November 25th, 2008

operesque

Unheard Vinyl 2: Fairport Convention "What We Did On Our Holidays"

I established the rules of this game in Unheard Vinyl 1, which took me blindfold through a first listen to The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway by Genesis. For the second installment I've chosen (from the vinyl collection I've been paying to store and transport around the world, yet haven't heard half of) What We Did On Our Holidays by Fairport Convention. As before, there's a possibility that I'll find this album a revelation, but also the possibility that it'll leave me cold.

Okay, I vaguely know that Fairport Convention is a British folk band containing Richard and Linda Thompson. Ten years ago I wrote about a Richard Thompson solo album called Mock Tudor, hoping it would be fake folk, or at least combing the reviews for productive tensions between the fake and the folk, my big preoccupation at the time. Thompson and Momus, I concluded at the time, "end up making different shades of half-timbered Mock 'n' Role".



So let's examine Richard's past. What We Did On Our Holidays is a Fairport Convention album on the Island label with an attractively spidery line drawing on a predominantly black sleeve. Not sure what the title refers to -- it almost suggests the album is the result of some kind of sabbatical. The sleeve is good, anyway.

I quite like the first track, which is soft and acoustic, with lovely backing vocals, not unlike certain Momus songs. The female vocalist (is it Linda?) is a little too warbly-folky for my taste, but I really like the gentle ambience. Not sure what the song is about.

Track 2 completely shatters the atmosphere with a bar-room blues stomp and horrible twiddly guitar solos. It sounds like a bad Glam Rock track. "Please, Mr Lacey, let me work your lovely machine". God, this is like Status Quo going slightly folky! I wish they'd stayed in the soft, gentle mode of the first track! Machine noises (cutting machines? Sewing machines?) do add some interest, making it slightly musique concretey before the hackneyed verse returns.

I wonder what year we're in here? I'd guess 1975.

The third track has harmony vocals which remind me of The Byrds or something. This is pretty dismal soft rock, and I don't like how they're changing style from one track to the next, yet never doing more than superficial parodies of each.

Now they're doing a slide guitar blues-gospel interlude, sort of ghostly. It isn't really compelling on any level, this album, though there are some "tasty guitar licks" here and there, if you like that sort of thing. I'm trying to work out why the sleeve has so many references to touring; a funny drawing of the band playing a gig with "noticeably worse sound" for Essex University students who live in ivory towers.

This track sounds like Talking Heads circa Road To Nowhere, except more mellow. Are those accordions zydeco? But the chords never do anything interesting, and the vocals are mixed far back. "Hey, come and make it easy, come and make it back...". I thought Richard Thompson was meant to be a bit of a dab hand with a lyric, but I just don't hear anything interesting being said here. Maybe I need to crank up the volume.

Side One ends with a Linda song. Her vocals sound like -- is it Judy Collins? A bit religiose. Oh my god, this is a cover of "I'll Keep It With Mine", which is a famous song by... Bob Dylan, no? His version works, this one just sounds like it's being sung in church. Why did they bother? And why do this English group sound so blandly American in their guitar-playing?

Just cheated as I flipped the album over and looked at the date on the label: 1969. And now there's a slightly psychedelic track more suited to that year. Mixed far down in the background of this song about rain are some rather nice deranged recorders and pizzicato string plucks. Possibly synth, actually. This is the best track since the first one, but that's not saying much. It could be one of the more laidback numbers from Hair, the rock opera. I like the background noodling better than the main track.

I don't like these big stacked multi-tracked vocals, Steeleye Span-style, using fifths to evoke some sort of medieval feel. Lyrics all about kings, queens and bosoms. "Ten thousand stood around me, but still I was alone, took my hat in my hands but still I was cold, Ten thousand got drownded that never was born" (it sounds like). Then a Ravi Shankar-style sitar and tabla solo with John Cale-like viola-scrubbing.

A man sings the next track, which has harpsichord arpeggios running alongside the normal, very 60s-sounding vocal harmonies. There's some sort of proto-Prog thing going on in some of the breakdowns, twiddly interlocking parts. The influence of The Byrds is all too clear; was Fairport Convention at this point just a Byrds tribute band or something? I wish they'd do something more British, and more purely folky, like June Tabor albums (I used to love June Tabor).

More relaxed but heavy West Coast lead guitar "licks" a forthright, warbly lead from Linda (if it is Linda, I'm itching to look up Wikipedia and AllMusic, but must wait until the end of the side). I will never listen to this album again, I don't like it. I thought Fairport Convention were better than this. What The Incredible String Band was doing at the same time was vastly more interesting and compelling. This is just bland, craven and pious.

Now a duet, possibly between the two Thompsons. "Too many friends blown off this mountain by the wind". They're gonna be on the ledge, they say. More "tasty guitar licks" which are stereotypical in the extreme. But who knows how this sounded at the time? Did Peel play it on his Perfumed Garden show? Probably.

The album ends with a nicely sparse and unadorned guitar piece. But the whole thing just feels underwhelming, somehow. I can't believe anyone anywhere calls this a classic, or compelling, or essential. Let's go and see.

Having consulted reference materials: Okay, Richard Thompson was involved, but Linda doesn't seem to have been on the scene yet. The girl vocalist seems to be Sandy Denny. Richard Thompson's girlfriend of the time, Jeannie Franklyn, played on the album but was killed later in the year when the band's van crashed on the M1 motorway.

"Formed in April 1967," Wikipedia tells me, "Fairport rapidly developed from playing cover versions of American 'west coast' style music to an individual style which melded rock music with traditional English tunes and songs." That development away from West Coast blanditude is what this album has me craving. I should probably listen to their supposed masterpiece, Liege and Lief, released after the crash.

The last song, Meet on the Ledge, is apparently considered a classic, despite sounding like a slowed-down, blanded-out version of Manfred Mann's "The Mighty Quinn" (I've decided). (And by the way, did you know that Manfred Mann once covered a Momus song? They really did! Here it is being credited to them! Bastards!)

Joe Boyd on Richard Thompson's guitar playing: "He can imitate almost any style, and often does, but is instantly identifiable. In his playing you can hear the evocation of the Scottish piper's drone and the melody of the chanter as well as echoes of Barney Kessell's and James Burton's guitars and Jerry Lee Lewis's piano. But no blues clichés."

Hmm, beg to differ there, on the basis of this album. But that Wiki page on Thompson's solo career does make me want to hear his first solo album, "Henry the Human Fly". Embracing weirdness is exactly what this young man, pastiching his way through 1969, needs to do. Meanwhile, I'm off to watch the BBC documentary about Thompson, Solitary Life.



Update: Watched that, and while Mr Thompson seems a nice enough man, I have to say I find his songs -- the phrasing, the outlook, the music, everything -- completely horrible. In every single period. The track I liked on the Fairport Convention album was actually written by Sandy Denny. Only two Thompson-related things impressed me, that Henry the Human Fly sleeve and his conversion to Sufi Islam in the mid-70s, resulting in the beautiful sleeve for Pour Down Like Silver, in which Thompson, dressed in robes, radiates spiritual integrity.