm. The result was a set of eight songs that adapted traditional material to the group’s solid rock foundation and added smart originals that fit in seamlessly.

Title Liege & Lief
Act Fairport Convention
Label A & M Release Date December 1969
Producer Joe Boyd
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  17
Tracks
  1. Come All Ye
  2. Reynardine
  3. Matty Groves
  4. Farewell, Farewell
  5. The Deserter
  6. Medley:
    The Lark In the Morning
    Rakish Paddy
    Fox Hunter’s Jig
    Toss the Feathers
  7. Tam Lin
  8. Crazy Man Michael

Come All Ye is one of the smartest opening tracks in rock. It’s a stirring dance march, introducing the band members one by one and inviting the listner to the party. Traditional in tone and structure, the Denny/Hutchings composition shows them taking what they found in the archives and making it their own. Everyone joins in, building a stirring, joyous celebration.

Denny provides a stark, haunting vocal on the traditional Reynardine, a staple in British folk circles. She captures the dark essence of the lyrics nicely as the band provide subtle, sympathetic backing. It’s a masterpiece of dramatic restraint, showing just how much the group had grown as a unit during their busy year. Another trad standard follows, the lust / betrayal / revenge epic Matty Groves. The first half is a stirring, urgent recitation of the story, with another fine Denny vocal. After that, Swarbrick and Thompson take over, weaving electric guitar and fiddle into a frenzy of musical power. The song provides the finest example of folk rock on the disc, clearly respecting the original material while making something distinctly new.

Side one ends with the lovely Thompson original Farewell Farewell. It’s a beautiful, bittersweet track that finds him coming into his own as a writer. The band create a quiet backdrop for Denny’s poignant delivery, perfectly suited to the folk themes of the disc.

Side two opens with another traditional track, The Deserter, an ironic look at betrayal, freedom and authority. Swarbrick provides a perfect fiddle line to hold the track together while the rest of the band simmer with barely restrained tension. Denny’s vocal is stately and almost detached, a nice touch that fits the lyrics and shows off her varied sonic palette. An instrumental medley follows, a fun romp through a variety of traditional dance tunes. It’s smartly sequenced, amping up the energy while staying true to the spirit of the proceedings.

Tam Lin is another mini-epic, a traditional tale of magic and true love. While it lacks the brilliant frenzy of Matty Groves, it’s an equally important statement of folk rock, fusing the two together in a beautiful, compelling package. Swarbrick’s fiddle is much more traditional but no less compelling and Thompson shows off his virtuosity with a lead line that embellishes without dominating. Mattacks really comes into his own as well, with his drumming providing a critical element to the glorious mix. Thompson and Swarbrick collaborated on the final tune, the tragic Crazy Man Michael. Thompson wrote a lyric that fits into traditional themes of magic and lost love nicely, setting it to a traditional tune; Swarbrick thought the tune weakened the song and rose to Thompson’s challenge to write something better. The result is a fine piece of acoustic folk rock and a perfect ending to a stirring musical journey.

Fairport Convention didn’t really invent folk rock. One form was already brewing in the U.S., where the singer-songwriter tradition — already one step removed from traditional songs — was being fused to rock forms by the Byrds, Dylan and others. What Fairport did on Liege and Lief was create something distinctly British, crafting the first full outing of trad-rock. They invigorated the burgeoning traditional folk revival, stirring interest in acts that stayed truer to the original material and also provided a template for building on those traditions within a rock framework. The trail they blazed resulted in many other acts adapting original material while inspiring others to write rock songs that used traditional folk elements.

Awarded the distinction of “Most Influential Folk Album of All Time” at the 2006 BBC Radio Folk Awards, Liege and Lief was truly something old and something new. It was also the last work of a classic lineup as the headstrong, independent talents began to pull in different directions. Bringing a close to a powerful, tumultuous year, Fairport Convention proved their talent, dedication and vision and left a stunning legacy.

Billboard #1s for the Week Ending April 20, 1985

This week’s Time Capsule!

