Fairport Convention: Liege & Lief

MAY 1970 (42 YEARS AGO)
Fairport Convention: Liege & Lief is released.
# Allmusic 5/5 stars
# Rolling Stone (see original review below)
Liege & Lief is the fourth album by Fairport Convention, released in May 197o in the US (December 1969 in the UK). The album was moderately successful, peaking at number 17 on the British charts during a 15-week run. It is often credited, though the claim is sometimes disputed, as the first major “British folk rock” album. (This term is not to be confused with American-style folk rock, which had first achieved mainstream popularity on both sides of the Atlantic with The Byrds’ early work several years prior.) The popularity of Liege & Lief did a great deal to establish the new style commercially and artistically as a distinct genre. In an audience vote at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards in 2006, the album was voted Most Influential Folk Album of All Time. In June 2007, Mojo magazine listed Liege & Lief at number 58 in its list of “100 Records that changed the world”.
Liege & Lief is the third and final album the group released in the UK in 1969, all of which prominently feature Sandy Denny as lead female vocalist. (Denny does not appear on the group’s debut album from 1968.) It is also the very first Fairport album on which all songs have either been adapted (freely) from traditional British and Celtic folk material (e.g., Matty Groves, Tam Lin), or else are original compositions (e.g., Come All Ye, Crazy Man Michael) written and performed in a similar style. By introducing songs of this genre into the group’s repertoire, Denny, who had previously sung and recorded traditional folk songs as a solo artist, was instrumental in this transformation. Although Denny quit the band even before the album’s release, Fairport Convention has continued to the present day to make music almost exclusively within the traditional British folk idiom, and are still one of the artists most strongly associated with it.
Unhalfbricking and Leif and Liege are the two last albums by the Fairport Convention with Sandy Denny. Leave us deal with Lief first. Granted that Sandy sings with expected beauty throughout, that the bass of Mr. Hutchings and the drums of Mr. Mattacks rescue it from dire Pentanglish sterile folksiness, that their fellows perform with the same taste and precision as always, and that a couple of its selections are genuinely enchanting by any criterion; but where is the group’s folk-flavored rock and roll, where are the exhilarating many-voiced harmonies, the sense of fun and feeling of harnessed electricity that made their first two albums together such treats? Where, essentially, is something to excite those of us who find artiness worthy enough of quiet admiration but a little boring?
The majority of the material on Lief was provided by the English Folk Dance & Song Society Library at Cecil Sharp House, which should make the album endlessly enticing to all you musicologists out there.
Included are such things as the seemingly endless “Matty Groves,” in which the tragic and boring story of a love-triangle involving Lord Donald, his old lady, and Mr. Groves himself is told in exhaustive (and exhausting) detail; “Tam Lin,” another dull folk narrative that is made interesting only by the little rhythm games the band plays behind Sandy’s singing; “Reynardine,” and an instrumental medley including such things as “Foxhunters’ Jig.” “Deserter,” with its contemporarily relevant theme and several rhythm switches, is the only really arresting one of the lot of traditionals. Not even the originals match up to the group-composed material on previous albums. Lief is a nice album to put on to accompany sitting by the fireplace or staring vacantly at a candle flame, but those who want to get moved are directed with infinitely more conviction to Unhalfbricking, which has Fairport Convention at its best.
Thompson’s two cuts on this one are excellent; “Genesis Hall,” which is reminiscent of his earlier “Book Song,” features one of those lovely vocal choruses that’ll have you moving your needle back a lot. “Cajun Woman” is a rollicking electric rocker with a generous helping of Dave Swarbrick’s giddy fiddle.
Sandy herself has two, the first of which, “Autopsy,” is a hypnotic jazz-ish ballad in 3/4 that you’ll find lovely. And on her version of “Who knows Where The Time Goes,” which she wrote, the Fairports employ the same perfectly controlled attack that made “I’ll Keep It With Mine” on their first album such an incredible musical experience: although they at no point rise above the musical equivalent of a whisper they somehow manage to just blow you over on the choruses, so perfectly do they apply their enviable and amazing control of dynamics. Listen with particular attention to Sandy’s voice: considering how she does on the chorus it’ll take you more than a few listenings to realize that she never uses more than about half of her power.
The Fairports also continue their policy of familiarizing us with little-known Dylan material in the most pleasant imaginable way on Unhalf-bricking. “Si Tu Dois Partir,” formerly “If You Gotta Go,” emerges a rousing Gallic rock and roll tavern song, the group having added funny percussion, fiddle, accordion and a great sense of fun. “Million Dollar Bash,” a great laugh to begin with, gets very much the same humorous treatment (note the group’s hilarious attempts at dustbowl accents). They go in the opposite direction with equal success on “Percy’s Song,” which is very possibly the album’s gem. That the Fairports can sustain the drama and barely-suppressed rage of this song for every second of its six-and-a-half minutes is vivid testimony to their understanding of Dylan’s material. A simple folk melody carrying a detailed narrative about the singer’s friend being given a ninety-nine-year sentence for a phony manslaughter rap, “Percy’s Song,” in the hands of the Fairports, is unforgettably moving.
Right, there’s an over-long traditional too on Unhalfbricking: “A Sailor’s Life,” which seems capable of being done without nicely, but buy the album immediately anyway. Buy Lief only if you’re devoted to quietly arty traditional folk. And keep your fingers crossed that Richard Thompson and friends can find themselves someone to replace Sandy Denny—we can hope that they’ve only just begun to make our musical world that much better. (RS 60)
~ JOHN MENDELSOHN (June 11, 1970)
Side one
“Come All Ye” (Sandy Denny, Ashley Hutchings) – 4:55
“Reynardine” (traditional, arranged by Fairport) – 4:33
“Matty Groves” (trad., arr. Fairport) – 8:08
“Farewell, Farewell”[14] (Richard Thompson) – 2:38
Side two
“The Deserter” (trad., arr. Fairport) – 4:10
Medley (trad., arr. Dave Swarbrick) – 4:00
“The Lark in the Morning”
“Rakish Paddy”
“Foxhunters’ Jig”
“Toss the Feathers”
“Tam Lin” (trad., arr. Swarbrick) – 7:20
“Crazy Man Michael” (Thompson, Swarbrick) – 4:35
CD reissue bonus tracks (previously unreleased)
“Sir Patrick Spens” (trad., arr. Fairport)
“Quiet Joys of Brotherhood” (Take 1) (trad., arr. by Denny, Thompson, Swarbrick, Dave Mattacks, words by Richard Fariña;)
Disc Two: Studio Out-takes & BBC Sessions
Released in the 2007 Deluxe Edition only:
“Sir Patrick Spens” (Sandy Denny Vocal Version) – 3:59
“The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood” (Take 4) – 5:59
“The Ballad of Easy Rider” – 4:53
“Tam Lin” – 7:46
Medley – 4:13
     “The Lark in the Morning”
     “Rakish Paddy”
     “Foxhunter’s Jig”
     “Toss the Feathers”
“Sir Patrick Spens” – 3:44
“Reynardine” – 4:19
“The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood” (Take 1) – 7:50
“The Lady Is a Tramp” – 2:11
Medley – 2:21 (hidden track)
     “The Lady Is a Tramp”
     “In Other Words (Fly Me to the Moon)”
Note that tracks 4, 7 and 9 on Disc Two are recorded from the BBC Sessions.


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