Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Where have I been all these months? Three months of silence are broken by a fully formed record review, which when posted to a music group of the Internet is followed by two separate people asking to repost the review to other music groups.

I've been hiding, I suppose: hibernation in the summer. I had a few health problems with both my legs (though not at the same time) which conspired to reduce my walking ability and taint my outlook on life whilst not being a major nor even minor threat to my general health. As usual, the Israeli summer was hot, hot, hot, and for a time my office premises weren't air conditioned, causing a severe drop in productivity after 2pm. No surprise that I would often clock in by 6:30am in order to get some work done in the cool and quiet. My brain works best in the mornings.

There have been books. There is a new Peter Robinson novel ("All the colours of darkness") which started out good but seemed to get sidetracked midway through. The ending had a good twist but seemed very out of place. After finishing the book, I realised that there was a similarity to the final Rebus book ("Exit music"): in both cases the detectives assume/believe that there is a much more murky story behind a murder than there really is, and spend the duration of the book chasing that belief only to find more mundane reasons.

Even better: there is a new David Lodge book entitled "Deaf sentence". As usual, this is about an academic, but this time he's retired so it's not exactly a campus novel. The academic (as is the author) is suffering from deafness, thus the pun in the title. Whilst the first third of the book is very entertaining, the final third turns to the sober side of life (or death, or deaf). Comedy has always been part of Lodge's work, illuminating and contrasting the dark places which his latter day heroes find themselves, but this time there is little comedy which can alleviate the final painful pages.

On the lighter side of life, I enjoyed romping through Keith Lowe's "Tunnel vision" which is about a young man having to visit each of London's 230+ stations in one day in order to win a bet which includes his credit card, passport and Eurostar ticket - for he's to be married the following day. There's nothing like a deadline to ensure drama, and this book has a very strict deadline. Maybe it's a bit too nerdy, maybe the characterisation of the bride is a little thin, but I very much enjoyed the book.

There's a passage in the opening pages of the book which reminded me of myself when I was a young teenager and came to spend a week with a friend in London:
If I had to put my finger on something, I'd say it was probably the map that first grabbed my attention. It was so complicated, so detailed and yet so ordered. When I was nine or ten years old I used to study that map until I could recite it, line by line. I discovered beautiful places with lovely sounding rural names, and in the absence of any idea about what such places looked like, I allowed my imagination to fill in the gaps. As far as I was concerned, Covent Garden probably had pretty amazing flower beds, and Shepherd's Bush was ... well, a bush owned by a shepherd. There was a farm at Chalk Farm, acres of unspoiled forest at St John's Wood, and a friendly family from Zurich who lived down in Swiss Cottage. There was also a place called White City, which I decided must be somewhere out of the Bible, a sort of heavenly Jerusalem. That was where the Angel would go on weekends when he got fed up with Islington. Or maybe it was a place where only white people were allowed, like buses in South Africa - I found myself feeling angry that despite being obviously holy me, the Blackfriars wouldn't be allowed in.

At the age of thirteen, I wasn't quite so callow, but even so the place names, especially those in rural Essex or Middlesex, could inspire my imagination.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Fotheringay 2

It’s very hard to know how to take this album. I am listening to it 37 years after it was recorded, taken out of its natural time line. Most of the tracks are familiar one way or another, and so it doesn’t come as such a shock, as say listening to “King and Queen of England” did in the late 80s. The eponymous debut album was an odd mixture, moving from the forgettable (“Peace in the end”, “Too much of nothing”), through the workmanlike (“Ned Kelly”, “Winter winds”) and onto the excellent (“Nothing more”, “The sea”, “The pond and the stream”, “The way I feel” and “Banks of the Nile”). It’s probably no accident that the lower rating tracks feature Trevor Lucas; I thought that his Fairport work was better than the hatchet job that Joe Boyd did on him, but both Fotheringay albums show that Sandy was far ahead. So one possible measure of excellence that could be applied to this album is how Trevor’s talents were utilized. We’ll see.

John the Gun: this is the first version of several which exist. Whilst this version is certainly better than any of the drunk and sprawling versions which Sandy was to record with Fairport, it sounds very polite compared to the vitriolic version which was to appear nine months later on “North Star Grassman” (NSG). The big surprise here is Sam Donohue’s spiraling saxophone solo which owes more to his son’s guitar picking that it does to jazz. Sandy’s vocal is better enunciated than it is on NSG, and there’s also a few minor changes in the tune. If I hadn’t heard the NSG version, this would earn an A, but in retrospect it earns A-.