Chart Title Act Weeks
Hot 100 We Are the World USA for Africa 2
R & B Back In Stride Maze featuring Frankie Beverly 2
Country I Need More of You Bellamy Brothers 1
Adult Contemporary We Are the World USA for Africa 1
Rock Don’t You (Forget About Me) Simple Minds 1
Album No Jacket Required Phil Collins 4

SimpleMindsDontYouThis week sees another movie soundtrack help a band get their biggest hit. Simple Minds formed in Glasgow, Scotland, in the late 70s. The lineup crystalized by 1979 and the band released a series of albums that met with reasonable success in the U.K. Their fifth and sixth albums went to #3 and #1 respectively and launched a number of Top 20 singles. Despite their European success and critical praise, the band remained cult figures in the U.S.

Filmmaker John Hughes commissioned Keith Forsey and Steve Schiff to write the closing song for his second teen drama, The Breakfast Club. The pair offered the song Don’t You (Forget About Me) to Billy Idol and Bryan Ferry, but both passed on it. Simple Minds decided to give it a go, even though they generally wrote all their own material. The track became their first U.S. hit, entering the Hot 100 in February 1985. This week it moved from #11 to #8 on the pop chart and began a three-week run atop the Rock chart. It made it to the top of the Hot 100 the week of May 18, dislodging Madonna’s soundtrack single Crazy For You from VisionQuest.

The slick pop single worked well for the band’s chart success but was a bit removed from their heavier, somewhat anthemic rock sound. They managed to leverage their success and ran three Top 20 singles from their next album before slowly fading from the U.S. charts. With a fluctuating lineup centered on vocalist Jim Kerr, the band continue to release albums today.

Song of the Day, April 17: Almost With You by the Church

ChurchAlmostToday’s song is the opening track from the Church’s stunning second album, The Blurred Crusade. After a solid debut that featured solid new wave based rock, the Australian quartet adopted a lusher, more complex sound. This track is a perfect welcome.

Steve Kilbey’s lyrics are elliptical but not opaque, conjuring up an epic journey anchored with a personal promise. The narrator looks at the weight of history as he works his way to his own true love, encouraging her to wait for his arrival. Guitarists Marty Willson-Piper and Peter Koppes are a powerful pair, with ringing 12-string and evocative acoustic merging to underscore Kilbey’s mood. Drummer Richard Ploog provides his trademark support, keeping the song on track without intruding. The whole musical package shows enormous growth for the band and hints at the ways their sound will continue to evolve.

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Song of the Day, April 16: Mother Goose by Jethro Tull

TullGooseToday’s song is Mother Goose by Jethro Tull. It appears on the band’s masterpiece, Aqualung, a great song cycle that balances hard rock with folk-tinged pop. This track balances the two nicely, a mostly acoustic number with driving energy. The nostalgic lyrics hint at the bucolic  landscapes that would feature strongly on later albums while biting wordplay shows singer and band leader Ian Anderson at his witty best.

Using the nursery rhyme trope of a walk past significant characters, Anderson ponders the passing of youth and the choices we make as we adopt — or eschew — responsibility. His chameleonic persona allows him to mingle with a variety of groups along the journey, making him and engaged observer. It’s a clever song with a charming musical setting and a highlight of Tull’s long, varied career.

Enjoy this fun song today.

Song of the Day, April 15: Both Sides the Tweed by Dick Gaughan

GaughanTweedToday’s song is Dick Gaughan’s thoughtful Both Sides the Tweed. The original is a traditional song reflecting on the 1707 Act of Union that made Scotland part of the United Kingdom. Gaughan updated the lyrics and the tune, creating a fine closing number for his powerful album Handful of Earth.

Gaughan is a master of blending traditional music with his own distinctive folk styles and stirring political vision. This track is a lovely example, looking at the tensions between Scotland and England while reflecting on our shared humanity. Quietly moving, it’s a standout in his long career of beautiful music.

The original version is wonderful. Gaughan’s live work has a special power, however, and my favorite rendition is a live recording featuring fellow Scots Aly Bain on fiddle and Phil Cunningham (who played on the album) on piano.

Enjoy this stirring song today.

Song of the Day, April 14: Anti-Pope by the Damned

the-damned-antipopeToday’s song is a bit of campy social commentary. When they re-formed for their third album, Machine Gun Etiquette, the Damned mixed their punk energy with a sense of fun and a broader sonic palette.

