Graded on a Curve: Fairport Convention, Unhalfbricking

If folk music scares me–and it does–English folk music really scares me; I’m still trying to recover from the traumatic consequences of inadvertently viewing a YouTube video of Pentangle performing the pro-virginity dirge “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme.”

That said, I’ve always made an exception for Fairport Convention in general, and their LP 1969’s Unhalfbricking in particular. Unhalfbricking was the work of a band moving away from American influences towards the Ye Olde English-style minstrelsy, and the music they performed during said transition is some of their best.

Fairport Convention’s take on folk rock is decidedly English–as English as eel pie. And how couldn’t it be–listening to Sandy Denny, who remains arguably the best English folk singer in the history of recorded music, is like walking the Cornish cliffs of Tintagel on a lovely May morn. But–and the caveat is critical–you never get the awful sense you’ve wandered into the bucolic pagan setting of the 1973 film The Wicker Man, where you’ll be shoved into a wicker totem and burned alive, a sacrifice to a bountiful harvest, as the happy villagers sing “Sumer Is Icumen In.” (A tune I’m sure Pentangle performed all the time.)

While “lovely” best describes the songs on Unhalfbricking, you get plenty of variety: a trio of exceptional Dylan covers; one instant classic; a pair of slower numbers that creep up on you, and one Cajun-flavored rock’n’roller that sticks out, if you’ll bear the obscure allusion, like Beau Brummell at a stevedores’ convention. Oh, and there’s one simply incredible song that somehow manages to bridge the gap between the English traditional folk form and the Velvet Underground.

The Dylan covers won me over first. The band’s cover of “If You Gotta Go, Go Now”–which they playfully Frenchify as “Si tu does parter”–goes by at a ramshackle gait, and is colored by guest Dave Swarwick’s fiddle and drummer Martin Lamble, who does remarkable things with a bunch of stacked chairs. Equally charming is the band’s chug-a-lugging, hoot night take on the Basement Tape-era absurdist classic, “Million Dollar Bash.” Band members take turns singing the verses while Swarbrick plays some very tasty mandolin and Richard Thompson lends muscle on guitar, and if there’s a line out there that can beat “I looked at my watch/And I looked at my wrist/I punched myself in my face with my fist,” I’ve yet to hear it. And they give a distinctively English spin to the 1963 Dylan outtake “Percy’s Song,” on which departed band member Iain Matthews returns to join Denny in some lovely harmony singing.

What else have we got? Denny’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” is nothing more or less than one of the most delicate and moving folk songs of all time, and moves along at a relaxed but stately pace. “Genesis Hall” showcases both Denny’s delicate vocals and the band’s uncanny ability to weave rich sonic tapestries with their stockpile of stringed instruments. “Autopsy” is both jazzy and folksy and brings Joni Mitchell to mind, or the Grateful Dead on estrogen. As for “Cajun Woman,” it’s a Thompson-penned swampbilly number boasting a furious tempo, Thompson on accordion, and more of Swarbrick’s great fiddling.

But the most amazing song on Unhalfbricking is the 11-minute take on the traditional “A Sailor’s Life,” which I can only describe as and English folk rock retort to Lou Reed’s “Heroin.” You get the same static drone; you get the same slow build-up; you get the same fireworks at the end; you get everything, in fact, but the NYC narcotic nihilism. At the song’s beginning Swarbrick’s violin and Thompson’s guitar produce the drone, while Lamble lays on the cymbals; as the song goes on Thompson begins to stir the pot, probing and parrying, as does Swarbrick, until all and sundry commence to go apocalypse wow. “A Sailor’s Life” is one strange creature indeed; on it, the English folk traditional meets the rock ’n’ roll avant garde, and both walk away happy to have met.

Unhalfbricking is a wonderful thing; it has helped me overcome my dread of English folk music where all other methods–and I’m talking psychiatry, hypnotism, acupuncture, primal scream therapy, illicit drugs, dulcimer lessons, aromatherapy, weighted blankets, aversion therapy, and those professional ear mufflers worn by the people who work airport tarmacs–failed. That said, you won’t catch me listening to “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme”–it could set me back years.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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