Eppie Moray: Trevor makes his first vocal appearance. As this song was performed on a widely distributed BBC session, it’s not unfamiliar. Indeed, without examining it in great deal, the arrangement sounds the same. This is a very good performance with an excellent arrangement, especially the introduction which segues seamlessly from the opening track. Those in search of technical detail may be interested to note that Sandy’s vocal starts in the middle but moves to the right channel for the final few lines, indicating that her vocal was probably pieced together from a few takes. A-.

Wild mountain thyme: again this appears on the BBC session, giving the not-totally inaccurate impression that Fotheringay 2 would have a high percentage of traditional material (similar to Liege and Lief vs Unhalfbricking). This is the track which has had the largest amount of post-processing applied, and the care taken shows, producing a sublime ballad with Sandy’s voice at her best, hinting at what I thought was the beautiful person behind (little did I know). Describing this song feels like describing a wine: “warm, with hints of chocolate, leaves and blackcurrant”. Pat Donaldson hums along, there seems to be a hint of organ (courtesy of Rabbit) and the total is far in excess of its parts. Definitely an A.

Knights of the road: after three excellent tracks, Trevor Lucas gets his chance. This song turned up a few years later on Fairport’s transitional “Rosie” album, which could be attributed to “Fotheringay Confusion”. Another Lucas song, “The plainsman”, also appears on “Rosie”; apparently this was a Fotheringay recording with Dave Pegg’s bass replacing Pat Donaldon’s. In this case, KOTR is a different recording, although it’s quite similar; Gerry Conway’s four to the bar snare drum being a mockery of the otherwise excellent drummer’s usual tasteful accompaniments. A modulation after the first verse and chorus takes everything up a notch; this in itself is an interesting point. Normally, if there is only one modulation in a song, it will be towards the end, before the final verse or chorus, whereas a modulation after the first chorus tends to imply that there will be a modulation after every chorus. Nice chorus vocals, and a touch of syncopation in the fade out. Solid work, but not outstanding: B-.

Late November: probably the most familiar of all the songs on this album, due to its release on NSG, albeit with different vocals and added guitar (courtesy of RT). There exist other released versions of this song, each with a different vocal track laid over the same instrumental recording; I’m fairly sure that this version has yet another vocal track. Listen closely for the count-in at the beginning. How can I not award this excellent song (both in composition and execution) an A?

Restless: back to Trevor Lucas. Again, this song was resurrected by Fairport on their “Rising for the moon” album, which probably goes to show how strapped for material they must have been. This version is not a patch on what was to be, lacking Sandy’s ethereal harmonies. Nice 12 string guitar work at the beginning along with sensitive snare drumming give way to a more standard, Nashville like, instrumental track. Again a B-.

Gypsy Davey: those who bought the Carthage CD reissue of “Fotheringay” will already have this, although we are promised that this version has a different vocal track. A solid and imaginative arrangement of a traditional song which earns a deserved A-.

I don’t believe you: Trevor again. This is the only unfamiliar song on the disc (assuming that one doesn’t know the Dylan version) and the only disposable one as well. I can imagine how this would have raised Joe Boyd’s hackles, wasting his time recording this instead of other Denny jewels. I feel very much the same, and rate this song only as a C.

Silver threads and golden needles: it has just occurred to me that the front cover of the cd package might well be hinting at this song title. Part of the Fotheringay stage set, this was later to turn up on Sandy’s “Rendezvous” swan song, albeit with a brass arrangement. Here it’s softly strummed guitars, halfway between Wimbledon and Nashville, with a nice female harmony vocal on the title line. Pleasant but not outstanding: a solid B.

Bold Jack Donohue: another traditional song with a gruff but suitable Trevor Lucas vocal. Again part of the BBC recording, it’s not unfamiliar. This has a dramatic arrangement, with a few major chords thrown into the predominantly minor harmonies. The slow fade is very tasteful. The best solo TL appearance on the album, I mark it as B+

Two weeks last summer: see the comments about “Gypsy Davey”, although of course this song was written by Sandy’s first bandleader, Dave Cousings. This genuinely seems to be a different recording as the end sounds different, and there are harmony vocals. B+.

So there you have it: eleven songs, of which ten exist in other versions and only one of those in a radically different arrangement (STAGN). Two As, three songs marked A-, two B+, one B, two B- and one C: if only my O-level results had been as good (I was too busy listening to Fotheringay at the time to concentrate properly)! How does this rank again their debut? I think that this is a more concentrated effort with most of the tracks rated in the A-/B+/B continuum; it’s less polarized than the debut, although there are fewer really standout tracks. I also think that I would have rated this slightly higher had the record been released close to its recording, although I imagine that I would have preferred even then that the perfunctory Dylan cover be left off. Considering that vinyl albums optimally played 40 minutes, this cd is nine minutes over optimum, meaning that probably two songs would not have made the cut.