One of the standout tracks is Anti-Pope, a title that fits nicely with the name of the band. Singer Dave Vanian makes the most of it, spinning a scathing diatribe against blind adherence and hypocrisy while leavening it with a cheeky sense of humor. He opens with his intent to go back to church, just like when he was a child, but this time he’s going to nick the collection plate. The chorus is a searing blast of energy that has no patience for the pious-on-Sunday crowd.

I’ve got nothing against church
Or any people who go there and show they’re
Plain ignorant and don’t understand
A congregation at weekends won’t change their behaviour

Going back to church has made him “anti-pope,” a nice play on words. More verse of quirky observations follow, each anchored by the impatient chorus. It’s a smart construction, and the band roar through the whole proceeding with delightful energy.

Enjoy this smart bit of cynicism today.

Song of the Day, April 13: We Are Detective by Thompson Twins

TTwinsDetectiveToday’s song is a bit of fun paranoia. Thompson Twins’ third album, Quick Step and Side Kick, finds them at the perfect point of tension, reduced to a trio and transitioning from complex dance songs to slick synth pop. A highlight of the album is We Are Detective. The song’s narrator is certain that he is being spied upon, relating a series of everyday events filtered through a suspicious lens. It’s a nice conceit, and the band invest it with a tongue-in-cheek energy that stops just short of camp. The musical setting is reminiscent of a screwball comedy, with creaky sound effects and unusual instrumentation. The overall effect is fun, slightly worried, and oddly sympathetic. As an added bonus, Alannah Currie provides a rare lead vocal on alternating verses. Her half-spoken delivery adds just the right twist to the proceedings.

Enjoy this delightful song today.

Album of the Week, April 12: The Lion and the Cobra by Sinéad O’Connor

Sinead_Lion_Cobra_OriginalSinéad O’Connor was born in County Dublin in 1966. She had a tumultuous childhood, with her parents’ rancorous divorce providing a troubled backdrop. By 15, her habitual truancy and shoplifting landed her in a church-run work center. While she chafed at the enforced structure, it provided her with a supportive environment to pursue her growing interest in music and songwriting. She landed some singing gigs and came to the attention of In Tua Nua; they recorded a track with her but felt she was too young to join the band. She continued to hone her craft, eventually forming her own band, Ton Ton Macoute. She left the group to pursue her own musical vision, signing with Ensign. Frustrated by the controlling efforts of the producer they assigned her, she convinced the label to let her take control of the album. Not yet 21, she scrapped the previous work and produced her own debut with the help of engineer Kevin Moloney. The result was a powerful blast of musical independence.

Title The Lion and the Cobra
Act Sinéad O’Connor
Label Ensign Release Date November 4, 1987
Producer Sinéad O’Connor and Kevin Moloney
U.S. Chart  36 U.K. Chart  27
Tracks
  1. Jackie
  2. Mandinka
  3. Jerusalem
  4. Just Like U Said It Would B
  5. Never Get Old
  6. Troy
  7. I Want Your (Hands On Me)
  8. Drink Before the War
  9. Just Call Me Joe

O’Connor has a deep love of her homeland and its music. That passion is clear in the opening track, the glorious Jackie, narrated by the ghost of a woman who died pining for her lover, lost at sea. It’s a smart nod to folk traditions that makes the most of her vocal power and range. The whirlwind of sound that builds behind her lament hints that this is no standard folk-rock album, however.

That becomes clear with the rocking, joyous Mandinka. With Adam Ant’s talented pal Marco Pirroni providing guitar support, O’Connor turns out a dance-rock number with hints of funk. Her voice runs from mellow to soaring to a frenetic blast, showing off her range but staying true to the song’s tight energy. It’s a celebration of a song and she wants us to join in.

Jerusalem brings back some of the folk elements with a nice acoustic guitar figure. By the time the chorus kicks in, however, it’s all her own work, with swirling guitar and driving keyboards creating a whirlwind. It’s an urgent meditation that hints at autobiography. By turns yearning and overwhelmed, Just Like U Said It Would B simmers with tension. It’s as passionate as any song on the disc, but never rises above its quiet framework, creating an almost claustrophobic celebration of the complexities of romance.Another well-chosen guest star appears on Never Get Old, as Irish superstar Enya provides a spoken intro. It helps set the liturgical feel of the song, which has a haunting vocal backdrop and a slow build. Musically restrained, it’s a nice showcase for O’Connor’s singing.

That vocal power takes center stage on the anthemic Troy. A song of want, bitterness, and resolve, it’s perhaps the finest moment on the disc. O’Connor makes the most of this tale, carefully laying out the complex threads of an unravelling romance. Her lyrics are smart and evocative, demonstrating how fully formed her talents are even on her debut. Things get lusty again on the delightful I Want Your (Hands On Me), a driving dance number that finds O’Connor growling with desire. With powerful percussion dominating the sound, it’s a smart departure that retains some of the folk/worldbeat elements and molds them into her distinctive musical vision. Desire gives way to despair on the restrained, desolate Drink Before the War. This trio of songs is a brilliant set, the finest tracks on a stellar album and a showcase of the diverse musical voices O’Connor offers.

She wraps things up with the meditative Just Call Me Joe, a low-key number that brings things to a solid close after the energy of the preceding songs. It’s a master stroke of sequencing that shows her production smarts. Sinéad O’Connor emerged from troubled youth to talented upstart to fully formed musical powerhouse. The Lion and the Cobra is a stunning debut and a singular, cohesive statement.

FURTHER LISTENING: O’Connor’s second album, i do not want what i haven’t got, made her a superstar for a moment with its international #1 cover of Prince’s Nothing Compares 2 U. Always outspoken and independent, O’Connor made the most of her suddenly expanded prominence. Unfortunately, the press liked the sensation and began paying more attention to her personality than her music. The distraction derailed her career for a time, as did the fact that she wasn’t interested in just churning out product to meet market expectations. Over the past 20 years, she has released a string of albums, alternating original studio work with surprising covers discs. Nothing quite matches the one-two punch of her first discs, but there are some strong offerings. The all-traditional album Sean-Nós Nua is a compelling look at the music that fed her early interest. All of her other albums have moments of glory, but her two most recent — How About I Be Me (and You Be You)? and I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss — are by far the strongest. While not as complex as her earliest releases, they show a mature singer and songwriter who still has a lot of passion and a unique musical vision.

Billboard #1s for the Week Ending April 13, 1985

This week’s Time Capsule!

Chart Title Act Weeks
Hot 100 We Are the World USA for Africa 1
R & B Back In Stride Maze featuring Frankie Beverly 1
Country Honor Bound Earl Thomas Conley 1
Adult Contemporary One More Night Phil Collins 3
Rock Forever Man Eric Clapton 2
Album No Jacket Required Phil Collins 3

MazeBackInStrideThis week sees a long-running soul group notch their biggest hit. Frankie Beverly was born in Philadelphia in 1946. He began performing at a young age, singing in a number of doo-wop groups. He formed the Butlers in 1963 and the group was signed by Kenny Gamble. The group’s laid-back funky style wasn’t a good fit for the Philly Soul sound, and Beverly relocated the band to Los Angeles. Marvin Gaye’s sister heard them and introduced them to her brother; he convinced them to rename the band Maze and offered them a slot opening for his tour. This led to a new contract with Capitol records and the start of a 20-year R&B chart career.

This week their 18th R&B single, Back In Stride — written and produced by Beverly as were most of their hits — became their first #1. The upbeat groove stayed on top for two weeks. Maze never had real pop crossover success; the single was at #95 on the Hot 100 this week, on its way down from a #88 peak. The band continued to rack up the R&B hits, however, and had one more #1 there, Can’t Get Over You in 1989.

Song of the Day, April 10: The Rumor by Little River Band

LRBFirstUnderToday’s song is The Rumor by Little River Band. Releasing four albums in as many years while touring extensively, the group had become a tight, finely tuned unit. Rather than creating a predictable, repetitive sound, however, the experience had polished their sound but not dulled their energy. First Under the Wire is their finest LP, a smart set  of pop songs with deep rock roots.

One of the higlights is this song, a clever look at the power of words and innuendo. It opens with a lush, folky passage before breaking into a strong pop groove. Vocalist Glenn Shorrock is in fine form and the rest of the band provide the great harmonies that help define the LRB sound. The surging energy of the music drives the lyric, which wanders from point to point as the rumor is circulated and manipulated. It’s a common musical theme, but this clever treatment invests it with fun, distinctive energy.

Enjoy this great song today.

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